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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Let’s talk about the MBTA debacle

MBTA+employees+take+a+break+outside+of+a+bus+sitting+at+the+JFK%2FUMass+station.
Josh Kotler
MBTA employees take a break outside of a bus sitting at the JFK/UMass station. Photo by Josh Kotler / Mass Media Staff

So, another semester begins and yet again, the MBTA seems to be failing us at nearly every turn. The Transit Authority shut down the Orange Line “for safety repair work,” according to the City of Boston website, on Aug. 19, and is supposedly going to be out of commission for a month. Whether that means Sept. 19 or Oct. 1 is a bit unclear, but either way, it is hard to believe this timeline given the poor track record of the subway lines—pun intended—and construction in general in Boston—see the Big Dig, or even our own campus construction.
Meanwhile, shuttle busses—up to 200, again according to the City of Boston website—are being dumped onto the already crowded streets, pumping up commute-times and frustrating workers and students alike. A Boston.com article by Zipporah Osei entitled “For Boston.com readers, the Orange Line shutdown has been a mixed bag,” includes a long list of grievances and troubling polls about the shutdown, demonstrating the general dissatisfaction with how the MBTA has rolled out this project. What’s more, the timing of the Orange Line shutdown perfectly coincides with the start of the semester in possibly the biggest college town in the country—if you lump Cambridge in with Boston proper, that is.
It’s not just the Orange Line though: The Green Line extension into Somerville has been delayed until November and the section of track between Union Square and Government Center has been shut down for construction on a parking garage. The Red Line has been receiving track repairs for what seems like an eternity and suffers from constant delays. And the rollout of the new cars on both the Orange and Red lines has been fraught with issues and come to a crawl—all while the current, aging consists are constantly breaking down, sometimes maiming or even killing passengers. Plus, the stairs at JFK/UMass Station, which are used by likely thousands of students, staff and the general population every day, are actively crumbling and still have not been properly repaired nearly a year after a professor died just feet away on another aging staircase. This is the oldest subway system in America, and it certainly shows: even on newer sections.
What are we to make of this? Let’s consider why this is happening now. As we all know, and for the reasons listed above among many others, the MBTA—particularly the subway lines—has been in a sorry and downright dangerous state for a long time. The situation has become so bad that over the summer, the Federal Transit Administration conducted a huge investigation into their operations. The FTA’s 90-page report, which has just recently come out, is not pretty. They found perpetual understaffing, informal and crude training procedures, poor “safety management information”, poor quality control, radio dead spots, poor oversight and more.
We can see, then, that the repairs and delays really are desperately needed. The improvements being made to the Orange Line and the Green Line will make the lives of anybody who commutes to school, work, or anything else much better in the long run. We will have to see how much improvement there truly is—after all, this is a very short window of time and the project is seemingly limited in scope. However, the updated bus routes, track improvements to the Red Line, the Green Line extension, and other projects should be coming to a close soon after. If they end up being as positive a change as they are claimed to be, and if the new train cars start rolling out again, public transportation in Boston may actually be decent again.
But the frustration isn’t that improvements are being made: the frustration lies with the fact that the City of Boston chose to undertake these majorly disruptive projects now—at the very start of the school semester—and with how the temporary measures are holding up. Unfortunately, though, I don’t believe the timing really was much of a choice for the city. For the FTA to conduct its investigation, the MBTA must have been barred from doing much in the way of improvement so that an accurate picture of its problems could be ascertained. And once the investigation was finished, they certainly couldn’t twiddle their thumbs until the semester was over; there are major safety problems and the subways have already maimed and killed people. Actually, I believe it was a good move for the MBTA to begin work even before the official report came out.
As for how they have decided to alleviate the temporary disruptions, it seems to be a “mixed bag” as the Boston.com article by Zipporah Osei says. Some people—myself included, for the record—have noticed that while the effects can be felt, they are not as bad as expected. Others, however, have encountered complicated navigation puzzles. A woman from Malden was quoted in Osei’s article, lamenting that the more expensive and less-frequent 354 bus is now her best public transportation option. She said that the MBTA should have restarted a defunct route and/or temporarily updated the 354 route during the Orange Line shutdown: and I agree with her completely.
It’s tough for me to say, and it’s surely frustrating to admit, but it truly seems like this needed to happen when it happened. We can still be angry at the MBTA for the state of the whole system—I’m not trying to make excuses for the incompetence and negligence that got us here in the first place—but given the circumstances, we will simply have to live with the shutdowns for the time being. While there are clear imperfections in the replacement services, 200 shuttles are being rolled out and students and staff should be able to get to school okay—albeit with a longer commute.
What we can hopefully look forward to is a cleaner, safer and more efficient MBTA in the near future: something we haven’t experienced in decades. Even if you will have graduated and moved out of Boston by then, you can be happy for the future students who will not have to suffer through the horrible service we experience today. The question is, though, will the MBTA actually accomplish such improvement—and will this temporary delay end on time?
I’m old enough to remember the last decade or so of the Big Dig, meaning I knew the horrors of both the Central Artery and the problems caused by the massive construction project at the same time. Even after the constant pushback of deadlines, I can’t exactly say completion was a big relief: it just kind of pushed the traffic underground. However, I have learned to appreciate the amazing Greenway where the Artery once stood, and the Zakim Bridge is undeniably beautiful too. There is less noise, less air pollution, more sunlight and more greenspace in Downtown Boston, and that’s a great thing. As a non-taxpayer at the time of construction, I can say that I believe the Big Dig was overall worth the pain: as a taxpayer during this MBTA debacle, I only hope that, especially as we face down a “New Big Dig” in Allston, I will feel the same about this new project.

About the Contributors
James Cerone, Opinions Editor
Josh Kotler, Photographer