Badly Needed T Renovations Bogged Down by Backlog

If the MBTA, Greater Boston’s public transit system, shut down for a year, the state would lose $11.4 billion. That amount would come from residents’ time lost travelling, their effort spent maintaining a car, and a rise in the number of injuries and fatalities.

Yet the Massachusetts state budget only devoted $2.4 billion to transportation this year.

A panel convened on Feb. 8 to discuss this disparity and to explore a new report, “Transportation Dividend: Transit Investments and the Massachusetts Economy,” commissioned by the Boston Foundation.

The function of the MBTA, noted one panelist, affects people’s ability to work.

“The business community is really concerned about the relationship to continuing to invest in transportation with the notion that we won’t be able to get people to jobs and jobs to people,” said Rick Dimino, former Boston Commissioner of Transportation and the CEO of the non profit A Better City.

The report found that advancing the T in transit-rich areas like Kendall Square would create around 146,000 new jobs. Government officials observed that the MBTA has wider effects than job creation.

“This is the first time that the Planning and Development Committee has explicitly included transportation in its purview, trying to recognize that we cannot have these decisions in isolation,” said Michelle Wu, President of the Boston City Council.

“Transportation affects every other issue that we think about as a challenge in the city. Housing, and where we’re able to increase affordable housing, is exactly linked to the likelihood that someone will be able to then move from their house and find their way to a job through the transport network. Education and school budget depend on how we’re transporting our kids and where families choose schools.”

Luis Manuel Ramirez, the General Manager and CEO of the MBTA, cited a new fleet of Silver Line buses as an example of his commitment to fixing Boston’s vehicles.

Other panelists noted that merely maintaining Boston’s current transportation technology would lead to disaster.

“Maintenance is not a vision,”  said Rosabeth Moss Kantor, who holds the Arbuckle professor of Harvard Business School. “You don’t rally people behind just bringing the T up to the way it should be, which means it’s already 10 years behind. We can’t think in terms of– how do we have acceptable buses?’ What about bus shelters? What about amenities on buses? Like Wifi?”

“You get excitement, public support and political will because we’re creating some things that are new…In some cities, they don’t refer to homework for school kids, they call it train work. So public is a transit is a place also where people have to be able to not just get to work, but do work.”

She illustrated political will  with the example of Miami. The City of Miami built a tunnel under its port in 2014 that connected to I-95. The tunnel took 80,000 trucks off the streets, reduced pollution and made trips quicker for truck drivers.

“That project took about 30 years worth of advocacy, of somebody that first worked in local Department of Transportation, that later became the state Department of Transportation Head that worked with politicians. One has to have patience. To get the public will means sticking with it and advocating it.”

Chris Dempsey, the Director of Transportation for Massachusetts, observed a more favorable perspective of the T as the key to sparking political will and public support. He highlighted the $11.4 billion benefits of the MBTA in terms of other states’ transportation systems.

“Seattle is making a $56 billion investment in light rail, in hopes of creating highest-ridership light rail system in the entire country. We already have the highest-ridership light rail system in the entire country. $56 billion is going toward something that would maybe eventually look like the green line.”

Dempsey noted that the government would need to invest that kind of money and effort to ensure the value of Boston’s transportation system.

“We have a generational responsibility to future generations of Bostonians to make some of those same investments and get our system working well.”

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