Improving the MBTA

The MBTA has a problem. And I say this coming from New York, whose standards for good regional transit aren’t all that high, but now Metro-North looks like something to look up to from the MBTA. Ridership on the system is rising, but not very quickly; the MBTA moreover has no plans to modernize. Most of what I’m going to suggest will involve commuter rail, not because it’s the most important portion of Boston’s public transportation but because it’s the part I’m most familiar with and also the part that seems most direly in need of improvements. Put another way, I’m necessarily going to talk about the MBTA as perceived from Providence, rather than from within Boston.

The main difference with New York and past proposals for improvements, both subway extensions and regional rail, is size, and scope. In New York, practically everyone who works in Manhattan takes public transportation or walks. The transit mode share to Boston is lower and the car mode share is much higher. This seems especially true for people commuting from north of Boston.

The main prescriptions will not surprise people who have read my posts on best industry practices. In short, the MBTA commuter rail needs to do the following:

- Full electrification, starting from running EMUs rather than diesels under the catenary on the Providence Line, but also extending to all other lines.

- Level boarding along the entirety of all platforms, rather than just one car length, in order to shorten dwell times to no more than 30 seconds at outlying stations.

- Higher-quality rolling stock, with better-configured doors than the present cars as discussed in a DMU conversion study; all new EMUs available, both FRA-compliant and noncompliant, would be fine, though noncompliant trains with a waiver would have somewhat better performance and lower operating costs.

- Reasonable frequency all-day on a simple clockface schedule: ideally, all branches should have 4 trains per hour at the peak and 2 off-peak – the lowest-ridership lines tend to be the shortest-distance, for which frequency matters the most, whereas the highest-ridership lines (Providence, Worcester) are practically intercity, the higher demand balancing out a lesser need for frequency.

- A fare union with local buses and the subway, so that commuter train tickets are automatically valid without extra pay.

- Relocation of stations to walkable urban areas, away from park-and-rides that only serve to extend the suburbs into Boston rather than extending Boston into the suburbs.

- An end to outbound extensions, such as the ongoing project to extend the Providence Line to Wickford Junction, and instead a shift toward infill stations, especially in underserved Cambridge and Somerville.

In the longer term, a North-South Rail Link is unavoidable – North Station is too far from the CBD, some through-service from south of Boston toward Cambridge is advisable, and the rail link as proposed would give a direct connection to the Blue Line and thus to East Boston and the airport. Although the official cost estimate is $9 billion, for barely 2 kilometers of tunnel and associated connections, such an estimate would make the project more expensive km-per-km than any other I know of except perhaps East Side Access, and a more honest attempt at cost estimation yielded $3-4 billion, on a par with outsized American subway construction costs; at European costs, it would be less than a billion. Observe that electrification could reduce the cost by allowing steeper grades; the official proposal still uses heavy diesel locomotives. In either case, this is far more expensive than the points above; concrete costs much more than organization and electronics.

Let me now explain in more detail what’s happening in and around Boston – more precisely, what is wrong, and potentially what ridership level should be expected of good regional rail.

The main datasets I’ll be working with are the American Community Survey as of 2009, the town-to-town commuter flows as of the 2000 census, and the MBTA Blue Book, offering ridership numbers as of 2009 and going back to 1989. Bear in mind that most data from the 2009 ACS will be scrubbed from the net on January 20th, giving us only 2010 census-based numbers, which undercount immigrants and the poor and thus undercount cities; however, while the 2010 census gets magnitudes of change wrong, it’s very close in terms of absolute populations, absolute mode shares, etc. All numbers I cite here are from the 2009 ACS; you can verify that a source exists now, but not beginning a week from now.

The current background trends to observe are:

- Boston’s population is increasing, quickly. The 2000 estimate base, using a 2010 backdate that also depresses intercensal estimates to fit the 2010 undercount, was 692,745 for Suffolk County, which contains Boston and three small inner suburbs. By 2009, the county’s population was 753,580, a growth of 8.8%. Boston itself had 9.5% growth from the 2000 census, which is not directly comparable to the ACS and the estimate base but is extremely close in numbers. The metro area grew only about 4.5% over 2000 – a little less if one takes the full Combined Statistical Area, which includes slow-growing satellite metros like Providence.

- Transit ridership has grown in the last 10 and 20 years, but by much less than in New York. The Red Line’s grown 50% in the last 20 years, but the other T lines barely grew. The commuter rail grew quickly as lines were put into service in the 1990s, but had little growth in the 2000s, despite high gas prices.

- The Silver Line BRT is very underused, despite the promise and branding as rapid transit on tires. Even for airport service, where the Silver Line gets to the terminals, it gets less than half the ridership of the Blue Line (2,600 vs. 6,900), which only serves a station connected to the terminals by free shuttle buses. The Washington Street branches (SL4, SL5) are more frequented, but their combined ridership is only about the same as that of a single subway station, and are just bus-plus.

- Boston is the opposite of a bedroom community – it has 520,000 jobs vs. 278,000 employed residents, all as of 2000. This 1.87 ratio is much higher than that of New York (1.18), which contains most of its bedroom communities, and is more comparable to that of Manhattan (2.75). The same is true of Cambridge, with 114,000 jobs and 55,000 employed residents, for a ratio of 2.08.

- Unlike New York, both Boston and Cambridge draw substantial numbers of commuters from suburbs outside urban transit range – Boston draws about 200,000, and Cambridge draws about 55,000. Inbound commuter rail ridership on the MBTA is 70,000. Cambridge is a lost cause under current operating paradigms – it has no stations, and if it did they’d be too poorly integrated with the top two employers.

- Total transit vs. car mode share is 26-52 for people working in Cambridge and 37-50 for people working in Boston; the corresponding numbers are 56-29 in New York (including bedroom communities like Queens) and 73-14 in Manhattan (which is more comparable to Boston in terms of workplace geography).

- There are about equally many suburban commuters into Boston from the north as from the south. People driving to the edges of the Orange and Red Lines cannot make too big a difference (Alewife has 2,700 parking spots, and Malden and Oak Grove have just under 1,000 between them), so the difference seems to be that more people are commuting into South Station than into North Station. Observe that South Station is right next to the Boston CBD, whereas North Station is a little farther out.

- Boston has built too much highway infrastructure for a kernel of a transit-oriented edge city to exist along Route 128 as it does in Stamford. 10% of people who work in Stamford take transit to work. There aren’t numbers for all edge cities near Boston, but where they exist, they’re much lower, e.g. 2% in Burlington. Furthermore, since Route 128 exists and is continually upgraded, there’s not much hope of serving these centers by commuter rail from suburbs on the opposite side of Boston.

The upshot of all this is that there’s room to more than triple MBTA commuter rail ridership, while also maintaining healthy urban rail ridership coming from population growth in Boston itself. However, this requires very good service from the suburbs to the city, and the MBTA isn’t providing it. The problem is that the MBTA relies too much on cars: Middleborough and SouthWestborough are particularly egregious for their poorly located stations, chosen for drivers’ convenience rather than for that of transit users. Even worse, Plymouth, a city that’s older than Boston, gets few trains, while most trains serving the Plymouth Line instead stop at a park-and-ride nearby, at Route 3.

Although the focus of all suburban rail is service to the urban core, this can only be done by treating it as longer-range, lower-frequency rapid transit, rather than by treating it as shuttles from parking lots to the CBD (or almost the CBD, in North Station’s case). People won’t use the trains if they’re too infrequent past rush hour; it’s not 1960 anymore, and people do not always work 9-to-5.

