Is the MBTA on track?

In the real world, funding is only an issue; politics is the most persistent problem
By EDITORIAL  |  April 30, 2008


Smells like T spirit!
Boston’s mass-transit system dates back to 1631, when sailboats ferried passengers from Chelsea to Charlestown. In the subsequent 377 years, service has become a teeny bit faster — but at a price that has put the MBTA in debt to a tune of more than $8 billion. With transportation issues getting renewed scrutiny under the Patrick administration, Phoenix staffers fanned out to kick the T’s tires.

• The trolley Svengali: Why Dan Grabauskas might actually fix the T — if he can keep his job. By Adam Reilly.
• Trouble 'round the bend? MBTA workers have been without a contract for two years. Arbitration will settle the matter soon, but could stir an angry hornets’ nest for 2010. By David S. Bernstein
• Seven habits of highly effective T-riders: Keep your hands on the pole and not on your neighbor’s ass, bucko. By Sharon Steel.
• The T and the Tube: London’s Underground is seething with danger. Boston’s T has cuckoo juice. By James Parker.
• Underground art: Reviewing the MBTA’s subterranean aesthetic. By Mike Miliard.
A sinking feeling: Leaky MBTA tunnels have been seeping Boston’s groundwater for years. Can a new plan prevent potential catastrophe? By David S. Bernstein
• State of hock: If the MBTA wasn't in debt, these items would be at the top of its new wish list. By Jason Notte.

It must be something in the air. Or the water. Maybe it is our Puritan heritage. Whatever the reason, Bostonians love to criticize, to complain. If there is an upside to the local culture of negativity, it might be that it keeps everyone on their toes.

As targets for criticism go, it is hard to imagine one more inviting than the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, better known as the MBTA, best known as the T. That such a sprawling system is nearly universally recognized by a single letter is a testimony to its ubiquity. It also suggests the central role the T plays in so many lives.

As with other institutions that protect or foster the common good — schools, police departments, fire stations — Boston was an innovator, a pioneer in providing mass transport. The American Public Transportation Association credits Boston with the nation’s first publicly operated ferryboat (1631), first commuter fare on a railroad (1838), first fare-free promotion (1856), first public-transportation commission (1894), first electric underground street railway line (1897), and first publicly financed transportation facility (1897).

While the community can take pride in the past, pride will not help the region navigate the future. We are building on century-old infrastructure and can not lose site of that.

With gasoline prices skyrocketing, and unlikely to go lower, and recognition of the importance of global warming finally penetrating the national consciousness, the MBTA is of more central importance than ever before.

The special report in this edition of the Phoenix is rooted in that assumption, and looks at issues both large and small. In some cases the articles are analytical; in other cases whimsical. But if there is a bottom line to be found in the Phoenix survey, it is this: all things considered, the MBTA is doing a pretty good job. The question is: how can it do better?

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Related: Patrick's latest train wreck, The truth behind the MBTA fare hike, Search party, More more >
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