BU Today

Campus Life

What If the Green Line Actually Worked?

An urban transit expert on how to fix the MBTA

32

Terrance Regan tries to impress upon students that it’s more important to maintain existing infrastructure than to spend millions on major expansions—like, say, the extension of MBTA service to Somerville. And for Regan’s Metropolitan College urban transportation policy and planning class, the winter of 2015 is turning into one big teachable moment. Outside his classroom window on Comm Ave is what could be considered Exhibit A in failed transportation policy and planning: the 70-year-old Green Line, which has shut down after each of the recent big snowstorms.

Regan, a MET adjunct professor of city planning and urban affairs and an expert on transportation policy, finance, and intelligent transportation systems, brings to the classroom impressive real-world experience. As the chief researcher for the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission, he wrote a report that came out in 2007 analyzing the funding needs of each of the state’s transportation agencies and identifying an overall $19 billion structural debt. The report states, “The Transportation Finance Commission has concluded that our system has been neglected for years, and that the system we take for granted will fail if we do not take prompt and decisive action.”

Regan is a public transportation geek, and for all its recent failures, he remains a champion of Boston’s bus and subway system. He lives in Cambridge and takes the Number 64 bus to his day job in Kendall Square, managing day-to-day operations for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration’s Transportation Planning Capacity Building program, as well as FHWA’s Office of Innovative Program Delivery, which promotes innovative finance methods for states and cities. Regan coteaches the MET course with Joshua Hassol, an adjunct professor of transportation and environmental planning and a senior manager at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

BU Today talked with Regan about what went wrong with the MBTA this winter, the importance of investing in what is called “state of good repair,” why he worries about current plans for the Green Line extension to Somerville, and why he loves the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line.

BU Today: Were you surprised at what happened with the T this winter, or did you anticipate it?

Regan: If you had a 45-year-old vehicle, do you anticipate it would break down? The biggest problem we have is with aging vehicles and infrastructure. The snow is really just showing the problem that has been there. The Red Line has degraded in quality probably each year for the past 10 years because the trains are getting older. They’re more likely to break down. The average age of an Orange Line car is 45.

Fundamentally what happened is, we have underinvested in maintenance and existing infrastructure for several decades. On the MBTA, I think we have focused too much on expansion and not enough on what is called “state of good repair,” which is shortened to SOGR.

If you asked the guys who actually make the T run on a daily basis, they would probably put every penny they have in state of good repair. But the final choices are up to the policy makers.

Do you think the lack of infrastructure maintenance is the responsibility of any particular agency or administration—or person?

It’s a bipartisan issue. I don’t think you can blame any of the previous governors any more than the others. They all love new stuff. It’s not very sexy to replace a motor on a train or upgrade a signal system.

So what’s sexy in terms of the T?

The Green Line expansion to Somerville, if you have a lot of extra money. It’s a very worthwhile project, except the Green Line in front of BU doesn’t work—on any day. What we’re doing is extending a line that doesn’t work as opposed to applying money to an existing line. It’s the equivalent of putting an expansion on your house when the roof leaks. Think what would happen if we put $400 million into the Green Line above surface. You’d speed things up. What if the Green Line actually worked?

That would be amazing. So what are your ideas for making that happen on the Green Line?

Let’s say you coordinate the traffic signals to allow the Green Line to operate more efficiently. What often happens is the Green Line pulls up to the station, it loads and unloads. Then the traffic light turns red. The T waits a minute, then it goes. What if you actually had coordinated lights that give the Green Line priority? It’s one of the simple things you could do. What if you came up with a system that actually improved boarding on street?

That sounds great. What other planning problems do you see with the Green Line?

I can’t say that the Green Line has ever worked well. If you take just the B line, how many aboveground stops are there? It seems you stop every couple of hundred feet. That’s a problem. If you’re going to the BU campus, look at how many times the B line stops. They’ve tried to do some stop consolidation. The city of Boston is redesigning Commonwealth Avenue on the other side of the BU Bridge out to Packard’s Corner. So they’re looking at stop consolidation along there.

Do you take the Green Line?

I try and avoid taking it.

So how do you get to BU and around campus?

I walk.