For an example of what the MBTA is doing wrong, let’s look at commuter flows in Rhode Island. There are 4,700 people living in Rhode Island working in Boston. The biggest single source of Boston-bound commuters is Providence, with 1,100; Providence Station has 2,000 inbound weekday riders, so it also draws people from some nearby suburbs – but not too many people. Cranston and Warwick have 700 between them – and they’re getting an airport stop with a very small number of trains. Even Washington County, with 170 commuters, is getting a station. Those two stations cost $336 million between them. Meanwhile, Pawtucket, with 600 commuters plus another 800 in suburbs to its northwest and in Woonsocket, is not getting an infill station.

I hope to discuss concrete schedules, possible changes to station placement, and ways to keep operating costs under control in a future post. For now all I’ll note is that the MBTA needs to stop pushing for extensions far out into suburbia. It’s not going to get ridership out of 9 roundtrips per weekday with a 5-hour service gap, which is what the T. F. Green Airport station gets. It’s going to get it out of reliable, frequent all-day service.

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110 Responses to Improving the MBTA

  1. KE says:

    Good points.

    They talked about an infill station in Cambridge on the Grand Junction on a Worcester – N. Station route. With the frequency they were talking about, ridership would be extremely low, especially compared to the cost. Commuter rail stops in Somerville have been discussed, but the Green Line extension into Somerville along both the Fitchburg and Lowell commuter rail lines should take care of most of this; that is of course if it is ever actually built. Assembly Square on the Orange Line should be a great infill station, however the makeup of Assembly Square is fundamentally flawed. They want Assembly Square to be a walkable and thriving urban neighborhood, but the developers are unwilling to forego large amounts of parking, including surface parking. The station is on the edge of the development and has narrow sidewalks next to a very wide street that appears to be unfriendly to pedestrians.

    You mentioned, “A fare union with local buses and the subway, so that commuter train tickets are automatically valid without extra pay.” This exists if you buy a monthly commuter rail pass, but not a single ticket.

    Basically, the MBTA debt level is so high (largest of any public transit agency in the country) and the legislature is unwilling to actually address the massive funding needs for the entire statewide transportation network (including $280M of capital funding being used to pay for highway operations, the horrible public transit service outside of the MBTA area, and the huge state of good repair backlog for the T) that expansion and improvement projects are basically out of the question. The most recent fare hikes (which are understandable) combined with the recommended service cuts (which are severe) for the T shows how bad the situation is. The T is in survival mode and there is not much they can do about it.

    Nothing will be solved until the state legislature is willing to actually step up to the plate and fund transportation (or remove the T’s debt load which they were saddled with). Massachusetts too is currently in a race to the bottom with regard to transportation.

    • Matthew says:

      Glad to see someone else shares my concerns about Assembly Square. I did a bunch of research on it and wrote some blog articles, but I’m not sure what else can be done about it.

      As for the MBTA, the big dig mitigation debt needs to be taken off them ASAP. That will help a lot.

      • Beta Magellan says:

        That whole section of the Orange Line is a disaster between Malden and North Station—I’d say Community College, Sullivan and Wellington are about as bad as Chicago’s expressway lines from an urbanist standpoint—at least the CTA never put huge parking lots near its urban stations. As much as I’m proud of the inside-128 expansion ban, it wasn’t the best choice to make some of the rapid transit investments as freeway-like as possible.

  2. Nice writeup. Electrification of the Providence Line is a no-brainer given that the NEC catenary is place. This line is capable of high speed running for goodness sake.

    One thing that really strikes me about MBTA commuter rail is how few stops some of those lines make. A Metra train going the ~50 miles to Providence from Chicago would make triple the stops on an all stops train. (Not necessarily a good thing, I’m just pointing it out).

    I ride the Silver Line to the airport on occasion. I’ve never been on it when it wasn’t jammed, the aisles full of luggage, etc. You’ll never achieve theoretical capacity when most riders have huge suitcaes.

    • Alex B. says:

      I’ve never ridden the Silver Line in Boston, but perhaps there’s a case to be made for specialized buses with very few seats and lots of room for luggage (think similar to the interior layouts of various airport trams).

    • anonymouse says:

      On the Providence Line, there just aren’t a whole lot more places where it would make sense to stop: pretty much everything between South Attleboro and Route 128 is either woods or near an existing stop. The one place where it makes sense to add another station is Pawtucket. Chicago is a much bigger city, and the ring of continuously built up inner suburbs around it is much bigger. In Boston, it’s mostly contained within Route 128, except for a few outliers to the west like Needham and Wellesley.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Yeah, that’s another thing I’m going to get into in the next post on this. On some lines, long interstations are unavoidable given the land use – for example, on the Providence Line, there just aren’t good station locations south of Route 128 except the ones that already have stations plus Pawtucket. It comes from the fact that Boston is really compact, and beyond a few inner suburbs is incredibly sprawly. On the Providence Line, the limit of the densely built-up area is Readville, 15 kilometers out of South Station; in Chicago, go 15 kilometers out of the Loop and you’re still not quite at the edge of the L – you need to go about twice as far before the grid starts to disintegrate.

  3. Steve says:

    Underridership has been for some time an endemic problem in American cities, however. Philadelphia already has most of the technical improvements you’re talking about (all the commuter lines, at least in PA, are electrified; a core regional tunnel exists; a great deal of work is going into converting every station on the system, insofar as is feasible, into level boarding, the majority of the stations remain in urban centers, and nearly every line’s schedule has at least hourly service, even off-peak–superior to most NA examples)–yet the network still feels underridden, and has a relatively small fraction of the ridership in NY and Chicago, though more IIRC, than in Boston.

    In short, SEPTA is a system that has successfully applied best operating practices insofar as they are feasible in an American environment, but this application has not given it any major ridership boosts, which would be hoped for were we trying to make the case that best operating practices need to be adopted everywhere. There are perhaps problems about where its electrified service goes that don’t help it (no rail line goes to King of Prussia, for example; and sub/exurban job concentrations have generally gone in far from any rail line, despite their continuous existence for the past fifty years and more; several larger towns, e.g. West Chester and Phoenixville, lack any rail line, despite their size implying unmet demand; an argument can also be made that not enough equipment is/has been made available on their busiest routes, suggesting a need to reallocate (or more likely buy more) equipment)–but I wonder if part of the problem is something more systemic than just poor operations on MBTA’s part. I know White Plains and Stanford on the MBTA aren’t just edge cities; White Plains in particular is a dense enough agglomeration that it has a downtown with a large, healthy retail core in it. In short, it is a city but is treated like a suburb because it is not the city. White Plains, in other words, is a window into what a dense job agglomeration outside of downtown could look like with proper land-use policies.

    This suggests to me that the utter autocentrism of our land-use policies, more than just poor operation, is in large part to blame for our railroads’ underridership. If our land use was built around the railroad as the primary avenue to get from point A to point B, then our railroads would have higher ridership.

    I wonder how this argument fits into the cluttering of our urban environment with park-and-rides?

    • Richard Mlynarik says:

      I’ve only visited Philadelphia for short periods as a tourist, but everything about SEPTA screamed at me “WE HATE YOU!”

      The physical state of facilities is alarming, passenger information dismal, the feeling of neglect heavy on the air. Yes, every agency in the country has the screws put to it, and Philadelphia is in a worse economic situation than NYC or LA of SF, and Philadelphia has been bequeathed old and dingy legacy facilities, but good god, they really make the worst of it!

