A tough year for the MBTA just got worse

And winter is on the way.

Officials look at a Red Line train that took off without an operator as it rests at an MBTA yard in Boston.
Officials look at a Red Line train that took off without an operator as it rests at an MBTA yard in Boston. –The Boston Globe

The cost to fix Boston’s aging mass transit system is $7 billion. Its biggest expansion project is in limbo. To top it all off, a driverless T train just coasted away from a Red Line station with dozens of passengers aboard.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is not having the best year ever.

After last winter’s epic snowfall brought transit to a standstill, the MBTA has embarked on a public awareness campaign in recent weeks trumpeting the fact that it is, indeed, ready to take on winter this time around. But bad weather is only one of many looming challenges for the T.

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Officials were investigating Thursday what they believe was an operator error after an unmanned train took off from Braintree and traveled through four stations. A day earlier, a woman was struck and killed by a train, forcing shuttle bus service across much of the Red Line route. The day before that brought Red Line delays after a man was hit by a train at Broadway station.

These one-off incidents have made for bad news this week, but for months transit leaders have dissected the T’s longer-term issues, ranging from hefty repair needs to a swath of management and financial problems.

Even good news for the agency has turned sour. A year ago, the T celebrated as the federal government agreed to fund half of the long-awaited Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford. But within months, the project was as much as $1 billion over budget and in jeopardy. Transportation officials said this week that the rail expansion could still be canceled if costs are not significantly reined in. The cost control process began Thursday when the T terminated the project’s existing contracts.

Since the MBTA started publishing on-time service reports in September, the Red and Orange Lines have rarely had a day in which more than 80 percent of their trains showed up within one minute of their expected arrival. Even during peak hours, trains on the two lines often fall below 75 percent for on-time arrival rates, which is the T’s target.

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Meanwhile, the MBTA’s new Fiscal and Management Control Board, which was created at the urging of Gov. Charlie Baker after the disastrous winter, has been faced with a a $7.3 billion repair backlog, and is grappling with strategies to close a $242 million budget deficit expected next year. One item on a vast menu of options to close the gap: fare hikes, potentially as high as 10 percent.

The prospect has rankled some transit advocates, who say that the T should limit any increase to 5 percent. Others point to the quality of service and say the T shouldn’t expect fare hikes at all.

“Hiking T fares now is not justified by service quality,’’ wrote former Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi in an article for CommonWealth magazine. “Imagine a company that sells sour milk thinking that the first step toward rebuilding its business is to charge more for the sour milk.’’

Others argue fare increases, service adjustments, and other internal measures to raise revenue and cut costs will not solve the T’s problems. Caroline Casey of the T Riders Union told transportation officials this week that the legislature should provide more funding, saying lawmakers had neglected the MBTA “for decades.’’

“When you do that for long enough, all of the buses and trains start to break, riders are punished with endless fare hikes no matter how many times that fails to fix the problem, and ridership stagnates,’’ she said. “Because who in their right mind would choose a broken-down, unreliable system that seems to believe charging more for the same bad service is an appropriate way to handle its own mess?’’

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The MBTA has at least voiced confidence in its approach to the coming winter. The state has funneled about $85 million this year toward bolstering the system with new snow equipment, infrastructure and emergency response plans.

MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola, who was not in charge last winter, has said he guarantees a better commute this winter.

While there’s little doubt that trains should run more smoothly in the snow this year due to the new investment, last winter set a fairly low bar to clear, said Charlie Ticotsky, policy director for Transportation for Massachusetts, a transit advocacy group.

“I’m reasonably confident that the T is more ready to face this winter than last winter, and I give a lot of credit to the T and Governor Baker,’’ Ticotsky said. “But clearly we have problems that are much bigger than that.’’

The MBTA’s winter woes, in pictures:

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