Media Statement - NSRL Feasibility Reassessment

The MBTA’s cost estimate for the North South Rail Link (NSRL), released yesterday, is the most recent in a series of estimates for this project.  Those estimates, from under $4 billion to over $20 billion, run the gamut of construction methods, infrastructure choices, and cost assumptions. These huge disparities underscore that cost estimates for major infrastructure projects have to be assessed based on their underlying assumptions.  TransitMatters believes that there are many reasons yesterday’s cost estimates are as large as they are, not least the assumptions and selective comparisons employed by the MBTA’s consultant. 

In our report on Regional Rail (excluding the NSRL) we estimated the cost range of systemwide electrification, high platforms to enable level boarding, and strategic capacity improvements at bottlenecks to be about $2 to 3 billion. We stand by that estimate and do not believe the electrification and rolling stock costs estimated in yesterday’s MBTA presentation are consistent with the most relevant and appropriate comparative examples of which we are aware.  

We read yesterday’s presentation to the Fiscal Management and Control Board as an affirmation of our view that South Station expansion (SSX) should not move forward – it is, by any measure, too little bang for way too much buck.  The MBTA’s consultant now estimates SSX will cost $4.7 billion, money that simply does not need to be spent in order to improve the functionality of existing tracks at South Station. There are other, much lower cost approaches to improving operations at South Station as we indicated in our Regional Rail report, and we will offer more a more detailed roadmap to doing that in a follow-up report we expect to release in the early fall.

With regard to NSRL itself, we stated in our report, and repeat here: “cost estimates for NSRL, undertaken by MassDOT consultants and independent third parties, significantly vary in range. These variances often are attributable to consultants not comparing like-to-like or using different methodologies. The reality is that actual costs can vary greatly depending on the quality and complexity of project designs, labor costs, and many other factors. Massachusetts has learned valuable lessons in cost containment through its recent Green Line Extension experience, and we would expect the same rigorous approach to providing maximum value for reasonable cost to apply here as well.”

TransitMatters continues to believe that the only route forward for the MBTA is to advance a transition to Regional Rail, an electrified intercity rail system with frequent service during the day. The Regional Rail model is critical. While not critical to implementing a Regional Rail system, the NSRL would be a highly useful enhancement providing the flexibility and connectivity to which many riders and potential riders would be drawn. We hope and expect that a candid and open-minded conversation on both of these initiatives will continue.

Without a commitment to a new Business Model for intercity rail, our region will continue to experience crippling traffic congestion and people will be deprived of the kind of access to jobs and opportunity that is necessary for a thriving economy and decent quality of life.  We look forward to collaborating with the MBTA and all stakeholders as we make Regional Rail a reality.

Media Statement - NightBus Overnight Bus Service Pilot

TransitMatters is grateful for today’s action by the FMCB to advance the NightBus overnight bus service pilot. We began our advocacy for NightBus in early 2016, developing what we believed was a cost-effective response to the MBTA’s decision to end the prior late night service. Over time we were joined by dedicated municipal co-sponsors from Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Revere and Chelsea. Our collaboration with an equally committed MBTA staff has led to this milestone achievement. Overnight bus transit in Greater Boston, open to all but designed primarily around the transit needs of the late night and early morning workers, needed to keep our city running; in short: NightBus will respond to the economic realities of a city and region that functions on a 24/7 basis.

It has been a long road since we first brought our NightBus concept to the T in March 2016 and now we are close to seeing the tangible results of that effort. Our thanks are extended to the FMCB, MBTA staff, the City of Boston & our other municipal co-sponsors, and all who supported us. We look forward to continued collaboration to provide the transit service people need, want and deserve in a city and region that never stops working.

Media Statement - Regional Rail Report

Today, transit advocacy group TransitMatters released its report calling for modernization of the MBTA Commuter Rail network and an updated business model as part of a larger reimagining of the service. ‘Massachusetts should commit to transitioning from its current Commuter Rail system to a Regional Rail system that offers frequent all day intercity rail service provided by clean electric-powered locomotives’, according to the report.

At a Beacon Hill press conference, TransitMatters President and co-founder Marc Ebuña said, “Our current Commuter Rail system is a vestige of mid-20th Century thinking, based on an antiquated assumption about the kind of mobility choices people expect to have. Many people today do not have 9 to 5 jobs; they require more flexibility from their transit system. Regional Rail offers that flexibility.”

