Boston’s subway line shutdown shows why we need to invest in transit for the climate

We need to effectively fund the MBTA – and public transit throughout the nation – so that we can invest in long-needed maintenance, improve reliability and service and encourage more people to use public transit.

Sharon Mollerus | CC-BY-2.0
Mackenzie Brown

Global Warming Associate

Public transit emits less than half as much carbon dioxide than private cars, on average, making it a critical avenue to reduce the 27% of US emissions that come from the transportation sector. The more people that choose to take a bus, a train or a subway instead of a car, the better it is for our planet. But people will only choose to do so when public transit is safe and reliable. That hasn’t been the case for the Boston area’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which is currently enduring a 30-day shutdown of one of its subway lines due to years of underfunding and delayed maintenance. Some people have chosen to use the shuttle buses, to bike or to work from home. But others have chosen to drive, and they might not come back if things don’t change.

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) managed Orange Line carries 100,000 passengers a day after the pandemic. On August 2, 2022, after a string of safety incidents, the MBTA announced that the Orange Line would be undergoing a 30-day shutdown for maintenance, with just over two weeks’ notice for riders. During these 30 days, free shuttle buses are available for Orange Line users (as well as for a section of the Green Line that is shut down as well for similar reasons). The city is bringing in buses from all over the country, and almost 200 are expected on the streets of Boston. Several streets have created bus-only lanes, and other streets have been closed to general traffic and are for buses only. Commuter rail is making additional stops parallel to the Orange Line, also free of charge. The city is also partnering with BlueBike to provide an unlimited number of free 45 minute trips. 

The line has now reopened, but several transit advocacy groups criticized the early implementation of the shutdown, with Transit Matters pointing out that shuttle buses have been an inadequate substitute during past shutdowns, such as the almost month-long Blue Line shutdown that occurred just this May. Communications between the MBTA and the public left many riders confused, with contradicting information on posted fliers and the website and a lack of signage available for non-English speakers

MBTA has struggled with a string of safety incidents and shutdowns.The Orange Line shutdown came after the Blue Line shut down just a few months ago (a shutdown that was extended twice), and happened at the same time as a partial Green Line shutdown. This is on top of reduced hours and bus routes.  

While the repairs on the Orange Line proceeded on schedule, it’s clear that the MBTA’s problems aren’t over. The string of accidents and safety issues this and last year led the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to conduct an investigation of the MBTA this April, only the second time the agency has ever investigated the safety of a public transit system. 

The federal audit revealed major problems with the MBTA’s rail system, including a lack of safety training, staff whose certifications had lapsed, poorly maintained infrastructure and operations control staff who did not have sufficient rest time between shifts and were doing two jobs at once. The agency’s four special directives were for the MBTA to properly staff its Operating Control Center, ensure safe operating procedures, invest in critical maintenance and ensure up-to-date employee certifications. The agency also issued a directive to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to enforce these requirements for the MBTA. In late July, the agency ordered an “immediate safety stand down”, requiring safety briefings for all workers who work with out-of-service trains at the railyard. 

So, how did the country’s oldest subway system get to this point? A big part of the problem lies in the MBTA’s financial troubles. For years, the MBTA has struggled with funding, from a major debt burden, beginning after the funding system was restructured in 2000, to more recent COVID-19 ridership declines. This lack of funding is one reason why vital routine maintenance has been deferred again and again, leading to a backlog of capital improvements and resulting in reduced service, shutdowns and safety issues. The safety issues, reliability problems and service cuts of the agency only serve to reduce ridership and revenue further. It’s estimated that at least $12 billion more in MBTA funding will be needed over the next decade for capital improvements alone.

America’s private car usage is unsustainable for our health and our planet. Public transit creates less health-harming and planet-warming pollution than private cars, and it’s a more efficient use of space. Rather than wasting our transportation dollars on unnecessary highway expansion boondoggles, states should be funding transit and trying to increase ridership as much as possible. 

The Orange Line shutdown has also shown us that it’s possible to make major changes in the urban environment in a short amount of time. The bus lanes and private car-free streets that were created in response to the influx of shuttle buses shows us that making more space for non-car modes of transportation is possible on a quick turnaround, and we should do this across the city. Reducing or eliminating fares, especially in response to service issues, and offering free bike passes are other actions that, if financially feasible, might also persuade people to leave their car at home.

A transit system in a dense urban area like the MBTA can be a major resource in encouraging a shift from cars to walking, biking and transit as ways we get around. However, if it continues its safety and reliability issues, it’s only going to lose more riders. We need to effectively fund the MBTA – and public transit throughout the nation – so that we can invest in long-needed maintenance, improve reliability and service and encourage more people to use public transit. 


Mackenzie Brown

Global Warming Associate

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