      I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where transfers between lines were worse arranged — the combination of decrepit underground stations with NYC-style floor to ceiling prison-style barred metal paid area fencing with few and inconvenient fare gates with maybe some scary token booth attendant types … run away!

      I don’t recall the history of the regional rail system, but everything points to something like a newcomer with experience of Central Europe accidentally, inadvertently getting some say in planning, the trappings of an S-Bahn (city centre through tunnel, lines labelled “R-1″) appeared, maybe there were nice plans on paper for fare integration and multi-modal integrated Taktverkehr (ITF) but then … THE EMPIRE FOUGHT BACK. All this S-Bahn stuff is well and good, but we’re sticking with a conductor and a driver on two car trains, and we’re going to abandon the ticket machines but leave them non-functional at some stations as a decoy, and we’re going to get rid of that “R-1″ nonsense even and get back to good old commuter railroader naming from the 1910s….

      I have nothing but short flying visits to go by (and remember that most tourists seem to come away with better impressions of local transportation than time-sensitive locals who have rich and frequent opportunities to experience failures), but everything superficial about SEPTA proclaims “Underridership is our profession! And underridership is more than you deserve, anyway.” And if that’s the superficial stuff, you’ve got to imagine that its a world-beating clusterfuck internally.

      Happy to contribute exactly technical expertise and no objective data whatsoever,

      • Alon Levy says:

        Yeah, the history is pretty much as you say. The newcomer in question is Vukan Vuchic. David Gunn played a strong supporting role in the reform attempt; in general, the management of SEPTA was used to doing things like rapid transit. The vision was to have lines running every 10 or 20 minutes. Before the tunnel opened, there were even plans to completely sever the Reading side from the national network and avoid not just FRA compliance but also Railroad Retirement and other special practices. In response, the old-time railroaders revolted, and the more senior people just left for Amtrak and Conrail. There was a five-month strike that killed ridership for a few years afterward – I forget whether it was directly related to management’s attempt to cut wages to rapid transit scale or whether it was about other issues. Eventually management caved and went back to running SEPTA Regional Rail as a special division run by traditionalists, like the LIRR or Metro-North. The through-running survived for longer, but the original R-# designations, which were based on the traffic patterns of 1980, were not updated, and so a lot of lines ran through to lines with other numbers.

        Mind you, my experience of SEPTA Regional Rail is still more positive than anything I’ve seen in Boston, and possibly even New York, but when I used it more regularly, it was better than it is today. The suburb I frequently visited was near the Glenside stop, so the interlining gave me adequate frequency – I think at the time each line had half-hourly off-peak service but I could be wrong, but in either case it’s far better than the two-hour gaps Providence gets.

        • Zmapper says:

          Denver, Colorado is planning on continuing the S-Bahn lite legacy. RTD wants to run the electrified commuter rail lines at 15 min week/ 30 weekend frequencies, which is rather reasonable.

          The biggest mistake they made is that with the slight exception of Union Station downtown, the tracks are COMPLETELY separate from the mainline network! They should have found a way to temporally separate the 2 train daily Amtrak + occasional steam train to Cheyenne from the commuter rail network, but they failed to do so. Now we are stuck with the overweight, overstaffed, rail cars of yesteryear instead of the new cars of Asia and Europe.

          • Alon Levy says:

            What electric rolling stock are they planning on running?

          • Zmapper says:

            Hyundia Rotem rolling stock, just like what SEPTA is buying ironically.

          • Nathanael says:

            Denver’s planning on ordering US-spec EMUs with 25kV overhead. Something like SEPTA’s Silverliners, only with all high platforms.

            It is indeed true that the Denver commuter (S-Bahn) lines only connect to mainline tracks at the Union Station throat. They really should have found a way to get an FRA exception to pass Amtrak and the occasional charter onto the commuter tracks while running non-FRA cars on the commuter lines. But they didn’t try.

            I believe there was originally planned to be more shared track, and the plans evolved in this direction for whatever reason (UP uncooperativeness, BNSF capacity issues).

        • Liam says:

          “There was a five-month strike that killed ridership for a few years afterward – I forget whether it was directly related to management’s attempt to cut wages to rapid transit scale or whether it was about other issues.”

          Based on the stories I’ve heard (and read repeated on the font of all human knowledge, Wikipedia) the strike was at least in part triggered by management trying to convert a “rail” line over to “transit”.

          (There’s a lot of good info on this and other linked pages about what went down when SEPTA took over the Pennsy/Reading commuter lines. Be careful though, as I get the feeling much of it was written by folks clamoring for the restoration of a particular line…)

          • Richard Mlynarik says:

            Classic stuff!

            In the end, SEPTA would treat the unions as proper railroad workers vs. transit operators … This resulted in lower ridership, which took over 10 years to rebuild.

            “Transit = pure welfare operation operated solely for the benefit of contractors and employees” to “transit = public service, which also delivers …” — Ayup, you can’t get there from here.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        Yes, every agency in the country has the screws put to it, and Philadelphia is in a worse economic situation than NYC or LA of SF, and Philadelphia has been bequeathed old and dingy legacy facilities, but good god, they really make the worst of it!

        The LIRR, Metro North, NJTransit inherited equally decrepit infrastructure. Even MARC is slowly but surely getting better.

      • Nathanael says:

        The “old timey” railroaders at SEPTA are definitely trouble. And SEPTA’s management seems to be precisely the opposite of forward-looking these days, too. On the other hand, they manage the Market-Frankford line pretty well.

        The SEPTA attitude towards ticket machines on commuter rail is genuinely outrageous; I can’t think of anywhere else where there’s a surcharge for buying tickets on board, there is no ticket window, there are no ticket machines, and there is no way of ordering tickets delivered to your home. Yet this is the state of many SEPTA stations. Obviously, it ticks people off.

      • Steve says:

        I don’t think you’ve visited since about 2000…nor were you actually on the Regional Rail system, whose comparison and contrast with the MBTA network was the point I was making, particularly since many of Alon’s prescriptions for MBTA are already things SEPTA already implemented. Regional Rail amenities were historically far nicer than the subway network. When it comes to Philadelphia in these comments you’ve displayed a profound ignorance of the peculiarities of our problems and conditions. Which is unfortunate, since as bad as SEPTA is in some ways, it actually runs one of the most advanced regional transit operations in the country, meaning that we here have already learned many of the lessons places like California need to.

        For the record, SEPTA has been busy working on a comprehensive rebuilding scheme of its major facilities, including the dankest, murkiest stations on the Broad Street Line; the oldest Regional Rail cars are in the process of being replaced; and the current chief is busy reforming the whole organization to be much more customer-service oriented, with some results. You should come around again sometime, it’s much better than it was when Faye Moore was running the show.

        • Alon Levy says:

          For the record, I’ve only used the Regional Rail, and have never set foot on any other mode of public transportation in Greater Philadelphia. Also for the record, I used the system several times a year in 2006-7, but stopped after my family friend in the area moved away.

          At the time, the Regional Rail was fairly usable, though looking at schedules it seems to have gotten worse: less frequent, more arbitrary in its through-service. On top of that, everything I’ve read about the new ticketing system makes me roll my eyes. SEPTA seems to want a smartcard (fine) and allow payment by phone (great), but all the bids it solicited were proprietary US-only technologies (bad), and it’s planning a mongrel hybrid of turnstiles in the city and POP outside the city (why???).

          • Eric says:

            Perhaps because turnstiles in all the stations outside the city are too expensive, while POP in crowded center city locations is too easily evaded?