How would you rate Boston’s public transportation system compared to other cities?

On a good day Boston’s transportation system is actually very good. If you were going to rate transit agencies in the United States, first would be New York, then there’d be Chicago, then there might be Philadelphia—it has a great bus system and a very good commuter rail system—and then you’d probably have Boston.

Do you think Boston can recover from this public transportation disaster?

Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, had a saying: “Let no good crisis go to waste.” I hope that this is the MBTA’s crisis that we can use to properly fund the maintenance and ongoing needs of the T. This was going to happen sooner or later. The snow just kind of exacerbated it. I actually think in a perverse way this is a good thing, because it points out all of the problems and truly forces a debate about what we’re going to do.

Are we having that debate?

I hope we will. But I haven’t heard a single person in power say we should have to raise taxes or fees to provide the system with more money.

What are the main things you think need to be done?

If you halted expansion for a few years and put those funds into SOGR projects, you would be able to allocate a couple of hundred million more a year. This is why I have always been worried about the Green Line extension and Fall River/New Bedford Commuter Rail projects.

What was it like working on that big transportation finance report?

It was really, really hard. One of my theories about government is that it takes at least 10 years to get anything done—especially on transportation, which has such a long lead time in getting projects built. I think there are a number of issues that we raised that the legislature tried to address. There is increased funding. In response to the report, it created MassDOT to restructure how the transportation agencies worked together. In addition, the legislature allocated an additional $160 million a year to help the MBTA cover the debt service for Central Artery–related transit projects [the Big Dig]. But there is still a long way to go to meet the needs of transportation in the state. If I gave you an extra $100 every week, I hope you would use it to pay off your credit card, but you might go out and buy a good meal.

You really seem to love public transportation…

I do. My kids laugh at me. Whenever I would take a vacation with them when they were younger, we always had to get from the airport by public transit—in Paris, London, Chicago, wherever. When we were in Paris, we had to ride every one of the 14 subway lines. They wanted to go to Euro Disney and I wanted to ride the subway. We eventually accomplished both.

What about in Boston—what’s your favorite line?

The Mattapan High Speed Line—there is nothing more fun. Oh, God, when my kids were little, we would take it as an amusement ride.

What’s so great about it?

The cars are from the 1940s; you start out at Ashmont, you get on this rickety old car, and then you’re heading to Mattapan, you’re going down this hill, you’re swaying right, you’re swaying left. It’s like you’re in 19th-century Boston.

Students in your class have to do a final presentation on how they might do a public transportation analysis and how they would fix things. What would yours for Boston be?

I would allocate several million dollars for the state to give half a million each to Harvard, BU, MIT, and Northeastern. You would say to them, “Wipe the bus system totally clean and come up with a new bus system that works for Boston today.” Most people don’t realize that the bus system is the workhorse of the MBTA. The top 11 buses in the MBTA bus system carry more passengers per day than the entire commuter rail system.

I didn’t know that.

Nobody does.

Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

32 Comments

32 Comments on What If the Green Line Actually Worked?

  • ookbot on 02.20.2015 at 6:42 am

    Nice article. this guy understands the problem. Too bad people making the decisions don’t listen to people like him. The most important point this article pointed out is that city/state officials prefer to promote sexy projects instead of fixing problems. They do this because it promotes themselves. And most people seem to be blind to the fact that there are problems, so this works. But it’s terrible.

  • Former rider on 02.20.2015 at 7:27 am

    I subjected myself to the MBTA for about forty years before I finally gave up on it as a waste of life time. Commitment to service has never been foremost in this transit system, and that has always shown – never more so than in this winter. The Carmen’s Union is the tail wagging the dog, perpetually antagonistic toward the MBTA and wholly self-interested to the exclusion of service concerns and public safety. In terms of monetary waste, consider the many millions of dollars in equipment which has been destroyed by Carmen’s Union members whose addictions and physical conditions and distracted operation are virtually untouchable because of union solidarity. Then there is perpetual MBTA mismanagement, with gross waste and exorbitant & unearned salary payments often exposed by local news reporters. Contrast the MBTA with the properly run Toronto Transit Commission: Toronto has serious winters, too, but their system runs, because there is intelligence and competence exercised in planning and maintenance. The MBTA’s biggest, historic problem has been attitude, and conditions won’t improve until that is finally rectified.

