LAST JUNE, at its last meeting, a bold vision for the future of MBTA was presented by MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB). The plan titled “FMCB Productivity Report” leverages infrastructure investments to create a safer, more efficient, more modern, more frequent and ultimately less labor intensive MBTA system. But, this plan, and indeed an overall vision for the T, has stalled, and one of the main reasons for this is the lack of a planning department at the MBTA.
Currently, long-range planning for the MBTA is the responsibility of the Office of Transportation Planning of MassDOT, a 2004 creation of the Legislative Assembly. This means that the MBTA remains responsible for funding much of its own long-term projects, but not for planning those projects. As the MBTA and the Commonwealth prepare to receive billions in new infrastructure funding, now is the time to right this historic mistake and put the T back in control of its future.
The FMCB vision, in summary, sees a functioning public transport system in and around the region based on five major investment programs:
- Subway automation: Driverless trains of the Red, Orange and Blue lines via modern signaling systems, new cars and improved stations.
- Tariff transformation: Expanded and modernized automated fare collection facilitating all-door boarding on buses, the Green Line, the Mattapan High-Speed Rail Line and the new regional rail system, as well as improved discount programs for all modes.
- Regional railway: Conversion of diesel-powered locomotives pulling railcars primarily to/from Boston for commuters, to self-propelled, electric transit vehicles (known as EMUs) operating frequently throughout the day, enabling inter-regional travel from upgraded, ADA-compliant stations with high platforms via all-door boarding.
- Transform the bus: Transition to emission-free buses, operating with greater frequency on high-demand corridors with improved signals giving priority to buses, operated and maintained from state-of-the-art bus maintenance/charging facilities .
- Light Rail Improvement: Transition to larger and more efficient Green Line Type 10 supercars, capable of carrying the same number of passengers in one car, as currently carried in two. Transferring current Green Line Type 9 cars (in service 2018-2020) to Mattapan High Speed Rail line replacing current WWII carriages. Upgraded ADA compliant stations for easy all-door boarding, shipped from modern, upgraded maintenance facilities.
In addition to the initiatives highlighted above, there are also important partnership-based programs that the FMCB believes are also important for a modern urban transport system. Utility companies, for example, will likely need to upgrade the regional power grid to support hundreds of new EMUs, more than 1,000 electric buses, as well as more Red, Orange, Green and Blue line cars running all simultaneously in the region.
The Commonwealth Health and Social Services Executive Office will need to coordinate with the T on any conditional average fee schemes that will eventually be implemented and hopefully help pay for it. The many cities and towns that host MBTA facilities and vehicles should continue their partnerships with the transit agency, to coordinate new enforcement strategies and tactics for transit-only lanes, and intelligently develop land around regional railway stations in partnership.
The realization of the vision and the resulting benefits – cleaner air, reduced congestion, economic opportunity, etc. – is and will continue to be expensive. Regardless of the cost, stagnation is not an option.
We need a strong transit system and network for the future of our region. Implementing such a vision and coordinating its many moving parts, not to mention navigating the myriad of federal, state, and local permits, forms, and regulations, is a herculean task. Good project management starts with good planning, and medium and long-term planning is sorely lacking in today’s MBTA. An agency as important to the region as the T deserves the opportunity to plan its own future, and even ours.
Brian Kane is Executive Director of the MBTA Advisory Board.