Wall Street Journal: Boston Tries to Head Off Another Winter Transit Meltdown

Boston Tries to Head Off Another Winter Transit Meltdown
By Jon Kamp

MALDEN, Mass.—On a muggy, summer weeknight here, workers were preparing for winter: Riding a specially modified truck along tracks that carry subway trains to Boston, they planned to upgrade thin heating elements that melt snow off the third rail.

Such fortifications for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known locally as the T, are part of an $83.7 million triage plan launched after record-breaking snowfall triggered major failures on the nation’s fifth-largest transit system early this year. Area residents rely on the sprawling network of trains, buses and boats for 1.3 million daily rides.

A poststorm investigation launched by new Republican Gov. Charlie Baker found a fragile transit agency with chronic problems behind the poor performance. The findings prompted his push for both long-term changes and near-term fixes to avoid another winter meltdown.

“This winter was a stress test for the MBTA, and it failed,” said Stephanie Pollack, the state transportation secretary that Mr. Baker appointed in January.

More than 9 feet of snow dumped on Boston during the season, mostly in a brutal stretch between late January and mid-February that highlighted the vulnerability of the nation’s aging, big-city infrastructure. The Boston transit system shut completely for some storms, and when it did operate, it was often limping along with subway cars sidelined by outdated electric motors that inhaled snow, or because key track components were frozen. Local prison inmates were called in to hand-shovel badly buried rail lines.

Most of Boston’s subway lines run outside at ground level when not in the city core, unlike big cold-weather cities like Chicago and New York whose aboveground tracks are more likely to be on elevated structures and less vulnerable to snow buildup.

The snow fallout hampered Boston travelers through March, when the hard-hit commuter rail lines that radiate far beyond the city finally returned to full service. Keolis Commuter Services, a unit of France’s Keolis SA that operates the commuter-rail system, drew penalties for missing performance benchmarks, and it has pledged improvements.

The governor’s review panel identified many structural and financial problems at the T, including a shortfall of at least $6.7 billion needed to upgrade the system. The T’s older subway cars, some from the late 1960s, fared particularly poorly in the heavy snow. New trains are on order but still years away. The system is in “severe financial distress,” the governor’s probe found.

Such challenges aren’t unique to Boston, home of the first U.S. subway line. The U.S. Transportation Department estimated in 2013 an $86.6 billion nationwide maintenance backlog on transit trains and buses, and said the hole is getting deeper. Big-city transit systems like Boston’s are the primary contributors to that deficit, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

But the governor’s probe also found other signs of dysfunction within Boston’s transit agency. These included frequent leadership changes—the T’s former general manager abruptly stepped down shortly after the winter mayhem—slow timelines for major improvement projects and trouble spending available capital funds.

Local transit advocates broadly agree Boston needs a major transit upgrade, but disagree with some of state’s diagnoses and prescriptions. They want more emphasis on plugging the T’s financial holes and said transit officials are forced to make tough decisions with limited resources.

“You need more money and you need reforms,” said Rafael Mares, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, a regional environmental group.

State actions thus far have focused on oversight. The budget passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature last month included some changes the governor sought, including adding a new financial and management oversight board for the T. He also won a three-year reprieve from a law that put up hurdles to potentially privatizing some services.

Mr. Baker said he believes structural changes must come first, and he said he was surprised by the T’s past troubles spending available funds.

“Until we deal with those issues, I’m not interested in talking about other revenue sources,” the governor said in an interview.

Meanwhile, the transit agency is forging ahead to get ready for cold weather. Fixes include replacing or upgrading power-delivering third rails on subway lines that fared the worst last winter, installing snow fences, buying new plows and beefing up the stock of replacement electric motors.

“There’s a sense of urgency,” said Frank DePaola, the T’s interim general manager since February.

On the Orange Line, which features heavily rusted trains dating back to the disco era, chronic motor troubles contributed to severe disruptions last winter. Riders will have to live with those trains for several more years, but track workers are actively installing third-rail heaters to try to improve service in the snow.

Michaela Bucklin-Lane, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Boston and regular Orange Line rider, said she hopes the winter woes will trigger real upgrades for the vital, creaky system.

“I think we take it for granted sometimes,” Ms. Bucklin-Lane said, before boarding a train for her morning commute.

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