The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is not exactly most people’s definition of excellence in the provision of public services. As a daily rider of the commuter rail and the subway, I wouldn’t be keen to describe it as the best way of getting into Boston. It’s more like the least terrible option, as the smelly, messy, crowded, unreliable system is still better than spending hours doing nothing except choking on emissions in traffic. However, for my fellow MBTA riders and supporters, our salvation appears to be on the way in the form of the major investment and reform package offered by the Focus40 Plan, described on its webpage as “a comprehensive playbook guiding all capital planning initiatives at the MBTA” (1).
Boston is graced with a historical blessing unique among American cities: it was among the earliest cities to develop in this country. This blessing provides two massive boons for public transit in the Greater Boston Area: the roads, laid down in the era of the horse and buggy, are among the least car-friendly in the nation, and the massive development in the first Industrial Revolution led to massive investment in rail service as a dominant form of transportation. This gives Greater Boston both the incentive and the ability to build an incredible public transportation ecosystem that will decrease costs and travel time for residents, as well as being far more environmentally, economically, and sociologically sustainable than automobile-based systems.
The Focus40 Plan recognizes this tremendous opportunity, and provides a roadmap towards achieving our loftiest public transit dreams. The three overarching, system-wide goals of the plan are accessibility, customer experience and resilience. The MBTA seeks to be a system more accessible to people of all unique abilities, through infrastructure improvements at stations and on vehicles and more reliable services. The plan seeks to improve customer experience by providing more convenience and ease to the system, improving payment methods, and aesthetically improving vehicles to make riding public transit more comfortable. Finally, the plan’s resilience framework seeks to both combat and prepare for the effects of climate change, through infrastructure improvements that will be resilient in the face of sea level rise and more frequent storms, as well as avoiding causing more problems through increased electrification and more efficient vehicles.
The Focus40 Plan includes separate plans tailored to each individual line of service, including the bus system, the subway, the commuter rail and the ferry. Common among all the plans is the goal to reduce environmental impact, create higher-frequency service for more commuter convenience, modernization, extension, and comfort. Particular highlights for me include three-minute service on the Red Line during peak hours and increased focus on developing housing around public transit centers, a particular treat for college students looking to take advantage of Boston’s red-hot job market, as well as a 50 percent increase to capacity on the Green Line; an extension of the Silver Line; low-emission busing; a resilient Blue Line; increased frequency on the Orange Line; and improved service on the ferry.
The biggest change envisioned by the Focus40 Plan is yet incomplete, but incredibly promising, especially to those with dreams of owning a house in the suburbs. Pending the results of the Rail Vision study, the commuter rail system could be expanded into a full-fledged, electrified regional rail system, with vast improvements for higher-frequency, longer-distance service connecting the Greater Boston Area and the region of New England to the booming metropolis of Boston.
It’s incredibly difficult, as a resident of this state, not to get excited about these developments and the long-overdue investments in public transit. I can imagine a future where I will be able to take advantage of more affordable land in the suburban outskirts of the Greater Boston Area, but have a comfortable, convenient, sustainable, affordable half-hour commute to a great job in the city, where otherwise I would be stuck in 3 hours of traffic each way and miss out on the more important things in life. The Focus40 Plan gives me, and thousands of college students like me, fantastic opportunities for the future, satisfying our deepest-held fears of being washed out of our homes by climate change and skyrocketing housing costs, providing us opportunities to live our lives to the fullest.