          • Alon Levy says:

            That’s probably the thinking, and it’s just plain wrong. Philadelphia’s Center City stations are less crowded than the stations in Berlin, Munich, and other major Germanic cities. Ridership on SEPTA Regional Rail is also lower than on the busiest POP-based urban rail systems in North America, which include Vancouver’s SkyTrain and the Calgary and Portland light rail systems. While SEPTA has a stronger peak and thus higher crowding levels relative to ridership than those three systems, it has much lower ridership; I’m fairly certain that the Waterfront station in Vancouver is busier than any of SEPTA’s regional rail stations.

          • Nathanael says:

            POP without ticket machines or ticket windows is… insane. There is something truly crazy about SEPTA’s attitude towards tickets.

            It really, genuinely helps ridership if you can buy a ticket in any station. Uh, DUH.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Providence is lucky to have a cafe that sells tickets during the day…

        • Richard Mlynarik says:

          Steve, assuming your reply was to my anecdotal impressions, my last visit to Philadelphia was in January 2008, and my dispiriting experience of SEPTA regional rail (and of other rail and bus transit in and near the city) dates from then, not the 1970s.

          Your claim that “it actually runs one of the most advanced regional transit operations in the country” is, well, not exactly encouraging. Best of luck.

  4. Jim D. says:

    With all due respect, the last thing the MBTA needs at this moment in time are more plans to spend money. The authority is in dire straits right now because extensions were constructed and new services inaugurated without any plans to pay the bills, resulting in a crushing debt burden that is sucking up ever-greater amounts of the T’s funding. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts needs a comprehensive solution to its transportation funding crisis and the ability to put the MBTA on firm financial footing before any new extensions or major expansion of services are seriously contemplated.

    I would also add that, while your essay is certainly thought-provoking and the commuter rail system does have great potential, I believe the region’s aborted Urban Ring project should be a higher priority in terms of meeting the long-term needs of Boston’s transit users.

    • KE says:

      Agree with this 100%. The Urban Ring as a heavy rail system as well, not light rail and definitely not a segment of six BRT routes that are in mixed traffic 50% of the time.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The point of many of the things I’m proposing is that they’re a net reduction in operating cost, often (not always) for small capital cost. Electrification is cheap – it’s a bit more than $1 million per kilometer (or $2 million per mile) at French costs, and around $3 million per km/$5 million per mile at NEC costs. Raised platforms are also pretty cheap – they’re just concrete columns and a concrete slab. Rolling stock is more expensive, but it’d be much cheaper to run and maintain, and even an increase in frequency can be done 1-to-1 with cutting staffing per train by using automated doors. Even the North-South Rail Link, which is very expensive to construct, would make the operating cost smaller, since it would rationalize service and cut the need to deadhead.

      No argument about the Urban Ring, at least in its railstituted forms. As I said, I’m writing this from Providence rather than from within Boston, and this colors what I’m familiar with. On top of this, new rapid transit lines tend to have high cost and high ridership, and the calculus of how to prevent cost per rider from blowing up is different from that of surface regional rail.

      • KE says:

        The problem with the North-South Rail Link is that although the costs may be doable, it will be seen as possibly becoming a Big Dig 2. This means it is politically untouchable, regardless of the merit of the project.

        • Steve says:

          This is unfortunate. Projects such as it are the reason why cities such as Paris have such nice commuter rail.

          IMO the Big Dig is rapidly becoming seen as nothing less than pure boondoggle–the highway that was replaced is exactly the sort of highway that other cities are just plain old removing. The North-South Rail Link would have been much more useful for moving higher passenger loads deeper into the future, but given how badly the Big Dig was bungled, Boston may well never get to see it.

          • Nathanael says:

            How tall are the Big Dig tunnels? I think the North-South Rail Link might be much cheaper if the Big Dig were simply CLOSED to cars and trucks and the tunnels reused for train service. May happen as cars become unaffordable to the masses.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Not sure how tall they are, but they have 8-10 lanes, which means one of the bores could in principle be taken for a double-track railroad, cutting highway capacity to 4 lanes. The grade might be too steep, though. Not that it’ll ever happen, but it’s fun to entertain.

            My attempts to Google for the Big Dig tunnel diameter failed to get numbers. The only number I’m getting is for the impending Seattle boondoggle, 54 ft.

          • anonymouse says:

            The Big Dig was effectively a cut and cover job, not bored tunnel, so the tunnel height may well vary throughout. But it’s presumably designed for automotive clearances, and for Interstate Highway standards. On the other hand, it also requires lots of ventilation, and maybe some of that space can be reclaimed for other uses if the tunnel is not used for cars.

      • KE says:

        Apparently trains run on the Providence line and then head out to do Worcester service and vice versa. Any idea how much full electrification would cost on the Worcester line and for completion of the Providence line?

        • Alon Levy says:

          Well, the Providence Line is already electrified (well, some individual tracks may not be, but the bulk of the cost is the substations and they’re already there; wiring extra tracks is nearly cost-free). As for the Worcester Line, it’d be between $90 million and $250 million, depending on whether your base of comparison is French low-speed rail or California HSR.

          That said, it’s probably not good practice to interline trains like this. The operational benefits aren’t large, and this causes delays on one line to propagate to the other. For Providence Line compatibility I’d worry more about the Needham Line, or maybe even the Franklin Line (more precisely, about getting both out of the way – the Franklin Line to Fairmount and the Needham Line to the Orange and Green Lines).

        • Beta Magellan says:

          The Worcester Line might also need a lot of other upgrades to ensure reliability given the amount of freight on the line, though I have no idea what kind of character they might take.

          • Matthew says:

            Beacon Park is closing in a year. That should remove most (but not all) of the freight from the line.

          • KE says:

            CSX still runs out of Framingham though and is building a large new facility in Worcester.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Normally, commuter trains and European freight trains are about equally fast, so when traffic is middling (including the 2 tph case), there’s no capacity problem. But the timetables I’m about to write are pretty fast, and based both on general US practice and my anecdotal observation of riding the Worcester Line once, CSX is much slower. Absolute worst-case scenario would be to single-track off-peak west of Framingham; it would require a single meet, and moreover there would be ample space in the middle of the line for such a meet.

      • Matthew says:

        Don’t forget maintenance facilities. They’re on the north side, at BET. Either electric cars would have to be towed back and forth on the Grand Junction, or a new facility would have to be built.

    • Nathanael says:

      You are simply wrong about the reasons for the MBTA’s problems. The problems are essentially due to the fact that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts *created* the MBTA by dumping a huge debt load on it, told it to rely on a dedicated funding source which was too small, and then demanded that the MBTA fulfill the Commonwealth’s Big Dig obligations. It was “designed to fail” by the state government.

      No organization could get out from under that.

      Given that, the approach of building necessary and desirable things and worrying about the future later seems quite appropriate, actually. If the agency was designed by the state to inevitably go bankrupt — and it was — then the best thing the people running it can do is develop a good reputation personally for project execution and hope that the reorganized agency which replaced the MBTA will still want them. Now, one can argue over how well they’ve actually DONE that.)

      There’s no argument for “living within your means” when you’ve been given a budget where you *can’t*. There’s a strong argument for getting whatever you can and dealing with the bankruptcy when it happens.

      I hope the state sees sense and *does* reorganize the MBTA along FUNDED lines.

