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Public Transit Closures Bring Heightened Awareness to Their Importance

Written by Amanda Maher

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone? – Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

While often the punch line of jokes, the MBTA’s recent closures seem to have made people acutely aware of the system’s importance. Weeks of extreme delays, including days of outright shutdown, have forced more people on to Boston’s snow-laden roads, sitting in hours of gridlocked traffic, only to find parking bans in effect and parking garages full. As Boston slogs through one of its snowiest winters in decades, resulting MBTA shutdowns have wreaked havoc on the local economy.

Boston’s commuters are not alone. Last month, New York City’s MTA shut down in preparation for a blizzard that turned out not to be. The decision to do so was unprecedented; the MTA has always run at least its underground trains and others at a limited service during snowstorms.

Both MTA Chief Thomas Prendergast and MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott came under fire for their decisions, with the latter official resigning in wake of criticism. The decisions to close public transportation – and for a while, prohibit vehicular traffic – were largely made to ensure public safety in light of what was supposed to be (and in Boston’s case, was) historic snowfall.

Faced with subsequent storms, and subsequent MBTA closures, one thing became clear: Boston has drastically underfunded its public transit systems, and these systems are the backbone of the local economy. People cannot get to work and commerce cannot happen if the public transportation systems do not function.

While Scott has shouldered much of the blame for the MBTA’s recent challenges, the reality is that she’s trying to run the nation’s oldest public transit system, one saddled with more than $9 billion in debt and facing a $3 billion maintenance backlog.

Despite the chaos that ensued during the closures, there is one silver lining: it has reignited a conversation about infrastructure investment. Just months after Massachusetts residents voted down an increase to the gas tax, which would have gone towards funding much-needed improvements, there has been a dramatic shift in the political arena about infrastructure wants and needs.

Scott perhaps said it best in her Feb. 10th press conference, just one day before handing in her resignation: “Yes the T needs to be efficient. It needs to push itself. But this is not just about cutting costs. You can cut every cost you want over here and that is not in fact going to wind up taking the place for what has to be systemic, planned, serious, bold reinvestment in terms of this doggone transportation system.”

Pundits are already making suggestions about how to do so. Their ideas include that the MBTA should be put into receivership; any increase in funding should be tied to performance-based metrics; almost all expansion projects should be put on hold; and maybe the MBTA can just start with an audit, something that hasn’t been done in years.

For better or worse, investment in public transit is now at the top of everyone’s minds in Boston. Policymakers must strike while the iron is hot.

On Feburary 11th, a panel of four Mayors – from Nashville, Louisville, Minneapolis and Atlanta – collectively agreed that investing in public transit offers perhaps the greatest opportunity to address issues of inequality and revitalization within the urban core.

Many of public transportation’s benefits are obvious: It provides access to job opportunities; it increases property values; it saves commuters money that would otherwise be spent on gas and car maintenance; it reduces a person’s carbon footprint; and it offers mobility for those who are unable to drive.

Economic benefits are perhaps less obvious: A new research study finds a $1.5 million to $1.8 billion hidden economic value in increasing public transit. The bigger the city, the bigger the benefit for investing in and expanding transit. Moreover, the American Public Transportation Association finds that every $1 invested in public transportation generates approximately $4 in economic returns. Every $10 million in capital investment and every $10 million in operating investment in public transportation yields $30 million and $32 million in increased business sales, respectively.

It’s a no-brainer. Cities must invest in their public transit systems. State legislatures must support these efforts, as the ripple effects ensure wide-spread economic benefit. Tackling the issues of debt and maintenance backlog will be challenging, but we must find solutions now, while it has the attention of policymakers across the board. Our cities depend on it.

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