Out of Service: Will We Ever Fix the MBTA?

Two ex-governors, a mayor, the MBTA's chief, and the secretary of transportation tell us why we're getting exactly nowhere.

Red Line Car

At the Cabot Yard garage near Widett Circle, the MBTA prepares its Red Line cars for another brutal winter. / Photo by Jared Kuzia

MBTA Cabot Yard
Wednesday, 12:30 p.m.

Car 1650 is 47 years old. When it ran its very first lap on the Red Line, America had just landed a man on the moon, Bobby Orr still hadn’t won a Stanley Cup, and the Beatles were still together. Subway cars have a life expectancy of 25 to 30 years, so this railcar should’ve been scrapped in the 1990s. Instead, Car 1650 hangs high above the ground on giant lifts inside the Cabot Yard garage near Widett Circle. A lifetime of scrapes and gashes from grinding up against passenger platforms is etched across its sides, scars from the 2 million miles it’s logged for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Like one-third of its Red Line brethren, Car 1650 will be past its 50th birthday when its replacement arrives four years from now. In human terms, it’s like changing the retirement age from 65 to 110. Car 1650 is a lot like the MBTA: outdated, obsolete, overburdened, and overstressed. It needs a lot of work just to run poorly. You could argue that it’s unwise to put much more money into the old jalopy. Yet ignoring it is costly. As rickety as this car is, it’s Boston’s only hope for making it through the winter.

And winter, as we all learned last year, is the warhorse’s toughest season. The elements are ruthless. The brakes and doors are air-powered, so when moisture gets into the systems, they freeze up. When the third rails on the Red and Orange line tracks get icy—which is always—it causes voltage spikes that can knock out the engines. The oldest Red Line cars, and all of the Orange Line cars, run on direct-current traction motors that suck in air. Filters that cover the motors’ intake system don’t always work, so snow flies into the engines and shorts them out, which is why—when we were all buried under 8 feet of snow in mid-February last year—the Red Line had only two-thirds of its usual trains in service. The Orange Line had less than half. So this year, the T has stockpiled an even bigger collection of spare traction motors—all part of an $84 million blitz to try to ward off another calamity.

As February approaches, an inescapable feeling of doom hovers over the T. During last year’s Snowpocalypse, our city’s spidery lifeline finally—after decades of warnings—achieved total failure. Twice it came to a complete, shuddering halt, leaving us snow-shocked, desperate, and unable to function. Even on days it was able to run, it mostly didn’t work: Geriatric trains struggled along unplowed tracks and broke down; passengers stranded on wind-whipped platforms watched railcars pass by, too jammed full of people for them to get onboard. Entire outdoor stretches of the Red and Green lines closed for as much as two weeks. The Orange Line limped along for a month, while the commuter rail took until March to recover.

Those failures came with heavy economic consequences. Restaurants and stores closed down, offices stood half empty, and employers lost millions of dollars each day. Already snow-blocked streets overflowed when additional cars hit the roads, filled with riders who usually take the train. And in winter’s wake, long after the ice receded and the trains thawed, T riders were left reeling. In August, we learned that the cost to completely restore every outdated part of the ailing system stands at a staggering $7.3 billion—which makes the $84 million the MBTA spent on winter resiliency last year feel like a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile, reports showed that the T’s collapse wasn’t merely Mother Nature’s fault—the MBTA had failed to embrace commonsense winter preparations that could have made a huge difference.

Natural disasters have a way of exposing a city’s flaws. The Snowpocalypse laid bare the decades of neglect that have made Boston’s transit system a collection of failing railcars and rickety rails—a system unable to keep up with the city’s growth or its leaders’ long-term plans to manage gridlock, connect affordable housing to jobs in downtown, and attract young residents who don’t want to drive. Boston, more than many cities, is built on transit; its future depends on a healthy, reliable T. Yet more bad news in December — the runaway Red Line train with no driver, the federal report blasting the T for not having a complete maintenance plan – shook riders’ confidence even further.