  • BostonNeedRealSubway on 02.20.2015 at 8:34 am

    Professor just need to try the subway in Beijjng/Shanghai/Tokyo/Taipei etc. In those cities, you can really have a TRUE subway. And, I do not think snowstorms will affect the subway operation in those cities. More maintenance on Green line will only be a waste of more money. Green line need a replacement! If the doctor don’t operate, the disease will only be postponed not cured.

  • Donald E.Denniston on 02.20.2015 at 9:10 am

    To Former Rider:

    AMEN!!!!! Born and raised in Boston I know the T TOO WELL and this “fun and games” crap has been going on for YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEARS!!!!! The T reminds me Ira and George Gershwin song, “They All Laughed” (Ho ho ho who’s got the last laugh now)

    • Jose Artigas on 02.21.2015 at 7:26 pm

      Write on, Donald!

  • Tim on 02.20.2015 at 9:23 am

    He has some great points, but I’m suprised that he uses the green line extension as an example of misplaced priorities. The state is legally required to complete the extension and has delayed it for a very long time. Somerville filed a lawsuit in 2006 which pushed the project along, but it was supposed to be completed several months ago. The current schedule has it being completed in 2020 instead.

    • Jose Artigas on 02.21.2015 at 7:37 pm

      Prof. Regan is precisely on the mark regrading misplaced priorities. Green Line expansion should never have been favored over longterm maintenance. That decision, & the processes leading to others like it in future, need close critical scrutiny. It is not acceptable as a fait accompli, including legal commitments.

      • Nathanael on 07.15.2015 at 5:40 am

        Claiming that the Green Line extension was favored over longterm maintenance is simply a lie. A malicious lie.

        What happened was that the Big Dig highway tunnel was favored over both the Green Line extension and longterm maintenance.

        The Green Line extension is an obligation of the state government — an obligation because the Big Dig was illegal! The Big Dig was illegal unless compensating public transit improvements were made to counteract the massive pollution increases caused by the Big Dig.

        Trying to force the MBTA to pay for the Green Line extension was an offensive and illegal move by the state government. The state government eventually backed off and took responsibility for the Green Line.

        The Green Line extension does NOT compete for funding with longterm maintenance. The Big Dig bonds are what competed with longterm maintenance.

  • Someone from the old continent on 02.20.2015 at 9:25 am

    “Former Rider” put it perfectly. The problem of the T is the attitude.
    Yes, the MBTA needs more money. Yes, we should/could raise taxes ($1/Gal of State taxes on gas, instead of the actual $0.24/Gal, would be bearable; highway tolls are the lowest across any developed country, etc…). But why can’t the MBTA allocate money elsewhere too? The answer is called “Pacheco Law”, which Prof. Regan failed to mention. The Pacheco Law, for which the unions lobbied as hard as it is humanly possible, prohibits any interaction between the MBTA (or other similar public agencies) and private investors. E.g.: The orange line needs an update. The communities of Charlestown, Chelsea and Everett need more than buses. A casino is being built. The State gave “Mr. Winn” permission to build in exchange for A LOT of money to improve traffic conditions and clean the area from the chemical contamination. The MBTA could take a share of Winn’s money and build a second orange line branch, replace the old trains and invest in fixing the signals. Or not? No, the MBTA cannot; it would be ILLEGAL for the MBTA to do so. That would be a deal which would benefit three major communities, the MBTA and the commuters, and bring more customers to Winn Resort as well. A win-win deal. But the unions forbid it.
    The joke about the aging fleet instead is only a lame excuse. The fleet is aging but it is hardly the oldest around. In the old world (aka Europe), there are fleets with historic trains, which still circulate daily. Milan’s subway has trains from the ’50s; the tram system has three models in operation: The modern Sirietto trains, the Jumbo trains (from the late ’70s) and the Ventotto (Italian for “twenty-eight”), so called because they were put in operation in 1928! They still work perfectly because the proper maintenance is performed daily overnight. I have spoken with some of those operators; they talk about those old cars as if they were talking about their own children, they proudly show you their favorite car and how it works. There are stories of operators crying when leaving their cars for retirement! The T operators instead threaten to call the cops on you if you dare to complain that they have no excuses to be 15-minutes late at 6am.
    I am a European social-democrat of Brandtian style, but here the guilt of the unions is evident! These are sloppy, careless people who are overpaid (why are they paid as much as the NYC’s MTA’s employees if they perform considerably worse?) and focused only on maintaining the status quo of their benefits and privileges. The fix the T needs is a new agency which can work within the market rules. Guide it through a well planned bankruptcy, have the State absorb the current debt, repeal (or amend) the Pacheco Law, and finally create a brand new agency with a union that cares about safety and workers rights (instead of management and politics) and a management led by internationally recognized people who can run it as a State-owned but market-based company.
    This will never happen, because people with an attitude are also too proud to admit they failed. Instead, the MBTA will keep begging for more tax-dollars to waste. This analysis by Prof. Regan is deeply disappointing as it lacks of the basic historic truths about the agency. And anyways, the best subway line is not the most fun one!
    I suggest instead this article from the Boston Globe, which is more balanced and historically accurate: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/02/14/transportation/U7vNqP861gKQFRly2jmjdL/story.html?hootPostID=13d6f2643e96b7d21ae3232fac8f31e8

