Saturday, January 11, 2014

MBTA, Step Up Your Game - an Editorial

As you have probably noticed, I haven't been posting as much as I was in the last few days. Basically, school started up again and I've been busy and not able to post as often as I was able to over vacation. So yes, I will be going back to my "Supposedly Once a Week But Not Really" posting schedule in the coming days. For now, though, I have this editorial I wrote for school about the MBTA's debt. I got a 100% on it, so it must be sorta decent, right?


Imagine Boston with no public transportation: Our roads, already unable to handle rush hour traffic, would be even more congested than ever. And getting to and from the airport would be completely impossible.
Parking is hell right now, it would be even worse without a subway. Tourists trying to see the Prudential? Tough luck. Business people getting to meetings downtown? Fat chance. Families trying to see a play? If you leave two hours early you could make it. With only slow, congested buses with severely limited schedules and insanely high fares to ride, it’s impossible to get anywhere quick.
Now admittedly, the MBTA isn't going to shut down the entire subway system anytime soon; however, service frequency could be reduced if they don’t do anything about their debt. They've already taken some steps to try to make some money: they've raised fares (and are considering doing it again), cut some lesser-used bus routes, and have requested proposals for corporate station naming. And really, it’s not the MBTA’s fault. After the Big Dig, which cost $22 billion in the end, they dumped the debt onto the MBTA, despite them not really contributing much to the project.
They may not have made some of the best decisions, though. Take the corporate station naming, which I’m all for if it puts some money in the coffers. However, they also sent out requests for proposals for corporate line naming. Aside from the obvious lunacy of the idea (“The next Dunkin’ Donuts Red Line train is now arriving”), it would only cost a company $2 million a year to buy the Green Line, according to the Boston Globe. Considering that buying a station costs $1 million a year, I think the price of the entire Green Line could be raised. As long as it’s inevitably going to have some goofy company name attached to it, and considering that it’s an entire line, I feel $5 million or even $10 million would be more suitable.
There are money-wasters even more apparent that the MBTA just doesn't seem to notice. Lights, for example. In particular, the fact that every light on the system isn't energy efficient at all. Let’s just consider the lights in the tunnel: there is about 17 miles of tunnel on the system, or 29,920 yards. Assuming there is a light every three yards, we can divide 29,920 by three to get 9973. However, there are lights on both sides of the tunnel, so we can multiply 9973 by two to get 19,946. It costs $48 a year to run one T12 light, which is the type of light used in the tunnels, so 19,946 times $48 is $957,408 per year. And that’s just for the tunnels!
Now let’s say the MBTA replaces all those lights with T8’s, which cost $13.20 a year. This would bring yearly costs down to only $263,287 per year! Now the MBTA would have to buy all these lights - each T8 costs about $4.00. If we multiply 19,946 (the number of lights needed) by 4, you get $79,784.  Yes, it’s a large amount, but it would pay off so quickly!
Another issue is that somewhat used buses are being eliminated, while there is another bus not being used the MBTA refuses to get rid of: the SL2. It runs from South Station to the Design Center, which is in the middle of an industrial wasteland. Sure, many people use it during rush hour, where it makes sense to run every 5 minutes. On weekends, however, the bus is literally empty. Literally empty, and it runs every 15 minutes. Why is the MBTA operating this bus every 15 minutes with nobody riding while other, better used routes get cut to three trips a day?
The SL2 also uses articulated buses. Again, that makes perfect sense on weekdays when it’s packed to the brim anyway, but on the weekend, it just seems like a total waste of a bus. Admittedly, they have to use the articulated buses because they’re dual-mode (i.e. able to change from electric to diesel power). But couldn't they just not run the SL2 on the weekends and use the extra buses for the SL1 to the airport (which is a sardine can no matter the time)?
The Pioneer Institute has found another issue with the MBTA: overstaffing bus maintenance. Gregory Sullivan, the research director for the Pioneer Institute, says that the MBTA could save $250 million over the next six years by lowering bus maintenance costs to national standards, hiring less workers to do the maintenance, and paying them less. Apparently, though, it’s not entirely the T’s fault; the “Pacheco Law” restricts privatization at the MBTA (and other government sectors), preventing officials from saving money by letting private companies handle bus maintenance. But still, $250 million is a lot of money.
The state’s trying to do something about the debt problem, luckily. A new bill raises gas taxes by 3%, and gives 32% of the total collected gas taxes to the MBTA. Of course, whether it’s enough to help substantially remains to be seen. The MBTA plans to carry out a lot of transportation projects, such as extending service hours through the night, or in the long term, the Green Line West Medford extension.

But there’s just so much the MBTA can do about the debt! To avoid drastic changes for the worst, such as fare hikes and service cuts, the MBTA needs to start now. The corporate station naming is a good start, although line naming is going way too far. They could save almost $700,000 a year by changing lights in the tunnels alone! And imagine if they did it for all the stations, too. Fairly well-used buses are being eliminated while the SL2 is sending empty buses to an industrial wasteland every 15 minutes on weekends. And they could save $250 million in six years by following Gregory Sullivan’s plan to reduce the amount of bus maintenance workers. You’ve got so many options, MBTA. Why haven’t you done anything with them?

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