Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager for just over a year now, admits that the 2010s “had its challenges for the T.” But he thinks the agency came out of the decade for the better. And the next 10 years, Poftak says, will bring an “exciting period.”
By 2030, the MBTA will near the midpoint of the Focus40 plan it released last March. Ticking through each of the transit lines, Poftak says riders will hopefully be reaping the rewards of a slate of major investments that are planned to be finished by 2023, if not earlier.
“We will have gotten through a number of significant modernization programs, which I think will really improve not only the capacity but the reliability of the T,” he told Boston.com in a recent interview.
There will be several hundred new Orange and Red line cars on the tracks, which the MBTA hopes will knock down the frequency between trains to four-and-a-half minutes (Orange Line) and three minutes (Red Line), respectively. Poftak says the improvements will be a “real game changer for people who use that service” — and more attractive to people who don’t.
“These upgrades are substantial, right?” he said. “We have Red Line cars dating back to 1969. We’re going to be running all new cars that have been produced in the 2020s. That’s going to be a huge improvement for our customers.”
The Green Line will also be on the “tail end” of its multi-phase transformation by 2030, with new cars and redesigned stations that Poftak says will “double” the line’s capacity. And not to be overlooked, the Green Line Extension to Somerville and Medford will be in its ninth year.
On the Blue Line, efforts are underway to prepare for the impacts of climate change and increased development up the North Shore (see: Suffolk Downs).
By 2030, the MBTA will have also rolled out its (delayed) new automated fare collection. Poftak expects the agency to be at “some stage” in the transition to a carbon-neutral bus fleet. There will also be dozens, if not hundreds, of new double-decker commuter rail coaches, more frequent service and electrification on several commuter rail lines, and at least the first phase of South Coast Rail.
If that all sounds like a lot, it is.
And some have raised questions about the MBTA’s ability to deliver on the myriad of projects. Ian Ollis, a former Pioneer Institute researcher and MIT transportation planning graduate student, told Boston.com that the agency’s complex hiring practices and management structures “slow down progress, especially on mega projects.”
Poftak acknowledges that the volume of work and investment “to modernize the system is unprecedented in the T’s history.”
“We’re in the process of adding significant staffing, both in our capital delivery department, but also in our operations, so we have the capacity to support all these capital projects,” he said, adding that the T has been working to construct budgets that take into account the impacts of the projects.
“For instance, if we start at the end of calendar year 2021 on the Green Line Extension, we’re going to have to pay people to operate those trains and repair those tracks and maintain those vehicles,” Poftak said. “So we need to make sure that we’re planning for that, and we are.”
And if the MBTA’s projects weren’t enough, the new decade brings the start of a project some have called “Big Dig 2.”
With an estimated eight to 10 years of construction, the major highway project to replace and straighten a stretch of the Mass. Pike in Allston promises commuters a lot of pain before its gains. Construction is still at least two years away, but officials are planning to reduce the number of I-90 lanes in the area from eight to six, as Commonwealth magazine recently reported.
“It adds additional — depending on your view of the world — incentives or pressure to increase capacity on the Worcester Line,” Poftak said, noting that the MBTA recently approved a long-term plan to increase service across the commuter rail network.
“Those things dovetail nicely,” he added.
What dovetails less nicely is that the construction may also result from time to time in the local closure of one of the two Worcester Line tracks, as well as the closure of the Grand Junction Line, an infrequently used freight line that connects North Station to Kendall Square to Allston and that is used by the MBTA to move trains and equipment between the south and north sides of Boston.
As the multimodal I-90 redesign nears, calls have gotten louder for running MBTA passenger service from a proposed West Station in Allston to Kendall and North Station along the Grand Junction railroad. As state officials continue to plan, they face a near-term pivotal decision about whether to make enough space to run regular service along the route. If they don’t, Ollis says it could have “negative impacts for decades to come.”
Poftak knows there’s “significant constituency” for the service on the Grand Junction line, which he says the MBTA is considering. He also knows that, like most major projects, it’s not simple.
“There’s some pretty important groundwork that would have to be laid first, in terms of what is the potential demand, what does the service level look like, and then what would the impact be,” Poftak said, noting that there would be ground-level train crossings through East Cambridge.
“There’s definitely a constituency, as there are for other types of pilots,” he added.
Looking ahead, Poftak is similarly hesitant to commit to any timeline to other proposed projects that are popular among transit advocates, such as the Red-Blue connector, which he says would be farther off on the horizon than 2030.
“We’re taking a look at what engineering would be required and then what the funding needs would be, along with a whole bunch of other projects that we’re looking to fund as well,” he said.
The agency’s Focus40 plan includes a number of “big ideas” being considered with an eye toward 2040. The list includes autonomous buses, creating subway “superstations” in downtown Boston, extending the Blue Line to Lynn, extending the Green Line both to Hyde Square in Jamaica Plain and to Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford, and extending the Orange Line to Everett and Roslindale.
Poftak notes that the MBTA’s long-term plans were “always intended to be living documents.”
“As someone who grew up in this area and has been around here a long time, some of the places where we’re seeing demand and some of the places where we’re seeing development are frankly surprising to me,” he said. “And I have no doubt that in 2030 there will be additional surprises.”