OP-ED: State Sen. Brownsberger Reflects on MBTA’s Long Term Planning


The following was provided by State Sen. Will Brownsberger (D – Belmont) who also represents Watertown:

Comments are due on the MBTA’s long term plan on Monday, October 22 (extended from September 21). It is a provocative document that is well worth a read.  The document is available for comment at MBTAFocus40.com.

As a regional agency dependent on state funding for more than half of its budget, the MBTA is constantly subject to political pressure from people like me to improve service. The demands of multiple elected officials serving different constituencies raise difficult choices for the agency about where to focus.

In the “Focus 40” document, the agency is attempting to get above the politics and shape its priorities based on big picture data about needs.

The document makes three fundamental observations.

First, there are several economic growth areas that are outside the densest part of the rapid transit system. The heart of the city is well served by rapid transit from all directions. But much of the region’s job growth is in areas that have more limited service – Kendall Square, Longwood and the South Boston Waterfront.

People commute to these areas from many directions and the lack of all-direction transit connectivity to them results in surface congestion.  The proliferation of private shuttle buses in these areas is an indicator of unmet need.

Second, some of the densest communities in the inner core do not have access to rapid transit service: Roxbury/Dorchester, Everett/Chelsea/Revere, South Boston, Roslindale. These are all areas with a higher proportion of low-income residents.  Commuters in these bus-only communities are at the mercy of increasingly congested traffic conditions.

Commuters headed downtown from Brighton, Watertown and Belmont face many of the same challenges. As a servant of these communities, improving bus service and providing rail alternatives is a central priority for me. The MBTA is responding (as I have written about previously) with meaningful short and longer term service improvements. But from a regional perspective, by the numbers, the more dense inner core communities really stand out as underserved.

Third, there are several “urban gateway” cities where housing is more affordable that are not well connected to the downtown – Waltham, Lynn and Salem.

The big “We are Imagining” ideas in the plan that involve new rapid transit tracks are extensions of the Green, Orange and Blue lines to better serve some of these areas. The plan includes the intriguing concept of extending the Blue Line south across the Red Line to Longwood, but not the circumferential tunnel that has long been discussed.

As to commuter rail service changes which might offer another path for transformative improvement, the plan leaves a blank space for the outcome of the Rail Vision study which is ongoing – I hope we can develop plans for better rail service on the Worcester and Fitchburg lines, serving Allston-Brighton and Belmont (and Watertown between them).

The document recognizes that there is a lot of uncertainty about how the region will evolve. It attempts to identify as priorities the projects that make sense in almost any scenario. Those projects certainly include the huge investments already underway that will improve reliability and capacity on the core MBTA system – the Red, Green, Blue and Orange lines.

They also include efforts to improve bus service, modernizing the fleet and working with municipal leaders – who control the roadways – to give buses priority at intersections and in congested traffic. The MBTA is also looking in the medium term to ask how bus routes can be reconfigured to better meet demand.

The plan does include as a medium-term item a “Regional Multimodal West Station” – that’s the transit hub that many hope will develop in the Allston-Brighton I-90 Interchange area, but it is unclear how much the station will improve connectivity to Kendall and Longwood. That is a concern for me that I will comment on — the huge development potential at the location will likely require new rapid transit service. One solution to that problem falls within the scope of the ongoing rail vision study — the Grand Junction connection that goes under the BU Bridge from Boston to Cambridge.

The plan also includes a cross-cutting program to better protect the system from flood risks due to sea level rise. I strongly believe that the MBTA should be focused on hardening the system so that it will last through the century and beyond.

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