The news of BU professor David Jones’ death due to a rusted-out staircase near the JFK/UMass Boston MBTA stop in Dorchester pushed our Boston University community into further mourning, this year being particularly heavy due to the loss of many members of our community in a short period of time.
Massachusetts public officials stated the staircase had been reported as unsafe and closed to the public for around 20 months, a wire fence blocking the base of the stairs and a chain-link fence blocking the top of the stairs. But they failed to address how a staircase that had been deemed unsafe in a very public space had been left in such a condition for almost two years.
This marks the second death of a BU professor in less than a year due to an infrastructure issue. Last September, CAS French lecturer Carrie O’Connor died in an elevator accident in her apartment building on Commonwealth Avenue. The elevator accident was not ruled to be a mechanical default, but rather an accident due to an accidental pressing of the switch due to the elevator’s old design.
The design of the elevator, however, could have been modernized by including safety precautions to prevent accidents. Though it is important to maintain historical elements of Boston architecture, it is more important to ensure the safety of Boston’s inhabitants.
It is important not to politicize Dr. Jones or Professor O’Conner’s deaths. Both of these tragedies weighed heavily on their loved ones and the BU community, and their well-being in this time of mourning and grief should be the top priority.
But it is also important to address the issue of public infrastructure in Boston, as continued lack of attention in this sector may lead to more accidents like these.
Last April, the White House released a report giving Massachusetts a C- for its lack of “systematic lack of investment” in public infrastructure.
The report highlighted the close to 2,000 miles of highway and 472 bridges in need of repairs. Moreover, the report found that public transportation delays were significantly affecting Massachusetts residents of color more, as they are twice as likely to utilize public transportation than white Massachusetts residents.
But regardless of the pressing issue of infrastructure in this state and city, Massachusetts nonetheless did not fare significantly worse than other states, as no American state earned more than a C+ grade.
It is not news that public infrastructure is not a priority in this country. With other structural issues that seem more pressing, from criminal justice to education, public infrastructure can often fall by the wayside.
But that does not negate how pivotal these systems are to our day-to-day lives. These are the roads, bridges, public transportation routes and structures we conduct our lives around. Infrastructure allows people to get to work on time, to get home to their families and to visit their loved ones. It is representative of a huge communal investment of not only capital but also trust.
Moreover, as the issue of climate change becomes more and more present in our day-to-day lives with the intensification of hurricanes and weather patterns, how will our public infrastructure fare under these new stressors?
In a 2020 article, Metro magazine ranked the MBTA as the best transit line in the country, even with factors such as delays and the number of transit users. Moreover, recent changes, such as the low-income pass, make public transportation more accessible to a wide array of Boston’s population.
But the line is nonetheless plagued by construction and repairs. In 2019 the MBTA voted to end its late-night service after 2 a.m., leaving many people, particularly people in lower-income suburbs who work nights, without many options.
Boston may be on equal footing with the rest of the country in regards to public infrastructure, but this brings up the question: What is the bare minimum we are willing to accept from our government in regards to our shared spaces? Are we only happy with our public infrastructure because we are comparing it to something worse?
Moreover, it is vital to consider who investment in public infrastructure is serving.
The Green Line Extension was in the works since the ’90s but only recently started making real progress and when it did, it made travel more convenient for the upper-middle-class neighborhoods the line trafficked. Train extensions like these have been reported to increase rent in the surrounding areas, thus furthering the already dire gentrification and housing displacement of the city.
There are federal and state plans to improve our public infrastructure. The federal Senate recently passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill proposing billions of dollars in investment to update public transportation, housing infrastructure and climate change.
In 2019, Mayor Martin Walsh announced his intention to invest $2.78 billion into infrastructure over the next five years, though not much information has come out regarding these plans.
Understandably, public infrastructure is not the most pressing issue on people’s minds. But as a daily factor in our lives, it deserves greater attention in the state and national sphere.
Public infrastructure is a vital tool through which we can address bigger issues like structural racism and cyclical poverty. For instance, infrastructure changes could guarantee low-income people consistent and reliable access to public transportation, as well as access to safe public spaces.
It is worth asking how many accidents it will take for any significant movement to be made on this front?
Why do things need to become dire for anything to change?