Editorial: Charlie on the MBTA

Remember the old folk song about Charlie on the MTA, the man who never returned?

It’s now called the MBTA, and the modern-day Charlie may never return because T service can be so erratic and unpredictable. Charlie is likely to jump back into his car and further plug Boston’s hopelessly clogged arteries, which is exactly what our policymakers should be working against.

But they are not.

Take life on the Red Line. With little advance notice, the T sprang upon the commuting public that trains will be shut down between Harvard Square and Alewife on weekends from November through March to complete $80 million in repairs designed to keep trains from derailing.

The estimated weekend riders of 21,200 on Saturday and 14,200 on Sunday who board at Porter, Davis, and Alewife stations are stuck with shuttle buses until spring. Less convenient, less predictable, and a longer commute.

The MBTA website tells us: “The Red Line track from Harvard to Alewife sits on concrete slabs that float on rubber disks which absorb noise and vibration from trains. Years of water filtration into the tunnel have resulted in corrosion and cracking that must be addressed in order to maintain safe and reliable Red Line service.

“Beginning November 5th, MBTA work crews will be removing and replacing corroded concrete slabs as part of a project partially funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition to correcting
problems with the floating slab structure, the project will involve the replacement of track and third rail. Workers will also address leaks in the tunnel to prevent further deterioration.”

Indeed, the Harvard-Alewife stretch of the Red Line was singled out in 2009 in a report ordered by Governor Deval Patrick, in which author David F. D’Alessandro, the former John Hancock chief executive, said
the threat of derailment from deferred maintenance was so serious he would avoid riding the Red Line beyond Harvard.

The fault lies not with the good people at the MBTA, who move us at a
rate of 1.35 million trips on an average weekday, from our neighborhoods to our workplaces and back again. As easy as it is to complain about it, the T gets us around.

Budget watchdog group the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has long faulted state leaders for failing to put money into the T to keep service running adequately. A recent MassInc report says of the T, “it
has not been able to generate adequate resources to meet its needs.”According to Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, the MBTA is facing a $600 million backlog of maintenance projects just to keep the system
running, without considering expansions such as the Green Line into Somerville.

Increasingly frequent breakdowns and delays, unpredictable schedules, and possible fare hikes. The future looks bleak for all T users until our policymakers start to get real about figuring out how to pay for a better mass transit system. The money always seems to be there for everything from Big Dig-style roadway projects down to filling potholes and moving snow for the morning commute, but making the
trains run on time remains an afterthought on Beacon Hill.

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