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.

With not enough snowplows, the MBTA called on soldiers last winter to clear the rails with picks, shovels, and brooms. Photo by photograph by Sgt. Michael V. Broughey/the Massachusetts National Guard

With not enough snowplows, the MBTA called on soldiers last winter to clear the rails with picks, shovels, and brooms. / Photograph by Sgt. Michael V. Broughey/The Massachusetts National Guard

South Station
Friday, 9 a.m.

“Where’s Weld?” asks Michael Dukakis as he sits down at a café-style table in South Station, near the Surf City Squeeze juice stand, and looks around. I’ve invited Dukakis and his one-time rival, former Governor William Weld, to meet me here and explain their unlikely alliance to revive the North–South Rail Link—a century-old dream of an underground train tunnel from North Station to South Station. As it stands, getting from north to south in Boston is an unbelievable pain in the ass—one we all take so much for granted that most of us simply don’t do it, ever. Weld’s commuter train is due to arrive from Readville in five minutes, so Dukakis and I pass the time with a little T talk.

As governor, Dukakis spent $3 billion to expand the T while commuting from Brookline to Beacon Hill on the Green Line. The T never shut down during the Blizzard of ’78, he brags. After retiring from politics, he served on the board of Amtrak. In 2014, a grateful commonwealth renamed South Station the Governor Michael S. Dukakis Transportation Center at South Station, which kind of embarrasses the guy. At 82, Dukakis looks much like he did in 1988 when he ran for president, though he walks with a bit of a stoop, and his jet-black hair and signature eyebrows have faded to gray.

I ask Dukakis about the T’s troubles. “This isn’t rocket science,” he says. He’s a fan of DePaola, but thinks the general manager needs to hire a squad of super-deputies, including someone to take control of big construction projects such as the Green Line Extension. “Three billion dollars for four and a half miles of light rail?” Dukakis moans. “That’s preposterous!” In Los Angeles, he notes, a light rail line that opened in 2012 runs twice as many miles and cost one-third as much.

Weld, 70, with reddish-silver hair, arrives wearing a suit for his job as a lobbyist at Mintz Levin’s ML Strategies. Dukakis, now a professor at Northeastern University, is more casual in a brown coat and loafers. People at nearby tables stare. One former governor in the train station is a surprise; two at the same table looks momentous. “Bipartisan breakfast!” a passerby says. Once I find Weld a chair among the rush of commuters, I try to get the party started.

On average, it takes at least 10 to 20 minutes to get from South Station to North Station, depending on how you go. You can drive or catch a $10 taxi and brave downtown’s maddening gridlock; you can rent a bike; or you can head underground and wait for two separate subways that are usually jam-packed with people. Amtrak dutifully recommends that passengers take a cab if they have “significant amounts of luggage or young children,” because even the national railroad company knows the 1.1-mile journey is a total nightmare.

Weld and Dukakis want to rebuild both stations underground and run every train through a 2.8-mile, four-track tunnel. The link would eliminate the need to expand the two stations, they say, since trains would no longer have to idle downtown. Every northern commuter-rail route could combine with a southern route to make one continuous flow, so trains would always be on the go.

More important, though, than the simple Xs and Os of getting around town, the absence of a link between the two stations has had a far-reaching impact on Boston’s economy and culture. Thanks to gridlock and the lack of a north–south link, the Charles River has become a nearly impenetrable force in a divided region. It’s one of the reasons why the North Shore and South Shore are so different, right down to the type of pizza residents eat. “People south of town can’t get a job north of town and vice versa,” says Weld, still beating the drum for economic development. “If [we build] the link, there would be more labor mobility.”

Dukakis, ever the can-do technocrat, says, “The link will go a long way toward paying for itself, with dramatically increased ridership and dramatically reduced operating costs.” Both former governors predict the tunnel would increase commuter-rail traffic, usher suburbanites into the city for work faster, and help attract new people to the state’s struggling “gateway” cities, such as Lowell and Brockton—all for a price of $2 to $4 billion.

Skeptics, including Baker, doubt it’d be so easy. “Bill and I spent about an hour and a half with the governor, who asks very good questions,” Dukakis told me, his polite way of saying Baker didn’t buy their proposal. Critics think the public doesn’t want to launch an ambitious new rail project when the state and the T can’t deliver the Green Line Extension on budget. But better management, Dukakis argues, can keep costs low.

After all this talk, Dukakis and Weld put the final dagger in my plan to watch them hoof it over to North Station. Weld’s office is across the street, and he has zero desire to schlep across town and back just to prove that it’s a colossal pain. Dukakis won’t do it either, but he’s cool with us taking the T together to Northeastern.

On the platform, Dukakis creates a celebrity stir. A couple stops him to shake his hand. We eventually settle into an Orange Line train, bought in the 1970s during Dukakis’s first term as governor. I tell him a lot of people think Massachusetts lacks the political will to fix the T.

“I don’t agree with that at all,” he says. “People understand how important this system is. There’s no excuse—this should be the best public transit system in the country. You have a very transit-oriented citizenry. They’ll ride it. You don’t have to educate the public here about the importance of good public transportation. But you’ve got to provide it to them!”

Commuter Rail, Framingham/Worcester Line
Back Bay Station to Newtonville
Thursday, 6:11 p.m.

I wanted Charlie Baker to ride the MBTA with me. After all, Baker owns the T now, and if his fiscally conservative reforms don’t fix it, he’ll own the failures. But Baker was busy running the state, so Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack was left to stand in for the governor.

