Meeting Boston's Transit Needs Is as Crucial Today as Finding Water Was in the 1930s

Friday, October 11, 2013

My brother Stephen, who lives out in West Brookfield, took me for a ride down Route 9 and into the Quabbin Reservoir on a Saturday afternoon not too long ago.

The Quabbin is the largest inland body of water in Massachusetts.  When you first glimpse how big and beautiful it is, you can’t help but go, “Wow.”  I’ve lived in Massachusetts my whole life but I’d never seen it before.  It’s like those historical sites in Boston I walk by every day and have never visited.  We take the wonders in our backyards for granted.

The Quabbin is a place of natural splendor but it is not a work of nature.  It sprang entirely from the calculating mind of man. 

Before it could be built in the 1930s, the Republican-dominated legislature enacted a law that allowed the state to dis-incorporate and take over four towns, order the relocation of everyone who lived in those towns, and dam the Swift River, a tributary of the Chicopee River, which runs to the Connecticut River. 

The Swift had to flow for seven long years before the reservoir reached its intended breadth and depth.  From just below Route 2 in the north to just above Route 9 in the south, the Quabbin covers 38.6 square miles and contains more than 400 billion gallons of water. 

The towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott were obliterated, and the natural patrimony of that region was expropriated, so that the City of Boston, 65 miles to the east, could have a reliable source of clean drinking water.

It was all about the economy.  The legislature understood that metropolitan Boston could not continue to grow without more water.  To get that water, it was willing to make some tough decisions, and to face some very strong and impassioned opposition.

The townspeople of the Swift River valley challenged the eminent domain takings in court. The case went all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court before being decided in favor of the Commonwealth.  And the state of Connecticut sued the state of Massachusetts, claiming that water naturally intended to supplement the flow of the Connecticut River would be illegally diverted to the new reservoir, threatening navigation on the Connecticut, New England’s longest river.  That lawsuit failed, too.

I don’t know what’s more amazing, the engineering skill and prodigious labor that built the reservoir or the political will that allowed it to be built.

Some eighty years ago, the elected leaders of Massachusetts faced up to, and solved, a critical infrastructure problem, a lack of water in the east, the growing metropolitan area that propelled the state’s economy.

Today, our elected leaders are confronted with a challenge of comparable historic importance: a public transit system that does not have enough money to maintain and improve its ability to move people quickly into and around the City of Boston. 

The problems are obvious to anyone who rides the T on a regular basis: overcrowded subway cars and buses at every rush hour, old trains and track switches that are prone to breakdowns, frequent mystery glitches that cause full trains to stand by between stations for “scheduling adjustments,” slow and inadequate service during off-peak hours, too many employees who are indifferent, unhelpful or surly (particularly to tourists), non-existent overnight service, and prohibitively expensive commuter rail fares. 

And those are just a few of the problems…Don’t get me started on the escalators that are broken more often than not, the pedestrian tunnels that smell like urinals, and the drivers who scream like Nazis when your train is unexpectedly being put out of service:  “No passengers! No passengers!  This train is out of service! OUT OF SERVICE!”  Wouldn’t it be delightful if restaurants announced they were closing in similar fashion before you finished your dessert?  “No diners!  NO DINERS!”

If you want a snapshot of what I’m talking about, try squeezing onto a jam-packed, in-bound train at Wellington Station at 7:45 a.m., or an outbound train at State at 5:30 p.m.  Then imagine what the Orange Line will be like when the T opens a new station at Assembly Square late next year.   That station is a nightmare waiting to happen: many hundreds of new passengers a day on a line served by the same number of rusty, worn-out, sticky-floored, 40-year-old cars.

Paul McMorrow, one of the editors of the estimable Commonwealth Magazine, summarized what the wretched state of the MBTA implies for the future of our economy in a column published Tuesday, Oct. 8, in the Boston Globe, “Starving MBTA will stunt Boston’s growth.”

“Boston is growing at a pace not seen in the better part of a century,” McMorrow wrote.  “The city has more residents than it has at any point since the 1970s, and has arrived at the renaissance moment city leaders have been chasing for 60 years.  There’s no reason the city can’t keep up with the growth it’s seeing now, as long as it can build places for all these new people to live.

“New homes equal new residents, and new residents equal growth.  It sounds like a straightforward equation, but it isn’t.  Boston doesn’t control its own development fate.  As tough as many of Boston’s neighborhoods can be on developers, the biggest threat to the city’s growth lies with legislators on Beacon Hill.  Lawmakers are starving the MBTA of funds the transit agency needs to support the Boston region’s growth.  And as long as the T’s finances remain anemic, robust growth in Boston will be unsustainable.”

The MBTA is being “starved” for the simple reason that there are no easy or politically appealing ways for lawmakers to get the money needed to bring the T into the 21st century.  I don’t envy them for their options: cutting the wages and benefits of the agency’s unionized workforce, abrogating costly pension commitments, and/or raising taxes. 

Creating a freshwater sea in the middle the state almost looks like child’s play by comparison.

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