  5. anonymouse says:

    There’s another quick and easy fix for Boston commuter rail: demolish the Government Center parking garage, and as many of the other downtown parking garages as possible. It becomes a lot harder to drive to the city when there’s nowhere to leave your car, and I’m sure there are many more productive uses for that land than parking. For example, there was talk of replacing the Government Center garage with a pair of 40-story office towers.

    • KE says:

      That development is in the works. The Aquarium garage is also scheduled to be torn down for a new development. Many of the surface lots in Fort Point/Waterfront district will be gone in the next 1-10 years. The surface lot at Washington & De Lafayette is being replaced by a resident tower with street level commercial.

      Land is at such a premium in the Boston area that many of the excess parking is being eliminated with new developments. Also, any new garages that may be built with these developments will likely be priced at a premium, further increasing the cost of driving and parking in the city.

      Also, nearly all of the new commercial developments in Boston and Cambridge are being built at 100% occupancy, unlike the bubble up to 2008. Nearly all of the residential developments are being constructed with a minimum of available parking spaces.

      So, hopefully this can translate into a further increase in ridership even with the fare increases and can lead to better service in conjunction with additional capital improvements across the system.

      • Beta Magellan says:

        How hard is it to increase density in Boston today? I’d imagine that there’s more than some DC-style regulation going on.

        • KE says:

          The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) plays a huge role in approving projects in Boston proper. They approve or deny projects at their whim. With that said, there are a large amount of new projects underway. The big hole in the current progress of development, is the big hole at the site of the old Filene’s building in Downtown Crossing. The BRA has not been able to get Vornado Realty Trust to develop the parcel or sell it off. Vornado lost so much money from their purchase of the land during the height of the boom, it appears that they plan to sit on it until they make a profit…could be quite a long time. However, Vornado is invested in the development of a casino at the Suffolk Downs race track in East Boston (I believe a 20%+ stake). This will probably be the likely winner of a casino in the Boston area. You can be sure that the BRA is trying to link the approval of the Suffolk Downs casino to the former Filene’s site.

          So, the BRA has a huge say in what is constructed, but it doesn’t seem to be hampering progress at the moment. Plus from my understanding the BRA actively supports dense development.

          • Beta Magellan says:

            That’s all big-time commercial stuff, though—what if I wanted to build a slightly-taller-than-its-neighbors apartment building in an inner core (i. e. Boston and adjacent cities) neighborhood?

          • KE says:

            Projects as you describe “slightly-taller-than-its-neighbors apartment building in an inner core (i. e. Boston and adjacent cities) neighborhood?” are being constructed as well. Two new smaller buildings, are being constructed in Chinatown here:
            Also this vacant lot next to Jacob Wirth, it will be a slightly taller building.
            Also these empty lots off of Kneeland St. (which used to be Syria town quite some time back) are supposed to be sold off to developers in small parcels by the DOT.

      • JJJ says:

        RE: Waterfront parking.

        Yes, all the surface lots are being eliminated….but theyre being replaced by MASSIVE underground garages, and nobody is talking about it. Downtown has a parking space cap, but the seaport doesnt. Meaning its getting a 6,000 car garage….and more!

      • Andre Lot says:

        Building tunnels for diesel-powered trains massively increase its cost because of enhanced firefighting and fire prevention devices needed to be fit in the tunnel, coupled with complications for ventilation systems. You can’t just built like it were 1910 and fit diesel equipment underground.

        • Steve says:

          Well, an electrification plan for the MBTA’s commuter services would eventually create a situation where you wouldn’t actually need to run diesels through the tunnel, wouldn’t it? And since such a tunnel would be a looooooooooong way off, electrification NOW would help justify it THEN.

    • Andre Lot says:

      This is pure anti-car bigotry. It would be like me, a transit-neutral (I think it should operate only where it makes economic sense, beyond the scope of a social program, and should not be used as a social engineering tool unless it is to get rid of ghettos or similar stuff), proposing tearing town a couple stations to make life harder for illegal immigrants reducing their incentives to concentrate in given areas.

      • Alex B. says:

        There’s no bigotry here, just the simple realization that the costs of accommodating cars (both in terms of capital costs for parking garages and in terms of opportunity costs for higher and better uses of that land) just aren’t worth it given the low capacity the car offers.

        • Andre Lot says:

          If land values increase, there is always the possibility to build massive underground parking garages. Boston soil is not the best, but it is far from being very bad for in-situ excavations (like Miami).

          I’m all in favor of underground parking garages and park-and-rail facilities (serious stuff, not the 200-place backyard lot we see in some places).

  6. Matthew says:

    Monthly numbers since 2007:

    Note the seasonal patterns, and the general droop during the recession. Also: December is the only month with consistently dropping ridership.

    CR monthly passes do include subway. However, they need to get CharlieCard working on the CR, that would suffice for integration.

    North-South rail link is supposedly not blocked by CA/T project, but only if steep grades are used – so electrification is necessary.

    Fitchburg stops in Cambridge – Porter, FWIW. There are also a number of shuttles that run between North Station and Kendall Square. The Kendall bus area gets pretty busy at rush hour. The CT2 runs at 15min intervals, the 64 extends its route there, a flurry of private shuttles, in addition to the regular service.

    Buses are an important part of the commuting picture in Boston, especially from Somerville, Arlington, Medford, Everett, Chelsea, Revere, Waltham and Watertown on the north side alone. Look at the ranked bus routes by ridership table. In the top-50: 57, 111, 77, 73, 71, 86, 70, 116, 93, 101, 117, 88, 89, 87, 104, 109, 69, 120, 108. Those account for about 90,000 weekday boardings, easily exceeding north side CR ridership.

    Plymouth station is in a bad spot. It needs to be moved another mile or two south. IIRC, that was the original plan, but it did not happen for some reason. Local commuters prefer Kingston because of the parking lot, and frankly, it’s suburbia. At off hours they run some really weird operations. I visited Plymouth a few times. The one time I rode home from Kingston, we moved out, then reversed into Plymouth to pickup people there, then continued going south a bit, changed ends, stopped at Plymouth again, and finally headed north.

    Wellington Station has 1300 parking spots – don’t forget about those for the north side. Riverside might not be too far out of the way either, for those coming from Waltham area.

    • anonymouse says:

      There’s actually a shuttle that runs from North Station to the Kendall Square area. And by “shuttle”, I mean a full-size bus running on a 10 minute headway, which puts the service somewhere well above the average for MBTA bus routes in terms of frequency. The span of service is not too bad either, for a purely commuter-oriented service: 6:30 am to 7:30 pm, though it wouldn’t hurt to extend service a bit later for those who’d like to stay for dinner. The commuter rail actually does run later, with trains in nice hourly packs around 8:35, 9:35, 10:35, with the last trains on all lines leaving North Station at 12:10.

      • ofsevit says:

        This shuttle, EZRide, is pretty much at capacity at rush hour, and carries 2,000 passengers daily. That is not bad considering it is privately-funded (mainly by employers) and separate from the overall transit system. If the Grand Junction branch were built as commuter rail (and I’d think, for long-term usability and to depress NIMBYism, it would have to be grade separated) it would certainly speed this trip for the hundreds of North Station commuters coming to Cambridge if they didn’t have to take a bus traveling traffic-choked streets. Additionally, that area sees quite-low transit use from west of Boston since it is easily accessed by the Turnpike but taking the train means going in to South Station and then taking the Red Line; a Kendall commuter rail connection would solve this, too.

  7. Beta Magellan says:

    Alon, you stole my blog idea (that I told no one about)! Well, that just ensures that I’ll enjoy the next entries. ;)

    Also, a nitpick—did you mean Westborough instead of Southborough?

