For Boston riders, transit woes continue to pile up

New leaders in Massachusetts are quickly discovering that, when it comes to fixing the Boston area’s notoriously troublesome bus and rail networks, things might get worse before they can get better.

Boston area commuters have endured years of spotty service from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known as the “T,” which provides more than 750,000 trips each day. Rail malfunctions are common—one subway train even caught fire on a bridge last year—and track defects regularly slow trains, even on brand new tracks. The slowdowns and staff shortages have led to unpredictable schedules and longer travel times.

Meanwhile, rail workers have come dangerously close to getting hit by moving trains at least 10 times this year, and that’s after federal transit officials started scrutinizing the agency’s day-to-day operations for safety concerns. The T has had seven general managers in the last decade, and its financial future is dark, with federal pandemic aid running out soon and maintenance bills piling up.

Gov. Maura Healey campaigned on improving the agency, and one of her first tasks once in office was to pick a new leader for it. She tapped Phillip Eng, an engineer who previously served as president of the Long Island Rail Road. Transit advocates immediately noticed that Eng had two things most of his immediate predecessors did not: He was a transit professional, and he came from outside the Boston area.

Eng, who took the helm in April, has shaken up the agency’s management, reassigning at least 16 executives, creating new positions to administer each of its transportation modes, putting an executive in charge of stations, and creating new offices dealing with climate change and housing.

“Since becoming general manager, I have prioritized delivering safe, reliable service and improving how the public navigates our system. While we still have more work to accomplish, we also continue to improve our system, including all lines, stations and fleets, to name a few priority areas,” Eng said in an emailed statement.

“Ultimately, we will restore public trust and ridership by delivering improvements riders will notice. I pledge to keep listening, taking action on feedback, and being accountable to riders,” he added. “I’m optimistic our efforts will continue rebuilding trust and winning customers back. But we still have more to do. Public service requires public feedback, and we both welcome it and appreciate it.”

Still, patience is in short supply. The Federal Transit Administration castigated the T for continuing several practices, such as allowing workers to walk tracks alone, that it says jeopardize rider safety. Next week, the MBTA is shutting down a branch of its busy Red Line for two weeks for repairs. And bus and rail service remain unreliable because of staffing shortages, advocates say.

“Nobody cares about personnel changes when the travel times on the Red Line have gone up 20 to 25 minutes since the general manager arrived,” said Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters, a Massachusetts advocacy group. “We don’t have a clue when we can expect good service. It is no longer something the administration can hang their hat on. If it doesn’t lead to better headways [time between trains] on the rapid transit system or fewer dropped bus trips, I don’t think it matters.”

Reggie Ramos, the executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts and a former executive for the MBTA, said the cumulative safety and performance problems with the agency have become more “palpable” this year. The Red Line has operated at substantially slower speeds, while trains on the recently opened extension of the Green Line are moving at walking speed because of construction defects. “It impacts the commuters’ way of life,” she said. “It is an issue that one cannot ignore.”

Ramos said the agency needs to lay out clear milestones for when it expects aspects of the system to improve, even if those improvements will take years to make.

Years of Neglect

Unlike most transit operations, the MBTA is a state agency. That means its fate is tied to governors and lawmakers on Beacon Hill.

Transit advocates say that state officials have underfunded the MBTA for decades, particularly routine maintenance and repair. A 2019 report found that the agency would need more than $10 billion to bring its systems up to good working condition.

Stacy Thompson, the executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance, a group that promotes walking, biking and transit, said former Gov. Charlie Baker put a higher priority on completing new infrastructure projects than on improving the MBTA’s day-to-day operations.

Baker, a Republican, famously came into office just before a snowstorm snarled subway and commuter rail operations for weeks. Baker pushed through changes to increase scrutiny of the MBTA’s finances. He also ordered an overhaul of the Green Line extension, after its cost estimates ballooned to $3 billion, and stripped it down to reduce costs. Baker highlighted those experiences in a book he wrote, which described how he “fixed the T.”

