It’s Not Hard to Find Ways to Spend Money: The MBTA Edition

One of the frustrating things during the ‘stimulus debate’–which should have been called the jobs debate–was the repeated claim that it’s really hard to spend $800 billion. Never mind that any politician who can’t spend money is staggeringly stupid–’forget how to breathe’ stupid. But I don’t know what country the pundits and politicians who were saying this actually live in (of course, they could just be trying to cover up for their own failures. But I digress). Because there’s a lot of stuff that is falling apart and needs fixing. That’s before we even get to expanding systems to meet future demand.

One case is the MBTA, in particular Boston’s subway, aka “the T” (it’s called the T because all of the strains are marked with a big circle sign with a T in the middle. Clever, isn’t it? Digressing again). As I mentioned yesterday, the Dukakis Center released a report that describes the possible future of the T. The good news is that people want to ride it–that’s good for the environment. The bad news is that the T is already stretched to the breaking point and won’t be able to handle the increased passenger load. Here’s what the Green Line, which serves Downtown Crossing, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, BU, BC, Northeastern, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, the Museum of Fine Arts, Fenway Park, and the Science Museum, needs (it’s kinda important, if you haven’t guessed; boldface mine):

The “central subway” portion of the Green Line — from Copley to Government Center — is already operating at capacity. (CTPS 2011). In addition, the Congestion Management Program has documented congestion exceeding the MBTA’s service policy standard on both the C and D lines. The MBTA has worked to increase Green Line capacity, first by eliminating single car trains in 2007 and then by expanding to three car trains on some train sets during rush hour beginning in 2011. Unfortunately, the power feeding into the Green Line is unreliable and insufficient to accommodate capacity expansion to all three-car trains (even if the T had sufficient rolling stock for such an expansion), so in effect there is a limit on the number of these longer trains that can be run during peak times. The CTPS needs assessment flatly concluded that “the 1920-era signals in the Green Line’s central tunnel need to be replaced” — these are apparently the oldest transit signals of their kind in regular use anywhere in the United States. (CTPS 2011). Vehicle availability is also a problem: the MBTA has recently decided to spend $100 million to rehabilitate some older Green Line cars to extend their useful life because procurement of needed new cars will have to wait until finances allow and the more pressing problem of the Orange and Red Line fleet is addressed. Yet the Green Line can expect continued growth in ridership, generated in part by real estate development in Back Bay and Longwood Medical Area as well as the extension of the Green Line to Somerville and Medford.

But I have no idea how to spend money. Then there’s the Orange Line, which serves Tufts Medical Center, Back Bay Station, Haymarket and downtown, Jamaica Plain, and North Station commuter rail, needs (boldface mine):

The CTPS needs assessment found that “the Orange Line is currently overcrowded during peak hours between Downtown Crossing and North Station.” One major limitation on the T’s ability to increase capacity on the Orange Line to address this congestion is the age and condition of the Orange Line vehicle fleet. All 120 Orange Line cars built in 1979-1981 (with an intended lifespan of 25 years) need to be replaced. The MBTA Capital Investment Program (CIP) for fiscal years 2012 through 2017 calls for the procurement of 152 new Orange Line cars (as well as some Red Line cars, as noted below) but fails to provide enough resources to undertake the required procurement. Even while hoping to invest $350 million in the procurement for Red and Orange Line cars through fiscal year 2017, the CIP estimates that an additional $389 million will be needed. The MBTA frequently lacks the number of cars it needs to run the Orange Line — the MBTA’s March 2012 “Scorecard” report indicates that the Orange Line requires 103 vehicles to be available but in recent months only 96 vehicles were available. If even fewer cars are available in the future, as rolling stock reaches a point where it can no longer be used safely, the MBTA will be unable to maintain current headways, inadequate capacity on this overcrowded line will actually decline, and congestion will increase further.

But spending money is really hard. The Red Line, which serves Sommerville, Cambridge (Harvard), Kendall Square (MIT and the world’s largest biotech hub), Massachusetts General Hospital, downtown, South Station (commuter rail & Amtrak) and South Boston, is also fucked up:

The Red Line was the most difficult of the rapid transit lines to assess based on public data. Although not mentioned as problematic in the CTPS needs assessment, the 2004 and 2008 Congestion Management Program reports identified the Braintree branch of the Red Line as close to reaching the vehicle load standard and a 2010 online update found that both the Braintree branch and the “trunk” portion of the Red Line had sometimes failed the vehicle load standards. Acknowledging crowded conditions, the T introduced “Big Red” high capacity cars with most of the seats removed in order to increase capacity. And the City of Cambridge, as part of its Kendall Square/Central Square planning study, has predicted capacity constraints as over 8 million square feet of new residential, commercial and research and development space is built out through 2030. While pinpointing the exact extent and location of capacity constraints is difficult, the combination of existing high ridership and high density development in parts of Boston and Cambridge served by the Red Line is likely to produce growing congestion. Further, like the Orange Line, the Red Line’s potential capacity expansion is limited by its aging rolling stock. Replacements are needed for 74 cars, about one-third of the fleet, built in 1969-70. Vehicle availability, as tracked by the MBTA scorecard, is already problematic. The Red Line has been able to run with the 168 vehicles needed, but barely — there are generally 171 or 172 Red Line cars available at any given time. Recent breakdowns on the Red Line may well become a common occurrence if the hoped-for procurement is delayed due to lack of funds and the number of available vehicles falls below the minimum number needed to maintain current capacity.

Breakdowns are already a common occurrence, although I guess ‘common’ can be interpreted in many different ways. Again, money would help here.

Keep in mind, Boston isn’t that big a city: there are needs all over the U.S. (Got Levees?). Just spend the goddamn money and stop worrying about deficits–unlike you and me, who are currency users, the U.S. government is a currency issuer. We can’t go broke, and, as the report describes, not making these upgrades will cost more money in the long run.

We are governed by idiots.

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2 Responses to It’s Not Hard to Find Ways to Spend Money: The MBTA Edition

  1. hipparchia says:

    “of course, they could just be trying to cover up for their own failures”

    color me cynical, but i think it’s more likely that they’re paid to tell lies, any lie at all will do and the more varied the better, when it comes to spending money.

    yep, spending $800 billion would be impossible: http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/

  2. Pingback: Wolfrum’s Morning: Mandate this! « William K. Wolfrum’s Morning « William K. Wolfrum Chronicles

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