    • Alon Levy says:

      Sorry about this. It must be terrible. I’m not being sarcastic; I got scooped on one or two papers. You should write the blog anyway – a different method of proof, with different corollaries another perspective on the issue is always good.

      And yes, I did mean Westborough. Thanks for catching this.

      • Beta Magellan says:

        It actually feels good that someone with a large audience of non-acquaintances has almost the same perspective on Boston’s transit that I do (and I’m not a current resident of the Boston-Worcester-Manchester CSA, either)—don’t feel bad! It’s not like you scooped me on my actual research (which is not at all transit—or pure mathematics—related).

  8. Michael John says:

    What type of rolling stock we should get, EMU wise?

    • Alon Levy says:

      Whichever has the best bid, out of a list of 10 or more vendors; that’s how Auckland got reasonably-priced trains despite unique specs (narrow gauge). The performance I’m going to use for the schedules comes from the FLIRT because there are YouTube videos of its real-world acceleration profile, but the Class 623 (Munich S-Bahn), MI 2N (RER A bilevel), Coradia, Desiro, and other mass-produced trains are equally good. They’d be easier to adapt to NEC platform height, too. I suspect European trains would be better than Japanese ones, which are optimized to lower speed and much lower interstations, but the stock used for limited express (non-Shinkansen) trains might also be good.

  9. JJJ says:

    I generally agree with your analysis, but a few points:

    1) You mix Mass and RI numbers together, for example, by listing the costs of the airport extensions. Mass and the MBTA isnt paying a dime for that, so it isnt relevant really. RI pays the MBTA for that service, and I believe even owns a trainset or two and leases it back. The post makes it seem like the MBTA is spending millions in far away places, when theyre not.

    2) “Alewife has 2,700 parking spots” And thats the problem. It fills up every day by 8am. One can raise prices, but that does nothing to get more riders. What should be done IMMEDIATELY is finish the garage. Thats right, it has two unbuilt floors. But no, instead theyre off building a garage in wonderland….um, thats a geographic dead end! Add 500 spots, and I guarantee at least 500 new riders every day, people who drive past knowing they dont have a chance to park. They even use the ramps as parking to squeeze cars in!

    What needs to happen is a focus on the subway. I would extend the red line north in two directions. Three actually. One alongside the highway to build a brand new alewife 2 miles away (a massive garage that draws from 128). One alongside the Fitsburg line that makes all those stupid stops commuter rail shouldnt be making (kendall green and such). That would allow the CR to run express. The third is obviously the lexington line through the dense arlington.

    The same for the blue line of course, with Lynn.

    Another problem you dont talk about is the pricing. Take Belmont. You pay something like $4 to ride the train…but the local bus takes you to the same place for $1.25. Huh? Its not worth the “premium”.

    And the Lowell line….West Medford is like a mile from Wedgmere, but the price jumps something like $3.50 between station. Huh?

    Oh and one last thing (can you tell Im typing at 2am?). The worcester line needs extra-local DMU service ASAP.

    Newtonville (transfer) -Brighton1 – Brighton 2 – Allston – BU Bridge – Yawkey – Back Bay – South Station.
    Back and forth, all day. Over and over again.

    Let the commuter rail go express from newtonville to back bay, and serve a very dense area with atrocious transit service.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Well, Rhode Island would be the one paying for stuff like a Pawtucket infill station, and Providence-oriented commuter rail that actually works (e.g. using the East Side Rail Tunnel – way more people are going to use trains on the East Side and in RI’s Bristol County than in Washington County).

    • ComradeFrana says:

      “What needs to happen is a focus on the subway. I would extend the red line north in two directions. Three actually. One alongside the highway to build a brand new alewife 2 miles away (a massive garage that draws from 128). One alongside the Fitsburg line that makes all those stupid stops commuter rail shouldnt be making (kendall green and such). That would allow the CR to run express. The third is obviously the lexington line through the dense arlington. ”

      That’s … not a very good idea. By going in all three directions you are ensuring suboptimal service to each of them. So if you want to keep reasonable frequencies you
      have to prioritize. In context of capital-intensive infrastructure like subways that means serving actual destinations rather than park and rides. So in my opinion if you want to extend Red Line then only to Arlington. Also no need to duplicate infrastructure alongside Fitchburg line, if you want to improve rail service there, use the existing one.

      P.S.: Subway shouldn’t make Kendall Green stop too and while we’re at it, it shouldn’t go that far at all.

      • JJJ says:

        Actually, I agree. By extend I dont mean operationally, just from Alewife north.

        For operations, the existing red line would continue to another park and ride. Perhaps a local stop at Watertown St and the park and ride at 128. Buses would serve the base from there.

        Meanwhile, a new light rail line would make the “U” shape along the existing commuter rail line, and then up to Arlington. That ensures capacity and frequency is balanced, and places like Kendall Green are served, but not overserved. I would guess that places like Waltham would see as much demand as places like Arlington, so we can run the same headways and such.

        My light rail line would begin at Hastings (or Silver Hill), serve all existing commuter rail stops, add stops in Waltham and Bentley, continue through Alewife (where most people would get off to transfer) and continue north on the minuteman trail up to the old lexington depot, with 4-5 stops along the way (old commuter rail stops).

        While few people would ride waltham-arlington, some might, as arlington is a residential area and waltham a business area. And even if people dont…who cares? Nobody rides Braintree-Alewife, doesnt mean the train is ever empty.

        • Alon Levy says:

          If you’re building a park-and-ride, why not just use the existing park-and-rides on the MBTA?

          Similarly, light rail would work best as branches off of the Green Line, leveraging the combination of lower-cost surface running outside the central area with high capacity where the lines come together.

          Kendal Green is in the middle of nowhere and is very close to Hastings.

          • JJJ says:

            Alewife is not in an ideal locations. Yes, its at a highway terminus…but right after it ends, not before. So you go from 8 lanes to 4 lanes…and then arrive at Alewife. Theres not much time saving for car commuters. If the park and ride were further out, where traffic flows free, people would park to avoid the highway ending + rotaries ahead.

            Also under the current Alewife system, all the suburban buses that use Alewife get stuck in the same ridiculous ex-rotary traffic lights.

            I disagree that one should burden the green line further. I think a green-line style system would operate, but only connect to the red line.

            Yes, Hastings and Kendall Green are in the middle of nowehere…thats why they shouldnt get commuter rail service! Light rail service would be a better fit.

          • Alon Levy says:

            When a place is in the middle of nowhere, it shouldn’t get any station. For commuter rail, there are better places along the line for a train to lose 60 seconds (if it’s a high-powered EMU with good door placement and level boarding) or 120 seconds (if it’s a diesel loco dragging unpowered cars with end doors and no level boarding) than Kendal Green, for example in Cambridge. For urban rail, there are better places for a train to go to.

            The park-and-rides of the greenfield light rail lines built in the US are pretty much all disasters. And despite what you’d think, even in sprawlfests, the light rail lines that try to work with pedestrians rather than with cars shine. Houston’s Main Street Line has the highest ridership per kilometer of system length of the greenfield lines (and the second highest of all US light rail lines, after the Green Line), and the lowest construction cost per rider; the construction cost per kilometer was unimpressive, but the ridership made up for it. Calgary’s C-Train has even higher ridership, and its first three lines were built at abnormally low cost relative to the usage they’re getting, though this was partly low construction costs rather than just high ridership. If Houston can make this work while Dallas is stuck with multiple white elephants, then Boston can do this even more.