The book, Thompson noted, was released “before someone was killed, before the federal investigation [into MBTA safety] and before the T fell apart. Charlie Baker was handed a system that he knew was underfunded, and his approach was to starve the system instead of going to the legislature for appropriate resources. I do think he bears responsibility for not even trying,” she said.

Indeed, the FTA in an audit last year questioned the Baker administration’s focus on promoting capital improvements over funding for operations. The capital budget grew fourfold in the four years leading up to 2022, reaching more than $2 billion. That happened even though the agency was still struggling to cope with hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts made to its operations and maintenance budget in the first term of the Baker administration. It led to hundreds of layoffs. In early 2022, the FTA noted, the agency diverted another $500 million from its operating budget to capital expenses.

The agency said it was building a safer and more reliable system. “While the agency is focused on this priority, its aging assets and infrastructure continue to deteriorate and fail,” the FTA countered, pointing out that the 2022 fire on the bridge started when a rusted piece of the train fell off and hit the electrified third rail. “The combination of overworked staff and aging assets has resulted in the organization being overwhelmed, chronic fatigue for key positions in the agency, lack of resources for training and supervision, and leadership priorities that emphasize meeting capital project demands above passenger operations, preventive maintenance, and even safety.”

Baker opened the Green Line extension last December, during his last month in office. But this September, trains along a one-mile stretch of that new line had to travel at 3 mph because the rails were too close together, a rare defect (rails tend to become wider apart with use, rather than narrower). The MBTA announced this week that those slow zones had been eliminated.

New Governor, New Problems

Healey, Baker’s Democratic successor, campaigned on improving safety at the MBTA. She kept an election-year promise to name a safety chief at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which includes the transit agency. And she has voiced her own frustration with the continued issues at the T, while still backing Eng and his efforts to address those problems.

But all that work comes as the MBTA is being scrutinized by federal safety experts. That brings a higher “level of urgency” to the need to improve transit operations, said Ramos of Transportation for Massachusetts. As federal experts highlight operational problems, more of the public is paying attention and demanding improvements, she said.

The federal monitoring could also be affecting the work that the MBTA is doing, warned Thompson of the LivableStreets Alliance.

“A lot of what they’re asking is for the T to report back to them more, which doesn’t necessarily always solve problems, and it is very staff-time intensive. It can distract staff away from other problems,” she said. The added attention doesn’t necessarily give the agency the tools or resources it needs to help address the underlying problem. “We would never do this for a highway. You never see the Federal Highway Administration say, ‘There was a major crash on I-90, so we’re going to shut it down or we’re not going to let anyone drive faster than 50 mph until the state DOT has jumped through hoops for the next 18 months.’ That would never happen.”

Meanwhile, the MBTA is trying to reduce the number of slow zones, but the process itself is slow-going because of the age of the system and the lack of upkeep over the years. The agency is trying to rectify the problems leading to the worst slowdowns first.

The agency has also tried to reduce its chronic shortage of bus drivers and train operators. Its board of directors, for example, recently agreed to a higher starting wage for bus drivers of $30 per hour, about $8 more an hour than previously. That has sparked a wave of job applications, but the agency has also been losing more workers than in previous years.

One of the biggest tasks for Eng and the Healey administration, though, will be to earn the trust of legislators if they hope to ask for more regular funding.

“We always need more funding,” Eng recently told Boston Public Radio. “The challenge is, whatever you have, how do you put that to best use? Even in good times, there's always a need to do more projects, there's always a need to invest further.”

But key lawmakers on Beacon Hill are skeptical. A Joint Committee on Transportation issued a report over the summer finding 57 different safety failures that were not connected to funding levels.

Ramos said that the MBTA needs to be able to show lawmakers it can be trusted to put any new money to good use. But it goes the other way, too. “We cannot make things work if you don’t fund them,” she said.

Johnson from TransitMatters said the governor will have to make the case for the MBTA. The agency can secure some wins to show progress, he said, but “the T is so dramatically underfunded that they’re not going to be able to satiate everybody. … The Healey administration is going to have to be honest about the state of the T, the severe capital needs and how underfunded the agency is on so many fronts.”