Officials consider investing Cambridge’s money to ease state’s mass transit woes
At around 8 a.m. on a recent Monday, passengers on the MBTA’s Red Line file into the open doors of a train at Alewife Station in Cambridge. Everyone who wants a seat takes one.
By the time the train is pulling out of Davis Square, the next stop down the line, the train is nearly full. At Porter Square, it’s standing room only. Red Line commuter Rebecca Gibree says she doesn’t mind the crowding as much as delays from disabled trains.
“The biggest downfall of the MBTA is the disabled trains,” Gibree says, adding the crowds are an annoyance, but an expected one. “Sometimes it feels like when it’s crowded, the trains don’t come as often, and then it gets really bad.”
Capacity constraints and aging infrastructure are two of the biggest challenges facing the MBTA, at least according to city staff and the Transit Advisory Committee. Released in January, the city’s Transit Strategic Plan describes a dire future for mass transportation: huge budget shortfalls on one hand and increasing demand – and economic dependence – on the other.
But rather than shake their fists at lawmakers on Beacon Hill who control the MBTA’s budget, the report recommends the city actually do something about it by investing in mass transit and engaging in planning on its own.
Jeff Rosenblum, an environmental and transportation planner for Cambridge’s Community Development Department (CDD), said Cambridge has always been involved in working with the MBTA, whether it was the expansion of the Red Line in the 1970s or the Green Line today. But, he said there’s also always been a sense that there isn’t much cities and towns could do on their own to change the state-run system.
“There’s always been in the back of people’s minds, both citizens and the government, that it’s the MBTA and it’s their problem to fix these things,” Rosenblum said. “There’s a feeling that things are out of our control and we have a limited ability to influence them.”
That attitude has changed though, Rosenblum said, “for a number of reasons” that all relate to improving the city’s economic and environmental sustainability as well as enhancing the quality of life for residents. As a result, Rosenblum said the city is looking to craft measurable, short-term transportation objectives that they hope to incorporate into next year’s budget.
Trains falling into disrepair are nothing new for the MBTA. Built in 1897, Park Street and Boylston are the country’s oldest subway stops. Today, the system is the fifth largest in America, according to the MBTA.
Many of the Red Line trains are around 45 years old, and the authority has already committed to replacing roughly one-third of them as part of its five-year Capital Investment Program, according to Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the MBTA. When the authority was looking at cutting service and hiking fares in 2012 to make up for a multi-million budget shortfall, Pesaturo said the overwhelming feedback from the 31 public comment sessions was, “The MBTA should not be thinking about expanding service until it fixes what it already has.”
That’s led to the “state of good repair” doctrine, a mantra repeated at a Feb. 25 Capital Investment Program meeting that the MBTA hosted in Cambridge. Pesaturo said it’s critical for the authority to focus its immediate attention on the needs of customers now and for the next five years first before thinking of ways to expand. He used the example of a homeowner looking to make an addition to her house.
“A homeowner isn’t going to build an addition to his house until he has fixed the leaks in the roof over the house,” Pesaturo said. “Mass transit has been woefully underfunded in this country for a long time, but hopefully that will change as urban planners and political leaders advocate for more and better transportation options.”
How underfunded is the MBTA? With a whopping $9 billion in debt and $3 billion in unfunded, but necessary repairs, Rosenblum said the agency is struggling to simply maintain the system as it is. Pesaturo was less pessimistic.
The Transportation Finance Bill the state Legislature passed last year authorized $800 million in annual spending on the MBTA, quite a bit less than the $1.2 billion Gov. Deval Patrick originally proposed. The authority’s five-year capital plan authorizes $6.1 billion in investments, including expanding the Green Line and South Coast commuter rail.
The new Red Line cars will improve capacity by reducing the number of disabled trains, Pesaturo said. In addition, Pesaturo said the MBTA is investing $43 million to replace the Columbia Junction Signal, the area where the two branches of the Red Line converge, which will contribute to less time between trains.
“When there is a signal or switch problem in this area, it has a detrimental impact on the entire line,” Pesaturo said. “Once completed, this signal replacement project will lead to significant improvements in service reliability from Cambridge to Quincy.”
The authority has already begun its $10 million Key Bus Route Improvement Program, which identified 15 of the MBTA’s busiest bus routes – including four in Cambridge – with the goal of improving the overall quality of service. By eliminating bus stops that are close to each other, representatives from the MBTA said they could reduce bus delays and decrease overall trip times by as much as 13 percent.
Thirty-three bus routes pick up or drop off 85,000 riders in Cambridge on a typical weekday, according to the city’s report. Improving bus service will be critical to meeting the city’s capacity needs, Rosenblum said, since there isn’t much the city can do on its own to increase subway capacity.
