Commentary: Invest in, don't cut, the MBTA budget

Commuters are shown on the Uphams Corner platform of the MBTA's Fairmount Line. Chris Lovett photo

Before the pandemic hit, more than one-third of Dorchester residents used the T to get to work. The number is likely considerably higher among low-income families.

The T keeps thousands of cars off the highways and is a huge part of making Boston’s air quality better. We saw drastic improvements in our air quality during the pandemic and bus commutes had never been quicker.

We risk losing all that progress as traffic returns.

Apple Mobility data suggest that traffic is now close to 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels. The burden of this worsening air quality and traffic congestion falls squarely on the residents of communities like Dorchester. 

As folks are working from home, they may ask, “Why should we keep running the T if no one’s riding?” Well, routes like the 28 and 23 have retained 45-51 percent of their pre-pandemic ridership. And it’s not just about how many the T is transporting, but who.

The folks who are keeping this region running— medical professionals, grocery store workers, food service workers, and other essential workers— are still riding the T. They deserve more than our gratitude and clapping. They deserve our help in fighting for the T.

Even more puzzling is this: The T is not talking about immediate steps to save money; it is voting next month on devastating cuts that will have a permanent impact, but that won’t take effect until July when we’re likely to have the worst of COVID behind us. 

There’s a great deal of talk about the future of work, but many Dorchester residents don’t have the luxury of working from home. Cities like Boston have staked the future of our neighborhoods on transit-oriented development; we’ve built denser buildings with less parking to encourage transit usage. These moves would have a chilling effect on housing production across the region, leading to higher housing prices. 

Covid has exacerbated existing problems. The T was already underfunded. Its service was less frequent this January than it was in January 2007. Couple that with a failure to act faster on bus lanes and you have a recipe for slow, crowded buses. That’s why bus ridership had been slipping even before the pandemic.

We have the chance to do things differently now. We should invest so that when some riders return next summer they will have more service, not less. They’ll return to buses that run more frequently and feature real-time info on crowding. And in a few more years when I expect the T will return to pre-pandemic levels or higher, they can look forward to a network of bus lanes that dramatically cut trip times, riding on clean zero-emission electric buses. They can look forward to a Fairmount Line that operates like a subway with fast-accelerating, electric trains departing every seven minutes during rush hour. 

This can only happen if we stop the cuts and actually invest in the system that keeps Boston running. If we push the T and the city of Boston to implement bus lanes and other bus priority treatments, buses will run faster, allowing for more trips with less crowding. This is essential during Covid and will attract riders once we recover.

We must also push the MBTA’s bus electrification team to put equity first. This means starting with communities like Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan who’ve asked for clean zero-emission buses (not simply rebranded diesel spewing hybrids).

It also means fulfilling the promise to the Fairmount Corridor. The eight new trips per day are great. Even though the pilot program started in the middle of the pandemic, the Fairmount’s ridership has proved to be the most durable of any commuter rail line.

We need the T to commit to starting the purchase of new electric multiple units by the end of the spring. The agency must also start the design process for the electrification and accessible stations at Readville and Fairmount.

Finally, the T must work with area workforce development organizations to make sure Fairmount Corridors are the ones to reap the economic benefits of building this line. 

A better future is possible if we just invest in it. 

Jarred Johnson is executive director of Transit Matters, a non-profit advocacy group. He lives in Dorchester.