The Regional Rail system recommended by TransitMatters is described in the report as “a reliable and more cost-effective intercity rail system based on a 21st century business model...operating more like a subway service with level platforms and frequent service all day.”  TransitMatters identified five critical components to the Regional Rail business plan: (1) systemwide electrification, (2) high platforms allowing faster and accessible boarding, (3) strategic infrastructure investments to maximize speed and reliability, (4) frequent all-day service – every half hour in the suburbs, every fifteen minutes in denser urban neighborhoods, and (5) fare rationalization, including free transfers between regional trains, subways and buses.

Board member Jarred Johnson explained that the recommendations for a new approach to providing intercity rail service “responds to the way people live today. We are doing our economy and our residents a disservice by continuing to operate and plan for an outdated Commuter Rail system. Our Regional Rail plan takes lessons learned from proven best practices across the US and globally, and offers a highly cost-effective approach to transitioning to a new system.”

According to the group, Regional Rail can begin with affordable pilots projects on the Providence Line — the Commuter Rail’s only electrified line — and the Fairmount Line. The group’s plan proposes cost-effective pilots for these lines as a way to prove the efficacy of the approach and to provide better service and social and environmental justice to Fairmount Line riders and corridor residents.

TransitMatters Board member Tim Lawrence observed that the report responds to the legitimate concern of the MBTA’s FMCB, that the current Commuter Rail system, carries too few riders at too high a cost. “We agree with that assessment,” said Lawrence. “Our plan for Regional Rail addresses this head on — by offering not just a vision, but a new business model. It’s that business model that will be a game changer, moving us away from the unacceptable status quo, and making our intercity rail system operate in a cost-effective, rider-responsive manner.”

The Regional Rail report can be downloaded from

MBTA Ridership Increased 15 Percent Since 2004: T is more crowded than ever

A review of daily passenger statistics published by the MBTA shows that ridership has skyrocketed. Ridership on the subways and trolleys is up over 20 percent in just ten years.

This confirms what we all know: the service is slower, more crowded and less reliable than ever. Our best transit services, the Red and Orange Lines, now see an astonishing 30 percent more riders than in 2004, yet both lines operate almost exactly the same number of trains today.

Source: MBTA Bluebook

Source: MBTA Bluebook

** Important Notes:
(1) These numbers obscure fare increases and service cuts that have hurt ridership, especially on buses, ferries and "contracted bus" lines.
(2) Bus ridership varies by route. Many have seen increases over 20 percent.
(3) Commuter Rail ridership counts are likely inaccurate. CR has been subjected to significant fare increases and now costs less than driving in most places. 
(4) Green Line counts are lower than actual ridership because of unknown numbers of passengers entering via the rear doors. Overcrowding prevents ridership growth.

None of this is news to regular riders. Our failure to invest in system upgrades causes frequent delays, breakdowns, and overcrowding, as well as increased traffic congestion which delays buses so much that planners now routinely lengthen scheduled bus travel times. (Given the same number of available buses and drivers, that means fewer trips.)

However, the T's Control Board has repeatedly described ridership as "basically flat" when lamenting rising costs. T Spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said, “It seems fair to characterize less than 1 percent average annual growth as flat.”

Instead of downplaying the impacts of our transit network, to which many hardworking employees dedicate their careers, MBTA officials should be trumpeting soaring ridership as evidence of the importance of transit and the need to upgrade it to meet the needs of our rapidly growing region. No major investments have been made to the system’s core since the 1980s and we're feeling the consequences of our shortsightedness. If we don’t start investing now, the problem will only get worse, and it will only cost more when we eventually decide to expand and maintain our critical infrastructure.

The Frontier Group's Tony Dutzik did a similar analysis and goes into more detail on the impacts of housing and commercial growth as well as comparisons with other large cities. As he reminds us, these large increases in ridership come despite repeated fare increases, service cuts and declining service quality. If we made some investments in the system, ridership would increase even more. 

Instead, we're looking at more fare increases and service cuts without any hope of real reforms or revenue. Let the T know they should stand up for the truth and develop a real plan for major service improvements.

