What’s next for the MBTA?
“Our [strategic vision] is to be a globally premier transit system,” said Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the Financial Management and Control Board overseeing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. “That’s what we’re going to do. I think we’re pointing in basically the right direction.”
Speaking to CommonWealth editor Bruce Mohl at an event on Beacon Hill this past Tuesday, Aiello said that getting to the State of Good Repair wasn’t just about fixing everything to where it was when it was new — “replacing everything light for light,” he said –but about making needed improvements to the system. He said that they were committed to halving the headways on the Red Line from the actual, though unofficial six minutes to three minutes by 2024.
Mohl was joined by Chris Dempsey of Transportation for Massachusetts and Carolyn Ryan, a vice president at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
Aiello added that the work they’re doing to improve the Red Line, like improving headways and get the new cars, would double capacity and be as if they had dug a parallel subway line.
However, for all of Aiello’s optimism, he only said they were looking to see if the commuter rail can be improved. He refused to commit to electrification, much less adding service in the middle of the day — although he did say that in London increased service during the day resulted in ridership gains during peak commuting hours because people had a way of getting home during the day if they needed it.
Still, it seems ridiculous to have a vision of being “globally premier” while a major portion of riders are stuck on noisy, smelly, expensive to maintain diesel trains. Not many “world-class” commuter rail systems are still using diesel.
Mohl asked Aiello if the MBTA has the money to do what was outlined.
“We do for the next five years,” Aiello said. “If we got an extra $2 billion a year it would be difficult to spend it.”
He explained that while they have seen increased productivity and are getting ready to spend as much as $1.4 billion a year on state of good repair projects, more money would not necessarily translate into more or faster projects. He said that they were limited in what they could do — overnight work is constrained to three or four hours, plus weekends; they can’t buy more buses because they don’t have the space for them.
“Do you need to have a discussion about new revenue?” Mohl said.
“We’ll understand where we are in the next five years,” Aiello said. “I think that broad based taxes are off the table. If we pull off the state of good repair in 15 years, I think we’re in good shape.”
“Have we defined the problem in the right way?” said Dempsey. “We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the problems of the T are the things that the T can control, like the Red Line, but not in terms of regional mobility.”
“We do need to have a conversation about mobility and patterns of growth,” Aiello said. “We’d like to see the bus as a stronger priority . . . we can do better. The mayors of Boston, Everett and Arlington are stepping up. We do appreciate that.”
Ryan asked about improvements to transportation in the Seaport.
“Water transportation is another area where we need to do better,” Aiello said. “We don’t have the ability to put out a product that’s competitive. We’re having discussions with the Port Authority.”
Mohl asked about the ridership decline that’s been reported. Aiello attributed it to the frequent weekend shutdowns they have been doing, as well as competition from companies like Uber and Lyft.
“It’s frustrating that you don’t know how many passengers you have,” Mohl said.
Aiello agreed and said that the new fare system coming in the next few years, AFC 2.0, would be able to get them good ridership numbers. He also agreed that the MBTA needs to reexamine commuter rail fares and that the new system would let them do that.
“We have an enormous pricing problem,” Dempsey said. “Driving is way too cheap, which is creating all sorts of societal problems.”
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