OP-ED: State Senator on the Bad Week for the MBTA

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The following piece was written by State Sen. Will Brownsberger, who represents Watertown, Belmont and parts of Boston:

It has been a very bad week for the MBTA. Two train derailments injured dozens and massively inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of people. 

As I write, no one seems to know yet how long it will take to repair critical signal systems that the derailed train destroyed. Red line riders may have to endure diminished service and extraordinary rush hour crowding for days or weeks.

While expediting repairs, the MBTA has rightly brought in an outside consulting team to review the events. The legislature will take great interest in the results of that review. 

For me, here is the big question: What will that review reveal about the work force and operational management of the MBTA? We knew that from time to time scheduled bus trips simply don’t happen because an employee doesn’t show up. We know that the MBTA’s derailment rate is high. We knew that a terrifying runaway train incident was triggered by an operator disabling a safety device. Investigators have already concluded that the recent green line derailment was operator error. 

While safety is always nominally the number one mission of any transit agency, how strong is the safety culture really? Are line managers overextended and under too much pressure to deliver timely service with inadequate staffing? What do these incidents say about employee morale and discipline?

As legislators, we tend to focus less on operational conditions, which are hard to evaluate from outside, and more on the issues of system repair and service expansion. My impression has been and remains that the MBTA’s board and leadership team have been doing a very good job in turning around a state of physical system decay that was produced by decades of inadequate investment.

The MBTA’s board has greatly improved the transparency and efficiency of the capital planning process. They are spending more each year than ever before (almost doubling capital spending since FY16) and they are doing so creatively and with careful attention to project management. They are not just replacing ancient tracks, power, signal systems and vehicles. They are asking how they can upgrade performance as they go. 

With the spending already programmed, we can expect a 50% increase in people-moving capacity on the red line over the next 6 or 7 years. If longer-term plans can be sustained, we can expect a 100% increase on the Green Line over 10 to 15 years. Work is happening on so many fronts that I get as many angry calls and emails about night noise from MBTA construction crews as I do about service delay incidents. 

The MBTA board is also asking the visionary questions about what service expansions we can achieve to take the region through the next century of growth and climate change. In every neighborhood that I represent, people are complaining about cut through traffic and high congestion. Supporting the MBTA’s long-term improvement process with funding and governance improvements is a central legislative priority.

We will need to keep raising the capital spending level in the future, but the MBTA’s capital program may be as aggressive as it can be for the next few years  (see FMCB discussion of June 10 at 1:21). Right now, the money is in place and the real constraint is management capacity. The MBTA has been taking steps to expand management capacity by adding high level staff and consulting resources to run major projects. The MBTA board is putting heavy pressure on MBTA management to find ways to expand throughput on the myriad of smaller maintenance project (see FMCB discussion of June 10 at 1:38). 

But we may not be spending enough on the operational side. MBTA management has been committed to living within its means and has been locked in a necessary struggle with unions about how to control pension costs. I hate to contemplate the possibility that operational discipline has deteriorated during that struggle.

We will keep asking questions over the weeks to come. 

(See the original piece on Sen. Brownsberger’s website, click here.)

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