            The Green Line and the Red Line have much better destinations to go to west of their current termini. The issue is that the Green Line’s strength is being able to run subway-surface, splitting into multiple routes farther out. This gives it more of a range, but even then, three out of its four branches serve reasonably dense outlying areas. Brookline is very dense by suburban standards. Newton is also not terribly sprawly for a suburb. Weston in contrast is much lower-density, and also far enough from the center that it’d be expensive to get a branch there.

          • JJJ says:

            Arlington is probably denser than Brookline. It has large apartment buildings, for one.

            The only park and ride in my proposal would be the new red line terminus at 128. The light rail line would all serve local town centers.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Brookline is marginally denser – 3,300/km^2 vs. 3,100. Anyway, the problem with Arlington is not that it doesn’t deserve subway service, but that it’s run by NIMBYs who torpedoed subway service on the usual grounds.

          • Richard Mlynarik says:

            The past is another country.

            The Arlington of the 1970s (which is when the Red Line extension planning was done, with the Town of Arlington way off the table) had about three non-diner non-soda-fountain restaurants and outright prohibited all sale of alcohol.

            Which is not to say that the cohort of marginally-urbanised professionals who migrated outward to Arlington from Cambridge, Watertown, Somerville, Allston and the like in the 1980s and 1990s can’t be suburban NIMBYs (of some sort or another, on some issue or another like, oh, for example, preserving the Minuteman bike path … after their predecessors fought tooth and nail against even that use of the rail ROW) or can’t have the awful politics one might have hoped died with their grandparents.

            Plus ça change, as the Portuguese say.

            All said, the 77 bus is about as good as things get in T-land, and its hard to see the Red Line extending past its swampy parking edifice dead-end any decade soon.

        • ComradeFrana says:

          “For operations, the existing red line would continue to another park and ride. Perhaps a local stop at Watertown St and the park and ride at 128.”

          You’re still wasting expensive infrastructure on low ridership extension.

          • JJJ says:

            A 128 park and ride would do very well. It would be the northern Braintree. Alewife could be redeveloped as an urban station.

          • ComradeFrana says:

            Braintree has actually below average ridership, or at least had in 2009. 4387 weekday entries compared to 8750 average. Or 4387 to 5632 if we consider Braintree branch only. Even worse is Quincy Adams station (another park and ride) which despite having 2538 parking spaces compared to 1322 at Braintree had more or less the same ridership.

            On the other hand Quincy Center station with 872 parking spaces had 7913 entries, because it has much more development around it and several bus connections.

        • Beta Magellan says:

          From what I understand, the Red Line was originally supposed to terminate in a park-and-ride at 128, via Arlington and Lexington, but NIMBYism from Arlington resulted the line being terminated at Alewife and the large park-and-ride was moved there. In retrospect, I think this was a good thing—although ridership from Arlington would have been strong (the MBTA still provides frequent-ish bus service there), the low ridership density further out (combined with more peak-oriented demand) would have been a drain on O&M costs.

  10. Pingback: News & Notes — Greater City: Providence

  11. truthspew says:

    Very informative and well researched post on how to improve the MBTA. If only the Federal Government would release a little more money. You know how they want to put a .003% tax on all stock and bond transactions I say tax them at 5%. Why? The stock and bond markets trade $6 Trillion a year. At the 5% rate and divided evenly among the states it’s $6 billion per state per year!

    Maybe with a piece of that $6 Billion here in Providence, we could build a streetcar system instead of just a line that benefits Brown University.

    But I really like your recommendation of 4 per hour during peak, or 1 every 15 minutes, and then 2 per hour or every 30 minutes.

    The MBCR out of Boston to Providence uses the 2 per – I remember it well when I’d get into South Station before the 5:40PM train, and the next wasn’t until a full 30 minutes later during PEAK!
    Ut si!

    • Andre Lot says:

      @truthspew: imagine if each time a $ 100 bank note was exchanged in a cashier there were a $ 5 tax for the transaction. Taxes on transactions are the worst possible because they do not relate to value creation or even generation of income. They just hamper the transactions itself and quickly lead to readjustments to avoid them.

      The nominal amount of stocks traded in US markets in the ball of US$ 60, not 6 trillion, as there are many high-volume, extremely-short-term traders in the market.

      In any case, this reasoning (taxing something completely unrelated to earmark funds for another purpose) is bad fiscal policy from start.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        Imagine if every time you wanted to take money out of an ATM there was a 1% fee…… Or everytime you swiped your debit card the merchant had to pay the processor….

      • Alon Levy says:

        I’m not going to comment on the desirability of a stock market tax, but let me just point out that normally, general revenues are not directly linked to government expenses. There’s usually a separate tax for pensions and other social benefits (I don’t know how it works in the Netherlands, but in France, social insurance is funded out of a separate, very high payroll tax). Sometimes there are small earmarked taxes for local functions, like Ile-de-France’s payroll tax, which is deeded to public transportation. But outside these special cases, general government outlays come from a general heap of money funded by general taxes.

        • Sascha Claus says:

          »Sometimes there are small earmarked taxes for local functions, like Ile-de-France’s payroll tax, which is deeded to public transportation.«

          Any ‘autorité organisatrice de transport urbain’ with >10,000 inhabitants is allowed to levy the ‘versement transport’, according to

          Various of the new tramway systems were built with it’s help: Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Nantes, …

      • Nathanael says:

        Transaction taxes on stock sales are an *excellent* idea, but not for the reason of raising money. There is currently a very severe problem with electronic “high-frequency trading” dominating the market. Prices bear no relationship to fundamentals, and massive swings happen easily.

        A transaction tax on stocks, such as the UK has (“stamp tax”), such as almost all European countries have, would drive the high-frequency short-term computerized traders out of the market and make it more usable for everyone else.

        • Adirondacker12800 says:

          That and or short term capital gains versus long term capital gains. It wasn’t so long ago that to take advantage of lower capital gains tax rates you had to hold an asset for 6 months, If you held it for 5 months and 29 days the tax rate was 50%. IIRC you couldn’t opt to have it taxed at your marginal rate.

          • Nathanael says:

            The capital gains discount tax rate still only applies to stocks held for a year or more.

            It doesn’t make much difference for short-term traders who are part of a big corporation though. They deduct their losses from their gains, and the resulting trading profits just go into the general profits of the corporation, with all the other corporate tax deductions being available before they actually have to pay any taxes.

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            Today you can opt to have it taxed at your marginal rate. Marginal rates are well under 50% nowadays.

          • Nathanael says:

            Ohhh, you’re thinking of before Reagan’s 1986 Tax Act, the first of the big “tax breaks for the rich”.

            Since 1986, short-term capital gains are taxed at your marginal rate (like everything else).

            Before 1986, the rules on capital gains were *completely* different. They were much more complicated, actually. That’s quite a long time ago, though — 25 years now.

          • Adirondacker12800 says:

            Yes, there was life before Saint Ronnie.

  12. Adirondacker12800 says:

    Those two stations cost $336 million between them.

    Ack I can’t find it – the reference. That 336 million included a lot of infrastructure, like relocating the car rental agencies and building a parking garage for them, that isn’t closely coupled to mass transit.

