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Warning bells for region’s transit future as needs, pressures increase

Jule Pattison-Gordon

As researchers look to Greater Boston’s future, one thing they warn it could contain a whole lot more time waiting in traffic.

The time to tackle Greater Boston’s transit future is now, before the region’s already-pressured transportation infrastructure becomes burdened with a swell of new commuters. That was a core message of a recent report commissioned from the Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy by A Better City. Failures to make sufficient change could mean the region will not be able to support the anticipated population growth.

A Better City, a collaboration of business community members to explore policy and initiatives for promoting the region’s economy, recently released predictions for traffic snarls and crowded train cars Greater Boston’s commuters could encounter in 15 years. Meanwhile, members of the city’s Go Boston 2030 have been exploring transit concerns on the local level, with an eye to closing already-present access gaps, as they prepare to release recommendations this summer.

Congested roads

At least 80,000 more trucks, cars and tractor trailers will pile onto Greater Boston’s roads and highways by 2030, increasing congestion and putting further pressure on a system in need of repair, according to the “State of the Built Environment” report. Currently, 37 percent of state-owned roads are considered to be in “poor” or “fair” condition, a number expected to rise to 79 percent by 2025 if maintenance schedules stay the same.

A major way that Boston could alleviate this situation is by encouraging many of those new drivers to become public transit users, or at least carpoolers, members of the city’s Go Boston 2030 team said.

The primary reason people take their cars on the road is to get to work, said state Rep. Russell Holmes, co-chair of the Go Boston 2030 Plan Advisory Committee. Half of those commuting to jobs in Boston are coming from homes outside the city, said Vineet Gupta, director of Policy and Planning for Boston Transportation Department. The city aims to have them using the commuter rail or other public transit, Gupta said.

After jobs, the main reasons people drive are to reach education and medical services, Holmes said. Boston Public Schools currently is undergoing its facilities master planning. The school department is handling its transit discussions independent of Go Boston 2030, Gupta said.

Get Charlie on the MBTA

The MBTA, too, is expected to see greater demands and already struggles with budget deficits and lagging maintenance.

Officials have said the MBTA will need $7 billion more for repairs.

Currently, more than one-third of Red Line’s 218 subway cars currently in use were acquired more than 40 years ago, according to the infrastructure report. All of the Orange Line’s 120 cars were built 35 to 37 years ago and have not been re-manufactured since.

And many lines are overburdened: A 2012 Urban Land Institute report prepared by the Dukakis Center rated large swaths of the Orange Line, C and D Green Lines, and Red Line as highly congested. The Dukakis Center researchers also marked the downtown section of the Green Line as overcapacity and found the Silver Line often hits or exceeds it designed capacity at peak times.

The infrastructure report posits that, if there is no change in commuter habits or in government approaches to infrastructure development, an additional 14,000 commuters will pour onto the MBTA each day, and ridership will jump by 7 percent on buses, subways and trolleys and by 3 percent on commuter rails.

These numbers only will increase if the anticipated road congestion or city initiatives spur more drivers to switch to public transit.

Making buses desirable

Boston’s ability to improve public transit is mixed. Along with approaching the state for MBTA projects and funding requests, city officials are identifying local projects, such as reenvisioning how road space is used.

Among major goals, Holmes said, is promoting buses as a desirable transit option.

“We have to make it so that folks respect the utility of buses much more,” he said. That means making improvements that “elevate buses as reliable means of transit and get it more respect inside of the options that people have.”

Holmes said to achieve this, he would like to continue on work done in 2011 and 2012 to optimize efficiency of 15 of the state’s busiest bus routes — changes that affected 37 percent of all bus riders. One problem that had been detected, Holmes said, is that bus stops may remain in the same location, even after the facility or other attraction that had made the stop useful closed or moved. The 2011-2012 initiative realigned bus routes and created new stops, bus shelters and benches.

Holmes says he would like to extend the improvements further, including adding re-examining more bus routes and adding a route to link Mattapan and Dorchester to the Longwood Medical Area. Optimizing bus routes will be among the recommendations set forth in Go Boston 2030’s report, due this August.

Other transportation options

Other projects the city can sponsor include increasing access to the city’s Hubway bikeshares, especially by placing them at MBTA stations and major bus hubs, Gupta said. Roxbury and northern Dorchester are scheduled to receive ten new Hubway stations this summer, with location discussions currently underway, according to Boston Bikes.

Another plan: working with the MBTA to increase frequency on the Fairmount line by running the existing cars more often, Gupta said. Replacing the cars with lighter, more technically-advanced cars is a potential long-term step, he added, but said the city wants to find ways to act now.

Go Boston 2030 members also spoke of opportunities to use technology to help potential riders plan the quickest routes using mass transit, as well interest in creating more transit routes that would cut across neighborhoods, instead of forcing riders to enter downtown then head back out.

Funding barriers

Along with asking the state for assistance on projects, the city is examining what it can initiate on its own in the next few years. Funding will be a question.

The 2011-2012 bus improvements had relied on $10 million in federal funding, Holmes said, adding that such revenue was unlikely to be supplied in sufficient quantity now. And while he supports a gas tax with revenue directed to maintaining and repairing roads, not all of the legislature agrees, he said.

“I think part of this infrastructure build-out needs to come with more designated revenue,” Holmes said.