Back in 2012, when I wrote about transportation “promises to keep” 40 years after Governor Frank Sargent reordered transportation priorities in the state, I was an outside analyst and advocate; today, as Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, I am the ultimate insider.
One thing that has not changed is my agreement with Sargent, who nearly half a century ago canceled highways and invested in transit, recognizing that the MBTA is largely “responsible for the economic and cultural vitality” of Greater Boston. I agreed with the Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR), commissioned by Sargent, in its admonition that the regional transit system had been “permitted to deteriorate — physically, financially, and institutionally.”
The winter of 2015 revealed to all the MBTA’s continued deterioration, and today, the T is working on all three challenges:
- Physically: Red and Orange Line fleets are on order; new buses are on line; and work continues on improving resiliency, tracks, power, and signals, and to modernize stations. These investments will ultimately produce what transit riders want most: reliable service.
- Financially: A projected structural operating budget deficit of $335 million for the fiscal year that began in July was whittled down to $30 million. Funds that had gone to cover operating deficits now go to fix the system.
- Institutionally: New leadership and the steady hand of the Fiscal and Management Control Board have produced change across the Authority, providing greater transparency about T needs and challenges.
The BTPR also challenged us to reinvent transportation planning. Basically, transportation agencies do two things: run service and fix or build infrastructure. So the plans that drive change are service plans and capital plans. That’s why the transportation department (MassDOT) and the T have reinvented capital planning. The $16 billion rolling five-year capital plan integrated across both agencies prioritizes the right investments: fixing and modernizing the core systems of roads and rails.
And the MBTA is finally doing service planning. Every one of the T’s 170 bus routes is being reviewed and changes are being made to ensure that riders get the frequency, reliability, and quality of service they deserve. Service planning has identified specific investments — now funded in the capital plan — that will increase the number of peak-hour trains on the Red Line by 50 percent and on the Orange Line by 33 percent.
There is, of course, also a place for more visionary long-range planning. Massdot is completing a statewide rail plan addressing the potential of freight rail and building on recent investments in passenger rail outside the MBTA service area. New statewide pedestrian and bicycle plans are under way, and the capital plan commits tens of millions of dollars to implement the highest-priority investments those reviews identify.
The current planning exercise most inspired by the BTPR is Focus40, which is designed to position the MBTA to meet the needs of Greater Boston in 2040. Focus40 is developing a long-term investment strategy that recognizes today’s infrastructure challenges as well as the shifting demographics, changing climate, and evolving technologies that will shape the MBTA’s future. In a spin-off from that effort, the MBTA is launching a Commuter Rail Vision process to look at very different futures for the rail network, including higher-frequency regional rail service and using “multiple units” to provide more transitlike service.
But I’ve come to realize that visionary plans don’t matter unless they can be executed. That’s why our most important work isn’t about planning, it’s about changing: changing investments, operations, performance, culture. I believe these changes will result in a system that works for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, and drivers alike, with improvements in MBTA reliability, speedier bus transportation in cities and towns, a state-of-the-art fare collection system, and — most important — a capable, customer-centric, financially stable MBTA that can deliver $1 billion in capital improvements and modernization every year to rebuild the system.
Reversing the MBTA’s “physical, financial, and institutional” deterioration will take many years — but without tackling and completing that process, we will never be able to deliver on the kind of visionary planning that the BTPR inspires and I hope Focus40 will deliver. I became Secretary at a moment when our primary task was to rebuild the foundations for a world-class system that others will ultimately complete — and I’m OK with that. As I am reminded daily by the quote from a Talmudic sage on the wall across from my desk: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”