Columns, Opinion

RYAN: Time for an MBTA Upgrade

This semester, I have an internship in the North End. It’s the first time I’ve had to rely on public transportation to get to a job before. This is also the first time I’ve had to use the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to be somewhere on time. It’s been a nightmare. I had always laughed along with people complaining about the Green Line, but I had never understood what they meant until I watched three packed trains leave me behind and then squeezed myself into the fourth train, where I became very familiar with some stranger’s super itchy wool scarf. I was still 20 minutes late on my first day.

According to the MBTA’s website, some one million people use the subway, bus system, commuter rail and other modes of public transportation every day here in Boston. At the heart of any major city is its public transportation system, especially in a city where parking is either a nightmare or costs a small fortune.

In the last few weeks, the MBTA has made headlines for a variety of reasons, including the “unacceptable” response to the massive snowstorms and the late-night weekend service nearing the end of its pilot program. All of this is not only horrible PR for the MBTA but also a sign that Boston and the Commonwealth need to reprioritize. Transportation is a critical issue, and we need to invest more into it.

As far as political issues go, transportation is kind of a snooze-fest … until you think about the one million people who use the system every single day. According to an October MBTA press release, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced that the MBTA would request funds to replace the 44-year-old Red Line cars and the 32-year-old Orange Line cars. Think about that. Those subway cars are almost as old as our parents, and the new ones won’t be delivered until 2018 at the earliest.

In comparison to other subway systems, Boston seems to be about par for the course. The oldest cars still in commission on the New York subway line just celebrated their 50th birthdays. However, the vast majority of subway cars are younger than Boston’s Red and Orange Line cars. In the Chicago’s L system, the oldest cars still in service are about 35 years old. But the age of the cars isn’t the biggest problem for me. It’s the lack of late-night service.

Boston, a city that wants to host the 2024 Olympic Games, does not offer subway service after 1 a.m. five nights a week. Boston, a city desperately trying to rebrand itself as a central hub of business and entertainment, is contemplating ending the select late-night service it does offer. Now I’m not saying that this is an easy decision. According to a WBUR article, the late-night service costs a subsidy of $7.68 per passenger, while a typical ride on the subway costs just $0.84 per passenger. That’s incredibly expensive, and I get it, but it’s a short-term expense for a long-term improvement.

Late-night service isn’t just for drunk college students stumbling home at 2 a.m. It’s also for the servers, bartenders, cooks and bussers who staff restaurants all around the city. It’s an entire industry that makes very little money and then might have to spend half their income for the night on a cab home. It’s for anyone who has to work past midnight or has to get to the airport for a red-eye. And okay, it’s also for the drunk college students.

If Bostonians have the opportunity to use public transportation late at night, the restaurant and entertainment industries will grow as a response. If people are able to stay out later without worrying about catching the last Green Line train home, that’s another round of drinks at the bar or club. It’s a few more hours on the clock for servers and cooks. Eventually, the subsidy per passenger for the MBTA will decrease, but until then, we should subsidize it as best we can.

Compared to New York, the “City that Never Sleeps,” Boston is the “City Tucked into Bed at 11 p.m. with a Warm Glass of Milk.” If we want to be competitive for an Olympic bid (which not all of us want, but still), it might be a good idea to have a transit system that doesn’t shut down at 12:30 a.m.

Public transportation is where we all intersect. Regardless of where we come from or where we’re going, we all hold on to the same germ-covered handrails and cram into the same outdated subway cars. It makes traveling around this city a little bit easier and a little bit more environmentally friendly. Public transit is a massively important part of our day-to-day lives. Let’s start funding it like it is.

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