  13. anonymouse says:

    I personally think that improving the MBTA requires basically reversing the priorities that they’ve had for capital construction in the past couple of decades, and aligning them more closely with what the MBTA is actually good at, as measured by ridership. The focus has been on commuter rail expansion to exurban parking lots, followed by some amount of bus “improvements” in the form of BRT, both the kind on the Silver Line and the kind on the other Silver Line. Meanwhile, the heavy rail system has more ridership than either one of those, and together with the Green Line, they far outweigh the bus and commuter rail systems put together. The light rail and heavy rail tunnels are also a very expensive piece of infrastructure that the MBTA already has, so the priority should be in making the most of it, first by bringing everything up to a state of good repair, then by a few targeted expansions to make use of spare capacity in the subway core.

    The Red Line in particular is currently pretty full, yet the peak headway is only 4.5 (or 4) minutes due to signal system constraints. The core section of the line needs a resignalling, and the service on the line needs to be focused on the core, which anecdotally is approximately between Alewife and South Station during the peaks, and between Harvard and South Station during off-peak. This requires building some turnback facilities, but it would have the benefit of maximizing service cost-effectiveness by concentrating the service where the ridership is. The same principles can be applied to the Orange Line and to some extent the Blue Line, to provide better service for a lower cost. In terms of system expansion, the MBTA should build whatever it can afford, focusing on dense urbanized areas and whatever relatively inexpensive opportunities there are to expand service along cheap surface ROWs and get more trains to use the downtown subways. The extension of the Orange Line to Needham could be justified as a way to better serve Roslindale and West Roxbury, and divert the commuter rail customers from the overloaded South Station into the underutilized Washington St Tunnel. At some point, the downtown transfers will become the limiting factor in subway capacity, at which point a few key extensions in Downtown would be useful as well, notably the Red-Blue connection and possibly a Green Line extension from Boylston to South Station (instead of the aborted Silver Line Phase III project). The Red-Blue connector should be built in such a way that the Blue Line can be extended west to Kenmore and take over one or more Green Line branches.

    The place where large scale expansion will need to take place is largely with on the Green Line. The E line should be reinstated to Arborway, and the Silver Line replaced with a Green Line extension using the abandoned tunnel south of Boylston. The other key Green Line expansion priority is probably a crosstown route following the route of today’s 66 bus. Hopefully rail on the surface will be sufficiently fast, reliable, and capacious, that people will actually take it, rather than going via Park Street because they don’t want to wait an indeterminate amount of time for an overcrowded bus.

    While all this is being done, Commuter Rail expansion will need to take a break, being limited to small fixes that improve operational efficiency, including high level platforms at stations (to reduce dwell times), a Track 2 platform at Ruggles (to reduce operational complexity on the NEC), maybe a few targeted infill stations to improve service to the urban core and to outlying town centers. If Amtrak actually finishes electrifying track 3, and high platforms are built, maybe the MBTA could lease a few EMUs (probably from Metro North) and run electric service on the Providence Line.

    The next phase of the plan for the commuter rail is making the network useful as a sort of cheaper, faster, less frequent version of rapid transit, to serve the inner suburbs: up to Brandeis on the Fitchburg Line, Norwood or Walpole on the Franklin Line, Riverside on the Worcester Line, Salem on the Rockport/Newburyport Line, and so on. This would require more infill stations, more rolling stock, and electrification, but because the distances are fairly short, the electrification is not terribly expensive, and it would not take a lot of rolling stock: only a couple of trains per line to provide half-hourly inner suburban service.

  14. ComradeFrana says:

    “…possibly a Green Line extension from Boylston to South Station.”
    “Silver Line replaced with a Green Line extension using the abandoned tunnel south of Boylston”

    If both of these are done, then it might make sense to separate the green line at Boylston. E-W: current south part of Green Line to South Station and N-S: current north part of Green Line plus Silver Line to Dudley replacement.

    • anonymouse says:

      Not really, unfortunately. It would make for a very busy transfer at Boylston, where there isn’t a whole lot of room, and I’m sure there’s way more than enough demand going from the west to Park Street and beyond, which would be a poor match to the level of demand the Washington Street service would need. Anyway, it’s not like it would be a huge problem to tie in a South Station extension. There’s space between the tracks east of Arlington where there used to be a ramp to the surface. That space can be reused for a ramp downward, ducking under the Dudley-bound tunnel at Boylston. The alignment could largely stay under the streets. And unlike the Silver Line plan, you wouldn’t have to dig up half of Boston Common to do this.

      • Beta Magellan says:

        How convenient would the connections at South Station be, though? I imagine things are pretty constrained down there by now.

        • anonymouse says:

          The idea is to take over the Silver Line tunnel and probably the SL2 branch, and run the SL1 bus to the airport on the surface. It would probably be just as fast anyway, given the rather low speed in the tunnel, the time it takes to lower and tie down the trolley poles, and the rather annoying indirect routing from the Silver Line tunnel to the Ted Williams tunnel. Fun fact: on the way from the airport, the bus stops in front of the World Trade Center station, then loops around to Silver Line Way, before going into the tunnel and stopping at the World Trade Center station again. If you get off at the surface stop and walk quickly, you can usually catch the preceding bus in the tunnel and save 5 minutes.

          • Alon Levy says:

            For airport service, the Red-Blue connection is probably more important, since the Blue Line gets more than twice as much airport ridership as the Silver Line. The Silver Line is useful mainly for people traveling to South Station, i.e. me, but for people in Cambridge, most of Boston, and the cities to the north, the Blue Line is more useful.

          • KE says:

            From Cambridge, people take the Red LIne to the Silver Line to get to the aiport. If you came from North Cambridge, you might do Green – Blue – Airport Bus, but most of Cambridge will go Red – Silver.

      • ComradeFrana says:

        Yeah, you’re probably right, I didn’t check the ridership figures.

  15. Nathanael says:

    The largest problem in Boston emanates from the state government.

    The state government deliberately saddled the MBTA with masses of debt, then ordered the MBTA to carry out legal obligations of the state government (the transit commitments which were made to get the Big Dig approved). Of course, the state government is highway-obsessed (hence the Big Dig). The state government also refused to fund the MBTA.

    Most of Boston’s transit problems arise from this.

    Most of the remainder arise from the fact that MBTA management seems unwilling to push for better results, instead going along with habit and state politicians. So, the state says “We want commuter rail, and Cambridge can go suck eggs”, and the MBTA does so, even though it’s obvious the Cambridge Green Line extension is the most worthwhile thing the MBTA has to build, and it’s a legal obligation of the state government. Also in the spirit of not pushing to improve anything, the MBTA continues to use diesels because “we’ve always used diesels”, not for any actual good reason.

    Repeated ADA lawsuits (over and over and over) have finally woken up the MBTA to the point where it is now pro-active about accessibility. But it took decades. Cambridge and Somerville have been fighting for decades to get the *legally mandated* Green Line extension and *still* the MBTA is dragging its feet (with the support of the law-breaking state government).

    The problems at the MBTA are essentially political. Fix the bad attitude of the state government and you fix all of them. I don’t see how to fix that, of course.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Yes, I was going to go over this, in the post after next. It’s especially bad in Massachusetts, but it’s a general feature in American politics. For example, in the uS, grade separations are considered a railroad improvement and the railroad has to pay for them, even if it was there first; in Japan, they’re considered a highway improvement and the railroad only contributes a small share of the cost. Things like this are part, though by no means all or even most, of the US-rest-of-world cost-per-rider differential.

      • Nathanael says:

        Sigh. Yeah.

        If I understood why it was especially bad in Massachusetts, which has a *huge* ridership compared to most states in the US, I think I might understand how to fix the problem. But I don’t.

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