What the Heck Is Wrong With Boston’s MBTA?

Last week, the engine on one of Boston’s Orange Line trains overheated and ignited some trash, filling traincars with smoke. Passengers broke windows to escape. Three people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

An MBTA Orange Line train caught fire last week in Boston. Photo: JIlly Sull
An MBTA Orange Line train caught fire last week in Boston. Photo: Jilly Sull

The scare focused attention on long-standing maintenance problems for the T: It’s underfunded, upkeep is falling behind, and the quality of service is suffering. Orange Line trains, many of which are three decades old, were in line for replacement later this year. Not soon enough to prevent last week’s meltdown.

The MBTA is mired in debt and has a $7.3 billion repair backlog. Following the Orange Line debacle, Mayor Marty Walsh called for a new funding source.

“The problem we have is a problem of literally decades of disinvestment,” former Massachusetts DOT director Jim Aloisi told Streetsblog.

The MBTA operates the nation’s fifth-largest transit system, serving about 1.3 million trips per day. And ridership has been growing rapidly.

But state and local support for the MBTA is far below what peer agencies receive, according to TransitCenter, leaving the agency at the whim of federal funding sources. Compared to New York’s MTA, for example, the share of the agency’s capital budget that comes from federal sources is nearly two-thirds higher. If state and local support for MBTA capital expenses were proportional to the MTA, it would add $3 billion to the agency’s five-year capital budget.

Boston's MBTA is much more reliant on federal funding than New York's MTA. Graphs: TransitCenter
Boston’s MBTA is much more reliant on federal funding than New York’s MTA. Graphic: TransitCenter

While funding issues may not account for all of the MBTA’s troubles, they explain a lot. And the origins of the problem go back a long way.

An internal MBTA report from 2009 said the agency was “born broke” and remains stuck in a “financial quagmire.” In 2000, the state legislature passed a law called “Forward Funding” that took the MBTA off the state’s books and established a separate funding stream — a one-cent, statewide sales tax. As part of the transition, $3.3 billion in debt was transferred from the state to the MBTA.

Revenue from the sales tax barely grew in the 2000s, averaging about a 1 percent annual increase, compared to 6.5 percent in the 1990s, according to the report. Short of funds, the MBTA delayed maintenance and refinanced its debt, in some cases trading lower principal payments for higher rates.

By 2015, 22 percent of the agency’s budget was going to debt service. In other words, nearly a quarter of the MBTA’s operating budget could not be spent on providing bus and train service.

The 2009 report called for the state to relieve the MBTA of the original $3.3 billion in debt transferred to its books, about half of which was incurred by transit improvements the state had to build in order to proceed with the “Big Dig” highway tunnel project.

Aloisi thinks that debt relief would be a good start. And some conservatives in the state, like the Pioneer Institute, agree (albeit with a lot of strings attached).

Several governors have come and gone without addressing the MBTA’s structural budget problems. And current governor Charlie Baker doesn’t seem inclined to take action. After the Orange Line fire, he blamed the mess solely on “protocol issues,” not the MBTA’s maintenance backlog.

To give the Boston region the transit system it deserves, says Aloisi, the state will have to think bigger. Options like a parking tax or a tax on driving mileage, with revenues devoted to transit, should be considered, he said.

“We have a long way to go in Massachusetts before we have a transportation system that reflects our values and our needs,” he said.

35 thoughts on What the Heck Is Wrong With Boston’s MBTA?

  1. A bit of technical information, if I may: Boston Orange Line trains are electric multiple unit rapid transit cars. They have electric motors, not engines. One possibility is that the trash got into the resistor grids (used in older electric cars) that limit current to the motors. Or one of the motors could have overheated. We’re seeing where not paying attention to maintenance is hurting BART and the DC Metro system. Repairs and replacements aren’t as newsworthy as groundbreakings, golden spike (or track clip) poundings and ribbon cuttings, but sooner or later most things wear out, and they’ll bite you in the behind if they’re not replaced in a timely manner. To quote an old commercial for automotive oil filters, in which a mechanic says, “You can pay me now (for a new filter) or pay me later (for a rebuilt engine).

  2. Another little bit of information, the electric traction MOTORS used to be rebuilt by MBTA machinists, but have been outsourcedar to a private company. We had much less failures when rebuilt in house.

  3. Is American English, GM puts engines in cars. Engines generate their own power from fuel, motors require and external source of power (normally electrical, but may also be pneumatic or hydraulic) that they convert into mechanical motion.

