PART I: The T is for Trouble

ONE NIGHT LAST NOVEMBER, Patrick Rosso stepped onto a loaded Orange Line car at Haymarket and smelled smoke. Not cigarette smoke, but a heavier, more-industrial scent. By the next stop, State, the smell had grown stronger. Rosso saw gray wisps float past the windows. His nostrils started to burn, but before anything more could register, the doors closed and the train rumbled on toward Downtown Crossing. The stench worsened, and the smoke started coming up thicker. Finally, when the doors opened again, somebody called out, “The train’s on fire!”

[sidebar]As riders scrambled out, Rosso reached for his phone and started video recording. People were cursing and hollering at one another. A T official soon entered the picture, yelling through the haze for everyone to back up. “People were definitely scared,” Rosso recalls.

This wasn’t the first subway fire near Downtown Crossing. Six months earlier, another blaze had shut down the Red, Orange, and Green lines, sending 20 people to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.

Though this episode wasn’t as bad — the station was evacuated, but nobody was hurt — I decided to dial up the MBTA anyway, curious about what other hazards were lurking along the T’s tracks.

A year prior to my call, former John Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro had, at the governor’s behest, released a report that found quite a few safety issues. The MBTA was in full-on crisis, according to D’Alessandro. Its finances were broken and the system was getting dangerous to ride. The report highlighted 57 maintenance projects that the T itself had identified as critical to the safety of riders and employees alike, all of them receiving a rating of 10 on the authority’s scale of 1 to 10. And yet, money hadn’t been budgeted to complete 51 of those projects. So after the November fire, I wanted to follow up myself, to see how many new problems had emerged in the year since D’Alessandro’s report.

Sorry, MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera said: The T scrapped its 10-point scale in the wake of the report. This meant the T had ditched its only means of conveying the soundness of its infrastructure. Today MBTA officials simply decide which safety undertakings do and don’t get funded, leaving the rest of us guessing at their reasons. The number of new critical repairs needed, then, is unknown and unknowable. That’s because MBTA general manager Richard Davey contends there aren’t any — that the system is totally safe and he wouldn’t run it if it weren’t. Davey says the old rating system was flawed and misidentified routine problems as dangers. Even if that were true, and the ranking system were flawed, it was still only after the D’Alessandro report intensely criticized the T that anyone there saw fit to change it. It’d be one thing if Davey had replaced the old system with something else. But he didn’t.

These days, however, bureaucratic opaqueness is the least of the T’s problems. Its infrastructure is decayed and its finances are worse than ever, both seemingly beyond repair. The authority has nearly $9 billion (and growing) in debt it can’t pay and $3 billion (and growing) in backlogged maintenance projects it can’t fund. That means not only that service will suffer, but also that the system will become less and less safe. History shows that it takes a tragedy — deaths — to fix something as basic as infrastructure. Hopefully Massachusetts won’t wait for that.

  • Edward

    The T was set up to fail with foward funding. The best countermeasure is bankruptcy. throw the problem squarely back into the lap of the legislature.