Bostonians hate being behind New York in any standings — a fact I was reminded of when Boston was ranked third, behind our East Coast nemesis and San Francisco, in the Walk Score ranking of public transit access. (This was covered by The Atlantic here.) However, this particular ranking is appalling to most residents of the area in a different way.
Ask anyone who has ever been stuck waiting in the rain for a bus that never arrives, in the snow for the commuter rail, or under a beautiful blue sky for the Red Line and they will tell you that Boston’s third place ranking is a joke.
The problem (beyond the limits of the methodology of the study) is that public transportation in the United States is not world class. Unlike baseball, we are not one of the world leaders in this important category. So Boston’s third place finish is less exciting when we consider the competition.
The MBTA, however, is still leading in debt burden, with 25 percent of its annual operating budget going to debt service. It has been much publicized, but it bears repeating: prior to the fare increases and service cuts, for FY2013 the MBTA was facing an operating budget deficit of $161 million. As it stands, the MBTA budget here still relies on an infusion of $60 million from the legislature which has not been approved yet, or even moved beyond the Joint Transportation Committee. Even if the 23 percent fare increase and planned service cuts go through, they are at best only a temporary fix for a much larger problem. Let’s review:
- The MBTA has estimated that the operating budgets for FY14-FY16 will be $40 million, almost $90 million, and almost $170 million respectively larger than the FY13 funding gap of $161 million.
- The increased fares will not relieve the MBTA of any of its debt burden.
- Likewise, the FY13 budget does not attempt to address the MBTA’s state of good repair problem. The MBTA is currently spending about $580 million per year to prevent its long list of maintenance needs, estimated at $4.5 billion, from growing. However, about $750 million are needed annually to fix the system and buy new equipment.
The MBTA’s assets are deteriorating; old infrastructure is in need of repair and vehicles are long beyond their useful life. For example, all 120 Orange Line subway cars are well past their intended lifespan. Manufacturers build subway cars to last twenty five years, provided they receive a mid-life overhaul to refurbish or replace major elements such as propulsion systems, brakes, lighting, and ventilation. None of the now over thirty-year-old Orange Line cars has been overhauled. A similar problem exists with one third of the Red Line cars, which as the Boston Globe reported “were pressed into service during Richard Nixon’s first term, and have not been overhauled for a quarter century.”
These aging subway cars are challenging the MBTA’s ability to run a full set of trains each day, causing longer waits on platforms and more frequent service interruptions, as well as at least one breakdown that stranded passengers for hours in a tunnel.
A truly well-functioning transit system, promotes a healthy economy and environment and is a crucial investment. If we want a transit system that meets our needs, the state will have to raise sufficient revenue going forward. Once we do so, we can stop watching New York in the rankings, at least when it comes to public transportation.