  4. Well, Republicans *always* pile debt up, at least since Reagan. They’re the party of reckless borrowing. Charlie Baker is a typical borrow-and-spend Republican, and Weld, Celluci, Swift, and Romney were too.

    To be fair, Deval Patrick didn’t fix the mess either.

  5. So they mean the same now? Like in super man. A world engine

    Or the disease motor neuron. Can it be called engine neuron?

    And a motor cycle can be called an engine cycle. Ok

  6. What about a steam engine. It use coal or wood to make steam and the to make pressure. There is no combustion.

  7. a machine, especially one powered by electricity or internal combustion, that supplies motive power for a vehicle or for some other device with moving parts.

    Funny this is the definition except when they sound stupid. Like engine cycle

  8. Did you get my answer yet?? I’ve looked it up and the words have become interchangeable over the years. So you call it what ever you want How about a rocket motor?

  9. In summary, botched Big Dig mitigation under Mike Dukakis. I can’t go through the full run down, but the MBTA found itself with over $20 Billion in debt. Since then, the agency has seen a collection of poorly prepared leaders with horrible plans. Aloisi, who was secretary for less than a year put comments about Boston transportation as if he had a impeccable 20-year tenure, was shown the door after a poorly conceived 28X BRT plan by ITDP. The current secretary, Stephanie Pollack, is pooling together $4 Billion for a trolley extension project in Boston’s suburbs known as the Green Line Extension by cutting service in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Roxbury, Mattapan, Allston, etc. The state just hired a Green Line Extension project manager at an astronomical salary named John Dalton. He brings with him the same controversial tactics from Chicago. John Dalton botched the city’s Brown Line project in the 2000s, and the city now has to patch up issues across the line. Plus, the Brown Line, which runs through Chicago’s affluent and mostly white North Side communities was given preference over the city’s Red Line, which runs through Chi-town’s South Side. It looks like things are going to get much worse before they get better in Boston

  10. There was also smoke/fire on the Red Line, I think two weeks ago. Smoked up Park Street station. It was caused by trash pulled in by one of the trains. You could see something on fire in the middle of the track after the train left. They had evacuated the train and left all the passengers standing in a smoke filled station for about 15 minutes before another train came in.

  11. Good synopsis. If only the state’s transportation leaders had this much knowledge about the system. We have everything from hedge fund ops to housewives operating the network, hence the multiple fires in just the last year. Realistically, with the amount of debt service the MBTA has, the system can only replace antiquated trains and equipment. Expansion is a no go. Yet, up to $3 billion from the state to expand the Green Line trolley into Somerville (a Boston suburb) while $400 is trimmed from planned services in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, Boston’s traditionally black neighborhoods. And to make matters even worse, if Massachusetts does build the Green Line Extension, ie the GLX, it will have to cut existing lines, the Ashmont Branch in Dorchester, the Orange Line north of Sullivan Sq. Boston, etc. And service? lets just say fires will be as common as 5 min delays. Boston is screwed

  12. Sounds just like WMATA, the second busiest train system in the country, about 400 miles to the SSW of Boston. Similar problems and similar fiscal constraints.

  13. Oh, Oh, I know the answer, I know the answer. Blind politicians. I love Capuano, he’s a good guy, but he has to get off his high horse when it comes to T expansion. The current network is a wreck, trains are being pulled from Roxbury to serve the suburbs ala the Fairmount Line, and the MBTA is being crushed by Big Dig debt. Yet Capuano is still fine with spending up to 4.5 Billion for a collection of new trolley stops in his old stomping grounds and paying a $400,000 salary for a second tier project manager. Something has got to give.

  14. Um, sorry, the Green Line Extension needs to be built. It was actually needed in the goddamn 1980s, and it has been a *legal commitment* for 30 years. You don’t back out on legal commitments.

    The problem is plain straight up underfunding, including a fairly gross scheme to dump state debt on the MBTA when it was organized.

  15. In Chicago, the Brown Line project was a complete 100% success, and the South Side Red Line was rebuilt as well, successfully.

    You’re an idiot.

  16. In ordinary usage, “engine” is reserved for combustion engines, while “motor” is reserved for electric motors.

    However, historically, anything which makes something move is “motor” (from the Latin word for “move”).

    “Diesel” railroad locomotives contain a diesel generator (sometimes called the diesel engine, but also called the “prime movie”) which generates electricity, which is then used to power the electric “traction motors”. So in railroad and automobile usage, the distinction between motors (electric) and engines (combustion) is quite strong, and both may be present in the same vehicle.

