The MBTA's Winter Wonderland

(Photo via ThinkStock.)

Wow, it’s sunny out today. Temperatures are supposed to get up to 50 degrees. In February! Of course, this winter has been like no other that anybody here can remember: no snow, a shocking amount of sun, and mild temperatures. While that’s left skiers and meteorologists sulking, it’s been great news for the MBTA. Weather is hell on the system’s old equipment, and considering that over 60 percent of Red Line cars, 40 percent of Green Line cars, all Orange Line cars, and nearly all commuter rail coaches are either past due for replacement or will be soon, the weather had been a major reprieve.

Remember last winter’s never-ending string of hours long delays? We even reached the height of absurdity when, in an attempt to reduce delays, the commuter rail started running fewer trains.

Consider the MBTA’s on-time performance rate for December 2010 vs. this past December (the latest month for which data is available).

Red Line: Dec 2010: 93.7 percent, Dec 2011: 96.8 percent
Blue Line: Dec 2010: 92.9 percent, Dec 2011: 97.1
Orange Line: Dec 2010: 93.1 percent, Dec 2011 : 95.3
(Green Line data not available.)

That’s a nice improvement, but the commuter rail numbers are even more drastic. According to Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad spokesman Scott Farmelant, these are the on-time numbers for both this and last year’s winter months:

Dec 2011: 84.8 percent, Dec 2010: 92.7 percent
Jan 2011: 75.2 percent, Jan 2012: 93 percent
Feb 2011: 77.7 percent, Feb 2012 (through 2/22/12): 95 percent

Now, it’s important to recognize that, in the case of the commuter rail, the MBTA made major upgrades to the rail’s maintenance facilities, and that accounts for a large portion of the improvement.

But still, the point is that this winter on the T has been about 100 times better than last winter. Considering the outrage and controversy surrounding the MBTA’s current efforts to raise fares and/or cut services in order to close its budget deficit, to say that the MBTA lucked out is an understatement. And that’s not even including the millions the system stands to pick up in left over money from the state’s snow and ice removal budget. But really, can you imagine what those fare increase and service cut hearings would be like if this winter were anything like last?

“The winter has been very helpful,” state secretary of transportation Richard Davey told me. “And obviously warmer weather improves ridership as well.” As for whether a bad winter would have made it more difficult to make the case for fare increases and service cuts, Davey says, “In some ways yes, and in some ways no.”

“I think for some customers, they might argue, ‘Why should we pay more when service is suffering?’ And the opposite is true, this is exactly why we need to spend a little more money, the system continues to some extent in a downward spiral. This winter, that spiral is slower than last winter, but I can assure folks that it’s going to continue to decrease because we’re not enough into our state of good repair.”

In other words, the decrepit state of the MBTA’s equipment is the best proof out there that the authority needs major help. Last winter laid bare just how deeply rooted the MBTA’s problems are. This winter, though, has basically allowed the MBTA to skate on thin ice (pardon the winter cliche). The MBTA is still about $3 billion behind in state of good repair funding, meaning that the system would have to spend $3 billion just to address every current maintenance need. On an annual basis, Davey says the MBTA is spending $200-$250 million less on maintenance than he’d like. As I wrote last week, the MBTA is in desperate need of major reform. As helpful as this warm winter has been, it shouldn’t blind us to that fact.