Every day, more than 1.3 million people board a train, bus or commuter rail operated by the MBTA, according to the Transit Strategic Plan. Some 250,000 commuters board the Red Line alone and over half, or 56 percent, start or end their trip at a stop in Cambridge.
According to a report by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy published in 2012, MBTA ridership has grown by 1.2 percent every year for the past 20 years, but starting in 2006, growth accelerated to 2.9 percent annually. In October last year, the MBTA reported ridership hit record levels, representing a 4 percent increase from the same time the previous year.
Transit-oriented development has helped spur that increased demand, according to the Dukakis Center. It’s a smart development strategy that promotes both environmental and economic sustainability, said Eric Bourassa, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, because it encourages people to leave their cars at home and either walk or take public transit to work.
That’s fine, says Cambridge City Councilor Dennis Carlone, since it means fewer cars will be on the road, and there isn’t much capacity to add more auto traffic, either. The city’s transit report projects 500,000 new residents will enter the region by 2030 along with roughly 300,000 new jobs.
Despite anticipated increases in demand for public transit and limited ability to add capacity, Carlone said transit-oriented development is still a good idea.
“There’s just no question that it makes sense,” Carlone said. “The amount of money that’s already invested in the MBTA stations means they’re not going anywhere.”
Public transit is an important part in promoting health, said Josephine Wendel of the Cambridge Public Health Department. People who take public transit walk 30 percent more than people who drive cars, according to the city’s report, because people are walking to and from the bus stop or train station.
“Automatically, people get more physical activity,” Wendel said. “It becomes part of your day and you don’t have to make a separate trip to the gym.”
Fewer cars on the road means fewer greenhouse gas emissions, which translates to improved air quality, and that’s good for both people’s health and the environment, Wendel said. Not to mention, fewer cars on the road means fewer automobile, pedestrian and bicycle accidents, she said.
Public transit is also critical to the economy, Bourassa said, because at its most basic level, transportation, whether in cars, on bikes, buses or trains, connects people to jobs.
“On a broader level, development oriented around transit nodes makes a location more accessible to a wider range of people and that makes the land more valuable and encourages economic growth,” Bourassa said.
Cities and towns benefit from the increased property values that transit brings, but Bourassa said to date, municipalities have looked to the state to provide the transportation infrastructure. That may change in the future, he said, as lawmakers debate whether or not those same cities and towns should be putting more money into the system.
Facing huge budget shortfalls and an economy that’s become increasingly dependent on mass transit, Rosenblum said city administrators decided to take a more hands-on approach to public transportation. First the city needs a vision for its public transportation infrastructure, and that requires planning, according to Rosenblum.
“Recognizing it’s still out of our control, we said, ‘If we were to do some more of the forward thinking, we’d be more likely to get the attention of the MBTA than if we just waited around for them to do it,” Rosenblum said, adding the city wants to break free from the “state of good repair” ethos and switch to a time horizon that’s beyond the MBTA’s five-year capital plan. “We felt the only way to get their attention is to start our own planning process.”
Representatives from the MBTA sit on the city’s Transit Advisory Committee, which has helped shape the city’s Transit Strategic Plan and will continue to shape its objectives and ultimate recommendations. Although there isn’t much the city can do about the subway system, Rosenblum said they can control the streets.
“One thing we’re confronting now is because buses are in the same traffic as cars, you don’t get anywhere any faster on a bus than in a car,” Rosenblum said. “So, the question is, if we want to get more people on the bus, then we need to give them some sort of perk. The only thing to get someone out of a car and into a bus is to make it so they can get somewhere faster on a bus than in a car.”
The city is currently piloting a signal prioritization program for buses, Rosenblum said, that allows buses to go through intersections where a normal automobile would otherwise be stopped by a red light. If buses are always prioritized over cars, they’ll get through traffic quicker, improving the experience for riders.
Other options include designating lanes for buses only, although Rosenblum said it could be politically infeasible since creating a separate lane for buses might mean eliminating parking. Increasing the number of bike cages and bike parking around T stations is another solution, Rosenblum said.
“We don’t have anything predetermined,” Rosenblum said. “That’s why we want to start having a conversation now about how to make the buses better.”
The city’s transit report details seven objectives it hopes to translate into actionable goals: mobility; funding; efficiency and reliability; expansion; usability, accessibility and safety; public participation, support and outreach; and resiliency.
To weigh in on those objectives and the steps the city can take to improve mass transit within Cambridge, email Rosenblum at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 617-349-4615. The Transit Advisory Committee’s next meeting was scheduled for March 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the Citywide Senior Center, 806 Mass. Ave.