As winter neared, and elected officials made promise after promise that this year would be different, many of us still wondered whether the preparations have been enough—and whether, in the long run, the state’s leaders have the political will to overhaul a shattered system. So before the snow began to fall again, I set out to talk to the people responsible for the MBTA, and some of those determined to reform it. We made a rule: Everyone I interviewed had to ride the T with me. (Some of the biggest names in the state—including Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh—said no. Remember that in a few weeks when you’re stranded at Park Street.) This time around, the experts would have to brave the crowds, cope with delays, see the rust, sit on torn seats, and suffer just like we do, every damn day.

Orange Line
Chinatown to Forest Hills
Friday, 1:30 p.m.

MBTA general manager Frank DePaola steps onto the train at Chinatown and squeezes into a spot between a pair of over-size baby strollers. Clutching a pole, he tells me about the endless miseries that interrupt his workdays. “Equipment breakdowns,” he says. “Motor vehicles blocking part of the Green Line. Trespassers on the right of way. Fires on the Red Line. Flooding on the Blue Line. We had a washout of a culvert on the Orange Line a couple weeks ago after that heavy rain.”

As if in sympathy, one of the babies begins to cry.

“Then we have budgetary issues,” DePaola says, “and the Green Line Extension and Government Center projects.” When you’re trying to run the T, you can try to plan your day, but it’s no use: There’s always another headache. “Every day,” he says. “Most nights, too.”

DePaola’s first day on the job was March 4, 2015—after the deluge, but months before the South Boston snow pile finally melted. One of his first moves was to reach out to other snow-battling transit agencies, including in Chicago, New York, and Toronto, to see how they do it better. The feedback was sobering. As DePaola tells it, no one at the T had kept up with the best practices of cold-weather transit systems. The elementary tools for a New England winter—de-icing chemicals for the rails, trains built to plow the tracks—were nonexistent here. DePaola blames an insular culture at the MBTA and a naive assumption that what had worked in the past would always work again. News flash: It would not. DePaola knows this winter is his first big test—and maybe his last. If he can’t get the system into shape, as he noted at a press conference this fall, gesturing at Governor Charlie Baker looking over his shoulder, “he fires me.”

As we travel into the Back Bay, DePaola talks me through the $84 million in winter resiliency work that the MBTA has completed since last February, including miles of new third rail on the Red Line and third-rail heaters on the Orange Line. Workers installed plow blades on 10 trains and refurbished Snowzilla—a hulking maintenance vehicle with a 1950s jet engine mounted on the front that looks like an anteater trunk and melts snow. They revived the T’s only rail-mounted snow blower, which had been busted for years. DePaola is clearly proud of transforming the T’s tiny fleet of snow-fighting equipment into a battalion, complete with 10 new snowplow trains for the Red and Orange lines, plus several plows designed for the commuter rail.

But those refurbishments may simply not be enough. “We are running an extremely aged system,” DePaola’s predecessor, Beverly Scott, told reporters in her fiery and now famous February 10 press conference, refusing to be blamed for the T’s winter collapse. “I’m out!” But Scott, who didn’t respond to an invitation to ride with me, was one in a long line of people who dealt with a vastly neglected system and unsuccessfully pleaded for help. Not only are the trains old, but replacements aren’t even being built yet. Hell, they’re still building the factory in Springfield that will make them. To ensure the MBTA’s new trains are built locally—at a time when there are no U.S.-based manufacturers of railroad passenger cars anymore—Massachusetts rejected federal funding and made a $567 million dollar deal with CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles, part of the Chinese national railways, to churn out 284 Red and Orange line cars. Six pilot cars will come in 2018, DePaola says, and the rest in 2019 and 2020.

Why did it take so long? From governors to legislators to voters, there’s plenty of blame to go around. In 2013, for example, then-Governor Deval Patrick pushed for new railcars as part of an ambitious plan to increase spending on transportation in the state by $1 billion a year. His proposal included the South Coast Rail project to New Bedford and Fall River. Skittish legislators whittled the plan down to around $800 million, just enough for Patrick to embark on a ribbon-cutting celebration during his last months in office. But voters chopped transportation spending further in November 2014 when they repealed the state’s plan to automatically increase the gas tax to keep pace with inflation. That vote came three months before Snowpocalypse. It’s as if Mother Nature said, Okay, Massachusetts voters, you want to spend less on transportation? Here’s 110 inches of snow!

Today, the maintenance backlog on the T is estimated at an impossible $7.3 billion. I ask DePaola how it got so huge, and how long we’ll have to ride the same antique trains. Next to us, a passenger in a white hoodie is listening in, dying to hear the answer.