  17. The words have become interchangeable in the language. Ready. MOTORCYLCE not ENGINE CYCLE. Rocket engine or Rocket motor. It’s not set in stone. MOPED. Motor and pedals put together. Has combustion.

  18. After last night’s vote, say guud bye to the Green Line Extension. The pork project is finally dead. Now, prolific neroden, you have time to look for a job. I believe Starbucks is hiring

  19. Wrongo againo nero. I lived by the CTA Addison station near Ravenswood for a decade. The Brown Line was riddled with management errors, cost overruns, and sloppy construction; all of which was given the standard Chicago scrub treatment. The city catered to the gentrified crowd while the South Side languished. South Red had to wait nearly a decade after Brown for rehab. Dalton’s eyes are popping out at his latest job offer, it makes his salary in Chi-Town look like pennies, and after crap work

  20. At that salary, he makes more than Stephanie Pollack and Brian Shortsleeve combined. Makes sense to fire Pollack and trim the entire department of pork

  21. Dude, neroden, its time to get a job. Stop the rabid uniformed commenting. If someone considers hiring you and sees this trail of crazy on Streetsblog, they might just rescind the offer

  22. Capuano’s Green Line trolley project is toast under a Trump administration, and may have been toast under a Clinton administration. Its one of the worst proposals ever conceieved, nearly a billion dollars per trolley stop, absurd.

  23. Wonderful Chicago info, Thanks for the link. When it comes to Dungca reporting on it, not likely. I believe Nicole was given a strong talking-to by Stephanie Pollack after Nicole exposed MassDOT’s Fairmount Line dealings. Was probably screamed at by Pollack, my way or the highway. to get Nicole in line

  24. Trump should absolutely nix the $1 billion federal pledge for the Green Line Extension trolley stops. And when he does, he should tell Mass, hey, you have a matching $1 billion?, then spend it on the inner city! The Fairmount Line will actually become the Indigo Line, as long promised by Mass pols, since the 80s!

  25. The REAL underlying issue with the MBTA’s TERRIBLE maintenance – is that the POWER BROKERS, from the Governor on down, who are in charge of Massachusetts’ and Boston’s government, DESPISE the MBTA with a fierce passion – they want to have NOTHING to do with it. FORTUNATELY for all these big-wigs, they have STATE LIMOUSINES and CHAUFFEURS to ferry them around, so THEY don’t ever have to set foot in any vile, stinking MBTA bus or train. As long as this elitist, scornful mind-set continues to be the prevailing attitude of those in power in our government, the MBTA will continue to be the increasingly broken-down “LOSER CRUISER” of last resort for the miserable, unwashed masses, who are viewed with the utmost of contempt by their masters. PUBLIC TRANSIT IN THIS COUNTRY is for losers, period! This is why it’s crumbling before our eyes.

  26. The REAL underlying issue with the MBTA’s TERRIBLE maintenance – is that the POWER ELITES, from the Governor on down, who are in charge of Massachusetts’ and Boston’s governments, DESPISE the MBTA and all it stands for with the fiercest of passion – they want NOTHING to do with it. FORTUNATELY for all these big-wigs, they have LIMOUSINES and CHAUFFEURS to ferry them about (at the very least, access to special parking privileges), so THEY never have to set foot in any vile, stinking MBTA bus or train. As long as this snobbish, disdainful holier-than-thou mind-set prevails, the MBTA will continue to endlessly spiral downward toward ruin. The “T” is Boston’s “LOSER CRUISER” of last resort for the miserable, unwashed masses who can’t, or won’t, drive, and it has long been treated as such. There is no question as to why the MBTA is crumbling before our eyes. It is because those in power (who COULD do something about it, if they were willing) do not care one bit WHAT happens to it: Let it burn to the ground!

  27. The last year and a half has been a travesty under Governor Charlie Baker, but he can turn it around. First and foremost, he has to fire his know-nothing do-thing transportation sec Stephanie Pollack. She has shown time and time again that she cannot handle the position. Its the reason why the state had to hire a $400,000 a year independent contractor from Chicago to do what she can’t. Second, he needs to cut the Green Line Extension before the Trump administration does it for him. Make the independent contractor the new transportation secretary, give him a sensible salary, and move forward

  28. Baker kick the can in the 90s. What is Amy Govenor supposed to do after that?? 4 billion legacy debt. And then topn it all off the politocian come up with forward finding and internet sales tax when most companies were excluded from the sales on the internet

  29. Gee anything g to do with the intakes for the D.C. Controls being so low to the ground. And the fact that they are still D.C. MOTORS

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