By Patrick Burgard, news correspondent
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) once again finds itself the target of significant public scrutiny as its leadership fights a two-front war against massive debt and aging equipment.
To address both the $240 million debt and ongoing railway problems, the MBTA has proposed an end to late-night service and up to a 10 percent fare hike, first reported by the Boston Globe in December.
In a Roxbury Community College auditorium Wednesday night, MBTA executives and community advocates sparred over the proposed price increases.
So far, transit officials have laid out two plans, both of which involve raising fares for single subway rides, local subway and bus passes and weekly student passes, which are relied on by thousands to travel to and from Boston Public Schools.
The increases drew the ire of State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, who criticized the MBTA for limiting access to buses and trains that are essential to Bostonians’ work and education.
“Transit is a public good,” Chang-Diaz said. “I’m hearing stories of kids in my district who aren’t coming to school because they [already] can’t afford the T pass.”
City Councilor Tito Jackson also had harsh words, suggesting the fare increases would unfairly burden residents who depend on the T at the expense of commuters coming from outside the city.
“You only make the disrespect for our community, our most precious prizes of our children and our families even more pronounced when we look at the deal you are giving to our suburban neighbors,” Jackson said. “At the same time, for those of us who live in the city there will be a bus pass hike… The proposals that have been put before us are choices between horrendous and terrible.”
MBTA Chief Administrator defended the proposals, saying that even after an increase to as much as $59.75, monthly passes would still be cheaper in Boston than many other American cities.
While much of last year’s turmoil was centered on the city’s subway troubles, 2016 is the year of the commuter rail controversy, as well as debates over the future of late-night service, and the Green Line Extension Project.
In January, Boston Globe staffer and former Northeastern professor Walter V. Robinson reported that all 40 of the MBTA’s new commuter rail locomotives, which were phased in throughout 2015 and which cost $222 million, were being sidelined due to faulty traction motor bearings.
When the new locomotives were in service, the overall punctuality of the commuter rail trains improved by more than 5 percent, according to a study conducted by the Boston Globe.
MBTA Deputy Press Secretary Jason Johnson said that the high number of mechanical problems is not as injurious as some purport, according to locomotive industry standards.
“The industry standard for measuring the performance of locomotives is called ‘mean miles between failures (MMBF),’” Johnson said. “Last month, the T’s new locomotives had a MMBF of 18,270. The other locomotives in the T’s fleet had an average MMBF of just 4,850, showing the [new] locomotives perform far better than the older, legacy locomotives in the fleet.”
He went on to point out that when new equipment is paired with “legacy” equipment, some compatibility issues are to be expected. He also cited “staff training issues” as a reason the transition to new equipment can be challenging.
In addition to the commuter rail struggles, the T is trying to figure out what to do with its late-night service program, which it began in 2014 as an experiment under former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s MBTA plan.
In December, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB), established by Gov. Charlie Baker and the state legislature to oversee the reduction of the T’s massive debt, recommended that MBTA staff begin the process of ending the late-night service.
Proponents of late-night service argue that continuing the program would help Boston to establish something of a nightlife, which would stimulate economic growth in the city, and protect the travel options of people who have no other way to get around the city after hours.
“It’s not an issue of convenience, but an issue of safety,” said Logan Trupiano, a 19-year-old Suffolk University student, the Boston Globe reported in January. “I understand the MBTA needs to make cuts, but students of Boston rely on late-night service too much for it to be taken away.”
Thirty-five percent of the city is between the ages of 20 and 34, the highest concentration of this demographic of any major US city. Supporters said this demographic is an untapped goldmine for economic growth.
However, MBTA officials report the service comes at an extreme cost of nearly $13 lost per ride, robbing the transit system of up to $14 million a year.
Critics also argued that Boston’s current restaurant and bar laws prevent late-night transit service from stimulating the economy as much as supporters would like to believe, which they assert can be demonstrated by a recent system-wide decrease late-night ridership.
Ridership numbers have decreased by about 20 percent, from 16,000 a night to 13,000, according to MBTA assistant general manager Charles Planck.
In fact, the FMCB also cited low ridership as justification for ending the program.
The third major issue on the MBTA’s plate is that of the Green Line Extension Project.
The project, which would relocate Lechmere Station, the Green Line’s current terminus, and add 6 additional stations further into Somerville and Medford, has been on the MBTA’s official agenda since 1990, according to the project’s website.
It was long estimated to cost about $2 billion total, but the project has been in jeopardy of being axed by the state ever since August, when the total cost was revised to cost about $1 billion more.
A final decision on fare increases is expected from the FMCB on March 7, according to MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve.
Photo by Robert Smith