DePaola ducks the question. “We’re fortunate,” he says diplomatically, “that the commonwealth decided to fund the manufacture of new Orange and Red line cars.” What he fails to point out is that it took until 2013—about 20 years past the intended life span of a third of the MBTA’s trains—for the legislature to finally cough up enough money to replace 226 out of 647 trains. The truth that DePaola seems reticent to admit is that every administration since the early 1990s has kicked the can down the track and left the problem for the next generation. Even now—after the worst winter in living memory—we’re still kicking.

Orange Line
Assembly to Oak Grove
Wednesday, 10 a.m.

The easiest way to get Somervillians riled up is to say that the MBTA will never build the long-overdue Green Line Extension into their city. Mayor Joe Curtatone has staked Somerville’s future on the T. “Baby boomers, millennials, hipsters all want to live in walkable, bikeable urban centers, connected by good, reliable public transportation,” Curtatone says as we wait for an outbound train from Assembly Square. “Somerville has been seeing this trend for more than a decade. We’ve planned for it,” he says, displaying the savvy, sound-bite-friendly prose of a man who contemplated a run for governor in 2013. His beautifully cut suit makes him the best-dressed passenger onboard as we chug north across the Mystic River into Medford.

A recent poll of young Boston-area professionals backs up Curtatone’s vision: 80 percent said access to public transportation is “very important” when choosing where to live, compared with only 25 percent who said the same about on-street parking.

There’s just one big problem with Curtatone’s millennial-friendly plans for Somerville’s future—they revolve around the Green Line Extension, complete with six new T stations and four and a half miles of new light rail in Somerville and Medford. It’s been a long time coming: The state first agreed to the project way back in 1990. This past August, the Baker administration delayed it once again, saying that the latest $3 billion price tag is unaffordable. Consultants brought in to sort out the mess say the T mismanaged the project and allowed the contractor to increase the cost over and over.

As anyone who’s recently bought land in Somerville will tell you, failure to build the extension could drive a stake into the heart of the city’s recent real estate boom. Housing prices have soared along the trolley’s route, and developers have planned a $1 billion redevelopment of Union Square, all in anticipation of the Green Line’s arrival. Curtatone says the rail line’s projected economic impact includes $2.5 billion in new tax revenue, 30,000 jobs, and tens of thousands of new homes—all of which would be at risk.

In the face of a possible catastrophe, Curtatone says he’s working with the state to save the extension. (A few weeks after we spoke, the MBTA announced it was rebooting the project by firing the contractor. It’ll redesign the extension, probably with smaller stations, and rebid the contracts to try to cut costs.)

“The Green Line will be built,” Curtatone says. “It’s under construction today as we talk right now. There’s more than $338 million in contracts either being executed or encumbered.” He also points to the state’s 26-year-old agreement to extend the Green Line—an agreement current Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack fought for as an environmental attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation to help mitigate air pollution caused by the Big Dig construction on nearby I-93. “This is a legally binding requirement,” Curtatone says. “They have to build it.”

Still, the Baker administration has threatened to cancel the project if its costs can’t be cut. Since the Snowpocalypse, Baker—who was elected thanks in part to his budget-hawk philosophy and finance expertise—has made reforming the MBTA a top priority. He’s applying a new brand of skepticism to the T—even flagging popular projects like the Green Line Extension and late-night weekend service. Baker’s reforms have brought a cold-eyed focus on accountability and budget austerity, not pouring more money into the broken system. His instincts lean toward maintenance and less toward expansion. Though he hasn’t axed any of the extensions Patrick approved, such as the South Coast Rail, he is re-evaluating them. His goal is triage—figuring out what can be saved before adding anything new. The bottom line: no new money for the T.

Baker’s philosophy, of course, makes Curtatone nervous. The mayor believes a “fix it first” strategy is short-sighted. The MBTA has to be fixed and keep up with how cities are evolving. To be competitive in a 21st-century global economy, “we need a 21st-century transportation system,” Curtatone says as our train rumbles through Malden, past houses with back porches that practically graze the tracks. “We’re trying to run it on Nixon-era infrastructure…. We need a new paradigm in how we do business, how we run agencies. What’s at stake is tremendous.”