Most weekdays, around 5:30 p.m., Pollack steps out of the Massachusetts Transportation Building near the Public Garden and walks up Columbus Avenue to the Back Bay Station. She keeps an eye on a smartphone app, called T-on-Time, that counts down the minutes and seconds until her commuter train departs for her home in Newtonville. Today, as she walks across the Columbus Avenue bridge in a long black coat, she points down to the trail of brake lights on the Mass. Pike inching into the Prudential Tunnel. “That’s why I’d rather be on the train,” she says. “That would be my commute if I were driving.”

For more than 25 years, Pollack was Boston’s brightest and most respected public transportation advocate, earning her stripes as an environmental lawyer for the prestigious Conservation Law Foundation and then as a professor at Northeastern. But when she joined Baker’s cabinet on January 13, 2015—two weeks before the first blizzard—she didn’t expect to spend much time working on transit. “The governor and I had talked,” she recalls, “and he had said, ‘You’re secretary of transportation, not general manager of the T.’”

Then the snow came, followed by the shutdowns. And Pollack became another frustrated commuter. She even admits that the T—the very system she oversees—was such an unholy mess that it couldn’t get her to work on time. “Once the commuter rail started to be unreliable, it actually became a dilemma for me,” she concedes. Part of her wanted to be on the rails to see how it fared, but she couldn’t risk missing an 8 a.m. meeting with the governor. “I probably drove a lot more this winter than I like to drive,” she says, “or ever hope to drive.”

Today, Pollack finds herself at odds with much of the work she accomplished as a litigious advocate for the T. Once a supporter of increased funding, Pollack must now carry out her boss’s plan to reform the crippled beast with what she has instead of feeding it more money. Pollack even threatened to kill the Green Line Extension, a project she successfully sued the state to agree to 26 years ago. If Pollack does cancel the project, I ask her, couldn’t her former employer sue her to enforce the very agreement she helped create? “You know,” she says, not sounding particularly worried about the hypothetical, “I’ve already been sued several times as secretary of transportation.” All in a day’s work.

The 6:11 p.m. train chugs in, and we step aboard. It’s packed, so we squeeze together on a three-seater next to a guy who has thankfully removed his bulky sport coat and hung it on a hook. More so than all the other people I’ve ridden with, Pollack seems to understand the connection commuters have with the T and the psychic toll it takes on them when the system doesn’t work. She knows, for instance, that commuter-rail riders are “an obsessive group” who must plan their commutes precisely to the minute. She’d like the MBTA to be as prompt as its riders, and acknowledges that last winter it fell short. “That’s why [people] were so upset,” she says.

Like an impatient conductor frowning at her watch, Pollack admits that the T is rife with “pervasive problems. Many of them are chronic. They don’t just date back to one administration or one general manager.” And, like all of her predecessors, Pollack has a plan. Hers calls for more accountability across the T, from train and bus operations to the T managers and contractors building new trains and rail lines. She wants performance goals and results to be made public, and recently began releasing weekly on-time performance reports, which show the Orange Line is punctual only about 60 to 75 percent of the time. Pollack also says the MBTA has to get better at cutting costs, pointing out the absurdity that the T has been unable to function on a billion-dollar-a-year diet of taxpayer money. As a result, the state has dipped into its transportation fund—meant to build new projects—to cover the system’s operating deficits. “At the T,” Pollack says, “expenses go up at three times the rate of revenue, because they’re allowed to.”

Recalling my conversation with DePaola, I ask Pollack when we’ll ever crawl out from under the apocalyptic $7.3 billion maintenance backlog. Her answer is staggering: We will, she says—in another quarter-century. “We’re close to the spending level that would eliminate the state-of-good-repair backlog over 25 years,” she says, not a trace of humor in her face.

Twenty-five years! And if Boston doesn’t want to wait 25 years for a healthy T? “Then that becomes a resource issue,” she says, a polite and wonky way of telling me that voters and the legislature would have to grow a pair and vote for things like gas taxes, and spend more than they’ve been willing to so far. She thinks the Snowpocalypse forced people who don’t ride the T to realize its importance to Boston, but she doesn’t think that translates into a game-changing surge in support for the system. “There doesn’t seem to be much political will for the T at all,” she says.

In other words, Pollack doesn’t get to dream big. Her job is to fix the rickety rails, which will be hard enough.

It all comes down to making hard choices, Pollack says wearily. I ask her about Curtatone’s argument that Boston needs the T to expand, and she says, “There are some expansion projects—possibly including the Green Line Extension—that we should do. Even if it means it takes us a little longer to eliminate the state-of-good-repair backlog. But that doesn’t mean we can do every project.”

The same diplomacy does not hold when talk turns to the North–South Rail Link. The mere mention of Dukakis and Weld winds Pollack up, eliciting a loud torrent of facts and figures. She doubts the proposed tunnel would eliminate the need to expand South Station and argues that the T would have to buy pricey electric locomotives, because the MBTA’s diesel engines couldn’t run in the tunnel. Instead of spending billions on the North–South Rail Link, she says, the state would be better served by reducing the maintenance backlog, making more T stations accessible to the disabled, and funding federally required safety improvements to the commuter rail. With 25 more Orange Line railcars, she says, the T could slash its delay times by running trains every three minutes at rush hour instead of every six minutes.

Pollack, the transit rider and longtime transit expert, is the ideal person in the right place at the perfect time to be in charge of saving the T. Yet even she is torn between the desire to fix the T and the struggle to actually fix it—caught between the transit advocate in her who wanted to expand and put more money into the T, and the public’s reluctance to spend more on a system it doesn’t trust. “I didn’t understand, when I was an advocate,” Pollack says, “how much hard work we have to do just to get the T to be a great transit agency.”

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