    • Jose Artigas on 02.21.2015 at 8:09 pm

      It’s disappointing that someone from Europe falls back on the (bad) old American catchall explanation: blame the unions.

      It is the job of unions to advocate for their members. Not just the whole organization, but individuals too. To do otherwise would be negligent. Old Continent cites no examples, though anti-union horror stories circulate regularly. But the hoary anecdotes about bad union workers are stray bits of data that prove nothing, except possibly the bias of those who cite them. I’ve belonged to several unions over the years, & the vast majority of members are very conscientious about doing their jobs, & also think & act like the public-spirited citizens they are.

      As US unions have declined over the last four decades so has the middle class. No unions, no middle class. And still, some people say that unions & collective bargaining must go, & (for teachers) tenure is bad too. That’s like assuming that the best way to avoid rotten apples is to cut down the entire orchard. No thank you!

  • Question on 02.20.2015 at 9:27 am

    Massachusetts is larger than the area covered by transportation system. Do tax payers in those non-covered areas want to pay additional taxes to cover the needs of their neighbors? What if their neighbors are poorer and don’t pay as much so the tax burden falls on people not using the service? Would those people elect officials who want to put additional taxes on citizens not using the services they are paying for? Is it government, or the collective, voting, public that decides (whether they realize it or not) through voting what they want /are willing to pay for?

  • Luca D'Alessio on 02.20.2015 at 9:28 am

    “But I haven’t heard a single person in power say we should have to raise taxes or fees to provide the system with more money.”

    Actually, the fees for the MBTA were raised 2 years ago and apparently it did not do any good. The problem is twofold:
    1) the MBTA would do fine economically if there were not a gigantic debt (due to the Big Dig) and the interest to pay on that debt. The city should pay off the Big Dig debt.
    2) Mass transportation is a service to the city (like police or firefighters) and, in my opinion, the should be paid from the taxes and not from the passangers. I would even advocate for a completely free public transportation. The cost of the service is small compared to the benefit that the city would experience (for example reduction of cars on the road, traffic congestions etc).

    • Nathanael on 07.15.2015 at 5:41 am

      The Big Dig debt is the big problem. That debt is the state government’s fault, pretty much entirely.

  • Ida on 02.20.2015 at 10:10 am

    Very interesting!

  • Matt Mitchener on 02.20.2015 at 10:24 am

    I know it’s complicated issue to fix the Green lines, but here’s my 2cents on a cheaper alternative:

    Replace the above-ground sections of the B and C lines with Buses routes. Use the extra space where the rails were to create more driving and bike lanes. This would reduce traffic congestion on Comm ave and Beacon st and wouldn’t require $400 mil to replace an entire fleet of ancient Green line trains.

    • Sam Winston on 02.20.2015 at 12:02 pm

      Oh, no, no, no, no. Buses instead of rail is never the solution. Both Comm Ave and Beacon are so congested as it is and streets cannot be widened because of the existing structures on either side of the streets. Adding bus lines instead of rail, much less REPLACING rail lines with buses, are absolutely never the answer. That would be an abject disaster.

