Guest Op-Ed: MBTA crisis is an emergency for our region

By Joe Gravellese

When I ran for office two years ago, I did so because I was deeply concerned about the decaying of our transportation system. This crisis impacts the entire Greater Boston region, but is especially challenging to residents of Revere, Chelsea, East Boston, and other nearby communities.

Two years later, these problems have only gotten worse – and in the case of the MBTA, it’s reached a boiling point, with a series of service disruptions and safety failures that have damaged the revival of Boston’s downtown, contributed to the return of gridlock traffic to Greater Boston, and deeply inconvenienced people who rely on the T to get to work.

This year, I am not running for anything – I’m not asking for anyone’s vote. I’m just pleading, as a resident, for our region’s elected officials to make addressing this an urgent priority.

The state of the T threatens the future of our economy and contributes to our housing cost crisis. People who never set foot on the T – which includes an overwhelming majority of elected officials – need to understand how the state of the T greatly impacts *everyone’s* future – not just people who ride it.

Even with reduced ridership post-COVID, hundreds of thousands of trips are taken on the T every day. Imagine even just 30% of those trips being replaced by additional cars on the road. How much worse would that make traffic gridlock?

The ecosystem of research institutions, hospitals, biotech facilities, entertainment and cultural venues, financial services, and other industries that have made Boston an economic success, and make the quality of life in Greater Boston so high and in-demand, is supported by hundreds of thousands of service workers, many of whom take the T to work every day – and many of whom are our neighbors.

Nearly one in four Boston households do not have a car, including nearly half of low-income households. 

A fraction of these households shifting to commuting by car makes the already-congested roads worse for everyone. For others, saving on the $5,000+ a year in expenses of car ownership are what allow them to stay here in the first place. The cascading effect of T failures will price even more working people out of the area and contribute to worse sprawl and traffic, not to mention worse quality of life for people forced into ever-longer commutes – and an even greater challenge for employers looking to hire workers or start small businesses.

The economic success of our region is based largely on legacy investments in public infrastructure and public services. People don’t come to Boston for the nice weather or for the low taxes. They come for the vibrant local economy, public services, and culture – something that simply can’t exist in its current form without the T.

The warning signs on the future of the T have been flashing red for a long time. In 2009, the D’Alessandro Report on the T said in its opening pages that “the outlook is bleak” and warned about the T’s deferred maintenance and structural deficits. Problems like these don’t magically go away with the passage of time – they only get worse. 

The good news is that it is not too late to reverse course and address these problems. Already, there are promising signs that state legislative leadership is noticing this crisis. Last week investments to address the safety concerns cited by the federal investigation into the T were included in a bond bill, and House and Senate leadership have promised oversight hearings.

This is a good start. But it’s only just that – a start.

What the T needs most is not funding for future capital expenses, but day-to-day operating funds for critical ongoing maintenance work. It needs to have its structural deficit addressed, and it needs to be unshackled from the Big Dig debt it was saddled with in the 1990s.

The T needs more active oversight from the Legislature to serve as the people’s watchdog. A few days after the Feds released their investigation, the MBTA announced it was starting a hiring blitz to fill unfilled critical public safety positions. This is good news, but it could have happened sooner. It’s clear that the existing MBTA board was either unaware of the issue or did not feel it necessary to share this information with the public. 

The funding and governance of the T also needs to be better integrated with the regional transit authorities of the rest of the state. One of the biggest problems we face right now is regions being pitted against each other – with residents and elected officials outside of the Boston area not wanting to fund investments in Boston, and vice versa. This is counterproductive: the future of every region in Massachusetts is intertwined, and needs to be addressed with a commonality of purpose. 

The crisis at the T is not just about the daily inconvenience and indignity to many of the service workers who power the local economy – many of whom are our neighbors who live along the Blue Line – though they feel the pinch first and most acutely. It’s about the future of Boston’s economy and quality of life. It demands urgent action and attention, even from people who never ride it. It’s now or never, and the consequences of inaction will be dire.

Joe Gravellese is a former candidate for state representative and former City of Revere staff member. He currently works at a local non-profit.

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