28 August 2008

Urban Planning: Beyond Saving the MBTA

Bostonians who suffer, but love the MBTA, must often wonder, how this really is one of the best transit systems in the country. For the average passenger the system is erratic and dated; often failing at the moments most personally important. Talk about amazing technology, a system that will fail when you personally need it most. Activist (T Rider's Union, Bad Transit) and transit enthusiasts must be further concerned. It has had a series of general managers that are openly anti-transit. The current GM, Dan Grabauskas, a relative-believer in transit at least, has managed to make station and operational improvements but is bogged down in debt and an inexplicable malaise in the State to treat transit seriously. While the turnpike and roadways get bailouts, transit is left drowning in unfair obligations. These obligations, many steaming from "Big Dig Mitigation" projects, were financed by the T, unlike the roadways, which are treated as capital improvements.

So it's not difficult to see why passengers and transit advocates can barely focus beyond keeping the T alive; at a time when transit elsewhere is resurgent. While this slow-action drama continues, the city and region risk being passed-up by progressives such as Denver, Portland, and even LA who are making bold moves to invest in transit for the future. In a time of energy crisis and climate change where transit has never looked better, and when dozens of cities across the nation are making strides towards building or expanding systems, Boston is stuck. Worse still, the current ideas for expanding and improving the T are tepid and inadequate to the needs of a world class city. The silver-line, an unquestionable failure is now promised to be followed by the "Urban Ring," another BRT idea that is even more poorly conceived with more never-to-happen tunnels. I know that is hard to believe if you have ever had to suffer the Silver Line, but imagine a rapid transit bus somehow ploughing through the LMAA on surface roads. Further, worthwhile projects such as extending the Green and Blue Lines are going nowhere. Worse still, there is no room for new ideas such as expanding capacity in the central core of Green line subway, now congested beyond belief, with quadruple tracking or new tunnels...or regaining ground by extending the E line back to Centre Street, if not to Arborway.

I would argue that the time is now to resolve the T's constant fiscal crisis (operating and capital) with a sustainable solution (beyond the sales tax). Now is the time for the T to evaluate the whole system (Commuter Rail, Rapid Transit, and Bus) to imagine and plan for a system worthy of a world class city of the 21st Century. Now is the time to move beyond dated ideas (i.e. the pseudo-BRT Urban Ring Scheme) and make room to consider a new future.

Urban Planning is a series of posts meant to prompt dialogue on major urban issues, with a focus on ideas and solutions.

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