Podcast 22 - MBTA Raising Fares Again, Overtime Lies, Challenges and Opportunities

The MBTA fare increase proposals (presentation, summary) are unnecessary and not even helpful in closing the budget gap. This is the latest example to the way the Fiscal & Management Control Board is using misleading statistics to support an ideological agenda that has never worked. What happened to being visionary and taking a fresh look?

Short of major investment -- which is needed more than ever -- many simple changes could improve the user experience and help alleviate capacity constraints. For example:

  1. The transfer policy could allow unlimited use within 2 hours (instead of the current one-transfer limit) to offer new options for shorter trips, increase ridership, reduce congestion downtown and save money.
  2. All-door boarding on buses and trolleys means faster trips, more frequent service, lower fare evasion and operating cost savings.
  3. Expanding Zone 1A on Commuter Rail to all Boston stations as well as Waltham and Lynn would offer fast service for thousands of low-income riders while reducing operating costs.
  4. Many low-cost changes such as upgrading bus stops, stations and terminals would improve service quality and increase ridership.

UPDATE: See our Fares & Service fact sheet (the longer version is here).

All this and more in this week's show, recorded in the WMBR studio at MIT in Cambridge. Marc offers some insights from this year's TransportationCamp DC on how regional governance could address some of our management challenges, and former T General Manager Beverly Scott was there. We hear a little bit from the growing transit advocacy network, as organizations like TransitMatters start to pop up in cities across the country.

The Transit Matters Podcast is your source for transportation news, analysis, interviews with transit advocates and more. By offering new perspectives, uniting transit advocates and promoting a level of critical analysis normally absent from other media, we can achieve a useful and effective transportation network because Transit Matters.

Like what you hear? Share it around, tell your friends and colleagues, and subscribe to the blog and podcast (on iTunes) to be notified of new posts and episodes. Support our work by becoming a member, making a donation or signing up to volunteer because we can't do this alone. Let us know what you think by connect with TransitMatters on Facebook or Twitter. Follow Jeremy Mendelson @Critical Transit, Josh Fairchild @hatchback31, Jarred Johnson at @jarjoh, Marc Ebuña at @DigitalSciGuy, and or email us here.

Podcast 12 - MBTA Panel Report

We debate the recent MBTA report (PDF | Globe) commissioned by Governor Baker. Is it accurate? Are it's recommendations sound? What will happen now? Will we find new revenue sources and ways to improve transit, or will riders be forced to pay more for the same lousy service? These questions and many more from your trusted transit enthusiasts.

We'd love to hear what you think of the report. Did one of us get it completely wrong? Send us your questions, comments and ideas for topics or guests  Or share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Transit Matters Podcast is your source for transportation news, analysis, interviews and more. We focus on sustainable transportation planning, operations and policies in Boston and beyond. Transit Matters is a joint project of local transit advocates Marc Ebuña, Jeremy Mendelson and Josh Fairchild.

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Looking for more transit content? Check out the redesigned Critical Transit with a full archive of past shows.

Podcast 10 - Fixing the T: immediate and medium-term solutions

Podcast 10 - Fixing the T: immediate and medium-term solutions

The collapse of Boston's long-neglected transit system has dominated the news this week along with calls for more MBTA funding, but no action has been taken and the General Manager unexpectedly quit after receiving a unanimous vote of confidence. The city remains gridlocked and our only "solution" has been to truck snow out to the suburbs. Governor Baker called for another study to reach the same conclusions as all the previous studies. No amount of "reform" or new management is going to make up for inadequate revenue, and if the state continues to neglect the lifeblood of our economy, perhaps cities will be forced to unite in taxing themselves. There may also be some real estate revenue opportunities. We debunk myths about system expansion, transportation inequity and other uninformed opinions people are spouting in the media and on Beacon Hill.

For now, an emergency transit plan is needed. We're talking immediate and radical changes, working with the state and other cities to have a transportation plan so that the city can keep moving when the T fails (which we know will continue to happen). The trials of the past month should make clear how the T impacts everyone in the region, not just riders, and can be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate transit priority measures that we should have all the time. Currently suburbanites can drive into downtown faster than many Boston residents can get downtown; we think that needs to change.