From the State House to the street, evidence of MBTA financial troubles

Claire Morgenstern

This Orange Line car is clearly past its expiration date. (Photo credit: Hannah Cabot)

Tuesday morning, CLF Staff Attorney Rafael Mares was testifying at the Massachusetts State House against several bills that seek to reduce, eliminate, or otherwise limit tolls on the state’s highways, which serve as a significant source of transportation revenue. While the sentiment of wanting to decrease commuters’ transportation expenditures was noble, Mares said, “we cannot afford to reduce our already inadequate transportation revenues at this time, given the significant financial and physical challenges facing our state transportation system.” One of those challenges, he said, was the MBTA’s aging subway cars.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, there were 447 Red Line commuters on a train between the Porter and Harvard Square stations who knew exactly what he meant. Their six-car train broke down around 9 a.m., leaving its passengers stranded in the dark tunnel for at least two hours before rescue efforts began. The passengers were evacuated on foot, with the last emerging around 12:30 p.m., 3 1/2 hours after the initial breakdown.

This event may serve as the latest and some of the most troubling evidence of the MBTA’s funding deficit, but it certainly doesn’t stand alone.

“All 120 Orange Line cars are well past their intended lifespan,” Mares stated in his testimony. “Manufacturers build subway cars to last 25 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 30-year-old Orange Line cars has been overhauled.

“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. A similar problem exists with one third of the Red Line cars, which as the Globe reported, ‘were pressed into service during Richard Nixon’s first term, and have not been overhauled for a quarter century.’ Neither their replacement nor the expansive band-aid of $100 million to keep the Orange and Red Line trains running is currently in the MBTA’s Capital Improvement Plan, which covers the next five years.”

However, tolls or no tolls, it’s clear that maintaining and expanding a functional transportation system in Massachusetts will require more funding from a more diverse portfolio of funding sources, and CLF is working with transportation experts, local legislators and community groups as part of the Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) coalition to articulate what some of those options would look like. Learn more about CLF’s work on transportation funding here.

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