Good Luck, Mr. Eng – You’ll Need It

Governor Maura Healey last week announced the appointment of Phillip Eng as the next General Manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Eng is an engineer with nearly 40 years of experience in transportation, including serving as the President of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Long Island Rail Road and the Interim President of New York City Transit. 

To say that Mr. Eng will be facing a number of significant and immediate challenges is not even an understatement.

His appointment comes on the heels of an announcement by the T a few weeks ago that speed restrictions between 10-25 miles per hour on the Red, Orange, Blue, and Green Lines — in other words, the entire system — were to go into effect immediately because of the decrepit condition of the rail beds on the T’s tracks.

As we can attest after riding on the Red Line two weeks ago — in which we crawled along at a snail’s pace for almost the entire ride from South Station through Quincy — the T’s Rapid Transit system is anything but rapid and more aptly could be described as the Turtle Trolley.

In addition to unsafe tracks, the T also has to deal with the roving gangs of thugs on its trains who terrorize passengers with seeming impunity, as has been the case recently on the other end of the Red Line, where passengers were mugged during rush hour at Harvard Square station.

The T also has to address a serious shortfall of workers. According to news reports, the T is offering new employees a $7500 cash signing bonus in order to make a dent in its present shortfall of 2800 workers. The manpower shortage already is having an effect on the frequency of bus routes. But given the low unemployment rate in the state, the T’s prospects of getting the new workers it needs to function at anywhere near 100 percent optimization seem slim.

The T also is dealing with a huge decrease in ridership across all of its modes of transportation. We took the Hingham Ferry to Rowe’s Wharf last week during rush hour. Before the pandemic, there would be a long line of commuters snaking along the waterfront from the Rowe’s Wharf hotel to board the ferry back to Hingham.

Instead there were no more than 10 people waiting to get onto the boat — and this was at 5:30 on a Friday evening, usually a prime-time rush hour boat that ordinarily would be packed with commuters. This decrease is not confined to the ferry.  According to the T’s own figures, there were 1.2 million daily riders of the T in February, 2019. However, in February 2023, the number was 702,000 — a huge decline that is not expected to increase any time soon.

In addition, the T’s ambitious plans to electrify its buses have encountered significant delays. In order to electrify its buses, the T needs to construct new garages that are capable of charging an electric bus fleet. However, the garages that already are under construction in Cambridge and Quincy are facing significant delays and the third garage on the Arborway in Jamaica Plain already is two years behind schedule. Plus, according to news reports, the T is facing delays in the delivery of the electric buses it has ordered.

It is clear that even with a significant infusion of cash from the legislature, the T will have difficulty bringing its system into the 21st century. Moreover, given the already-low ridership and the poor quality of service, the T will continue to lose riders who cannot afford to be late for work everyday because of decrepit infrastructure and a lack of workers.

The MBTA always has been a favorite target for criticism from the press and politicians. However, the many years of neglected maintenance, which are due entirely to underfunded budgets from the legislature, combined with the after-effects of the pandemic, have brought the T to the crisis situation it is facing today.

Mr. Eng may very well be a superb choice for the top job at the T, but no one should expect him to work miracles.

All of us should wish him the best of luck because a modern and efficient public transportation system is essential for the Boston Metropolitan area to thrive.

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