  • Bryan King on 02.20.2015 at 11:44 am

    We’ve been trying to get commuter rail service extended into New Hampshire via the Lowell Line for at least 30 years. New Hampshire funded a study and has defined that its feasible to extend the line as far north as Manchester. I would be disappointed to see that effort stopped in its tracks (pardon the pun) yet again if commuter rail expansions are halted. I used to take the train from Lowell into North Station every day to work in Cambridge in the mid 1990’s. I grew up in Norwood and took the train from Norwood and Canton into South Station for school and work in the 1980’s. Rather than building more highways, we should be investing in public transportation. Highways get clogged with cars and trucks and reach maximum capacity a few years after expansion. Why can’t we have a world class public transportation system in the Northeast Corridor (PORTLAND, ME to Richmond, VA) that rivals those in Japan and Europe??

    • Sam Winston on 02.20.2015 at 12:04 pm

      Everyone would like for service to be extended, but how can we focus on extending lines further when the existing ones cannot fun functionally, even in normal weather? The Green Line can barely handle a Red Sox game on a work day, so we should focus on extending a Commuter Rail line up to New Hampshire?

      • Bryan King on 02.20.2015 at 2:09 pm

        The tracks are owned by Pan Am Railways and New Hampshire would build stations plus equipment (locomotives and passenger cars) to run trains into North Station. Federal Government funding is available for a majority of the work to upgrade tracks to passenger rail service north of Lowell, build stations and help with buying the equipment. MBTA doesn’t even operate the commuter rail lines. They are contracted out to Keolis, a French firm that operates tail transit systems in Europe.

        The connection between MBTA Commuter Rail and rapid transit is North Station/South Station/Back Bay Stations. They are separate networks and operate separate sets of equipment.

  • David Janey on 02.20.2015 at 12:24 pm

    I don’t believe expansion initiatives are motivated by policy makers desire for self-promotion, but by a desire to expand the political base of support for public transportation. Understandable, given the climate of indifference to public transit needs as illustrated by the recent voter rejection of an indexed gas tax. Unfortunately, the system is in critical need of basic maintenance and updating, as this author points out; it’s rotting from the core. Objections to making the necessary investments often include complaints about management inefficiencies, but the truth is that both (investment and reform) are needed and the legislature should advance a single proposal that includes ample quantities of both.

  • Chris MacRae on 02.20.2015 at 1:42 pm

    I try to avoid taking the when at all possible.
    My one thought anout the BU shuttle would be to break it into two different routes: have one continuous loop along Comm ave, and then a different route from Kenmore to the medical campus.

  • ookbot on 02.20.2015 at 4:06 pm

    Raise taxes! Are you kidding me? How about we demand that they use our tax dollars for some good instead of using them so inefficiently. And it’s not like we are paying taxes and the ride on the T is free. What happened to demanding something that works in exchange for the money you are paying? Have we become so complacent in this city? The reason the metro works well in other places is because the people demand it and there are better government and transportation officials. And in the huge cities, they would collapse without it. Do we need to come to that for people to start demanding more for their money?

    • Jose Artigas on 02.21.2015 at 7:58 pm

      “they would collapse without it. Do we need to come to that…?”

      We have come to collapse this month. What’s needed is the political will to force the pace of change. Let’s stop poking our electronic devices long enough to positively shape public policy.

  • Kiril on 02.20.2015 at 5:02 pm

    I think that it is interesting that the top Green Line improvements Prof Regan suggested (time the signals and consolidate stations) do not seem to take large investments. Is it possible that the transit system could be highly improved just by better execution and attention to detail?

    Sure large investments would be nice, but lack of large chunks of new capital should not be an excuse for lack-luster management. I’d say let’s find a new team that can work enthusiastically within the current constraints.

    Kiril

  • Expect More on 02.20.2015 at 5:15 pm

    The infrastructure is old the city has changed of course, but for years our elected officials have benefited politically from expansion promises while kicking the issue of maintenance and funding down the road.

    As for the worker contracts, it’s time for a wake up call. While many T employees certainly work hard and under unenviable conditions, the exorbitant salaries and retirement benefits are unsustainable. For a system that is desperately lacking in funds, it is utterly absurd for so many people to be making six figure salaries while retiring with lifetime benefits in their early 50s. People deserve a living wage, but the T is handing out money at twice the market rate. You can find the salaries of T employees here:

    http://www.mbta.com/uploadedfiles/Smart_Forms/News,_Events_and_Press_Releases/Wages2014.pdf

    • James on 02.25.2015 at 6:33 pm

      These wages are obscene. Bus drivers with a high school degree (sometimes with very limited English) are making $60-$80K a year, while adjunct professors are struggling, and failing, to get by on $18K with no benefits. This sort of corruption and misplaced values makes me deeply ashamed of this city and this country.

  • Calypso 53 on 02.20.2015 at 5:20 pm

    He understands the hardware, what he doesn’t understand is the management and labor costs. The MBTA is a cesspool of cronyism, nepotism and waste. We pay bus drivers $125,000/year. Street car cleaners $69,000/year. Who gets those jobs? Guess. MBTA management has thrown money at the unions, at the request of the legislature, and neglected the infrastructure. Before one dime of additional taxpayer money is thrown at this program the system needs to go into state receivership, the present contracts must be broken and fiscal sanity restored to the operation. Once the operation has been fixed and a plan for infrastructure investment developed, then we can talk about the possible need to develop additional revenue. Let’s not forget that over the past ten years, MBTA management has purchased hundreds of millions of dollars of new equipment that was broken when received, impossible to maintain because of ridiculous design demands and were failed upon receipt. Clean house, then we can talk.

  • Rick on 02.21.2015 at 7:38 am

    I think there is another Somerville expansion project that merits criticism here – the 30 million dollar Assembly Row debacle. It’s the new stop on the Orange Line named Assembly that took years to build (orange line passengers had to be shuttled on weekends for over a year which cost millions in itself). I live on the Orange Line and take it every day. Nobody ever gets of at the new 30 million dollar T stop. I mean, once in a while a couple people get off but this T stop is one of the most underutilized on the Orange line. Why? Everyone drives to the outlet malls/cinema at Assembly Row – it’s always packed there but people are not taking the T. What makes this waste even more egregious is that there are already 2 Orange line T stops, Sullivan and Wellington to which Assembly Row is walkable! I always walk to Assembly Row from Wellington anyway.
    I ride the Orange line every day and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hear someone muttering about Assembly Row, sometimes it’s “I’m glad we spent millions on a stop nobody ever uses” and lately, the mantra is “Why couldn’t the MBTA invest 25 million in a new propulsion system for some of the trains!” The riders on the T get it – I just wish someone was listening!

    • Nathanael on 07.15.2015 at 5:43 am

      The MBTA didn’t pay for that station — a developer paid for it out of pocket.

      Nobody seems to do their research, do they?

  • Amy on 02.23.2015 at 3:11 pm

    As a T commuter, I take the both the Mattapan trolley and the Ashmont branch of the Red line daily. I couldn’t agree more that the trolley is the best part of the MBTA. It is, however, a problem that the cars can be described as “rickety.” Even worse, they seem to be the most reliable trains in the system.

  • Transit Fanatic on 02.24.2015 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks so much for the insights, Mr. Regan! I really enjoyed your perspective. I too make a point to tour the transit systems of the cities I visit! I love learning how different cities move. Having lived in a number of cities along the Northeast corridor, I have to ask: why do you believe that Philadelphia and Boston’s transit systems are superior to DC’s? The transfer opportunities and reach of the DC Metro system are far more extensive than the T. And, though Philadelphia has decent bus and regional transit coverage, its urban train and light rail infrastructure leaves much to be desired. Plus, the diversity of DC’s transit options (bus, trolley, subway, circulator, etc.) provides many different options for different needs and budgets, which Philly’s and Boston’s systems don’t really do. Can you please explain your thinking?

  • Huge fan!!1! on 02.25.2015 at 1:41 pm

    DAAAANNNNNNNII!!!!!!!! a TRUE boston university legend.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)