Boston’s Transportation Crisis: A Q&A with Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu

Bill Sikes/AP Photo

Riders board a "T" train car in Boston. 

New York City responded to its “summer of hell” with congestion pricing that will steer hundreds of millions of dollars to the city’s subways. Washington’s Metro launched a mammoth capital repair program after a spate of electrical fires, and its member jurisdictions, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, ceased endless dithering to agree on new annual funding contributionsThese crises forced municipal and state leaders to swap out the toxic incrementalism that passed for action with real strategies to solve mobility crises that affect millions of people, riders and drivers alike.

And then there’s Boston. The Homeric ineptitude of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the country’s fifth-largest transit system, is the stuff of legend. Financial crises and service-shuttering snowstorms have led to important management reforms. But abysmal service, especially the daily delays and breakdowns in the subway system, have shredded confidence in the “T.” From 2014 to 2018, the MBTA had the second-highest number of derailments in the country—and two derailments this month have forced many people back to cars and into the worst traffic in the U.S.

After six years in office, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu has emerged as an unusually outspoken critic of MBTA officials and Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who authorized a state takeover of the system four years ago, but suffers from the perception that he does not feel riders’ pain. In the wake of the derailments, Wu is leading an MBTA protest against new fare hikes next week.

The pressure from Wu and other transportation advocates has begun to pay off: On Tuesday, Baker announced a five-point “capital acceleration plan” to tack on to the ongoing $8 billion capital investment program. The new project is designed to move “historic investments at a faster pace to improve service” through a more aggressive repair, inspection, and preventative maintenance schedule—which should have been the goal all along. As former Massachusetts transportation secretary turned transit advocate Jim Aloisi tweeted: “some good ideas (more aggressive closures to expedite work); some problematic use of capital funds. This needs some solid vetting.”

Wu tweeted: “They’re coming around. Slowly, but they’re coming around.”

Progressive lawmakers like Wu and Representative Ayanna Pressley, her former city council colleague who is now in Congress, continue to convulse Boston’s white, male old guard. Often mentioned as a possible 2021 challenger to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (who has intensified his own MBTA critiques in light of hers), Wu says she is focused on her re-election campaign and generating the political momentum necessary to gin up new revenues for the disintegrating system. Everyone should have “a right to basic mobility,” she argues, and has called for the MBTA to be free of fares. Given the abysmal service T riders endure daily, free might be asking too much. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Gabrielle Gurley: In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority two years ago. Is it time for the MBTA to do the same?

Michelle Wu: The reality is we are already in a state of emergency for the T whether or not our leaders in office declare it so. The MBTA is headed toward a total shutdown at some point in the not too far-off future if things don’t change quickly and drastically.

In 2016, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority shut down the entire rail system for one day on short notice, which got the attention of the policymakers.

We saw a little bit of that in the immediate aftermath of the derailment and after the snowpocalypse [of 2015]. Social media has been really powerful, bridging that gap between people in decision-making positions and the reality of what it’s like to use this service day to day: the crowded trains, the crumbling facilities, and the unhealthy air quality is inside the stations.

We’ve had constituents in recent years ask elected officials to take a pledge to take the T every day for a week and report back on their experiences. Some have done it; some have not. Governor Baker has been one of the most visible elected officials in rejecting calls to ride the T. [He] doesn’t believe he needs to be the one seeing [the problems] if people associated with the transit agency are regular riders.

That creates a gap in terms of his understanding. On July 1, the fares for subway and commuter rail riders are going up. The juxtaposition of impending fare hikes just days after two derailments within the span of one week is too much. We should be lowering barriers to transit and expanding access no matter what. But it’s especially insulting to riders to ask for more in the face of a system that is not only unreliable but unsafe.

Rather than [boycotting] the system or getting people off of the T, we need to encourage people to get on the T but then get informed and get motivated to take action together. The sheer number of people on public transit is enough to sway any political decision if people just got on the same agenda, so that is the goal.

You’ve talked about a right to public mobility. How do you define that?

Mobility and transportation is fundamental for people to be able to get from a house, or a living situation that they can afford, to a job that can bring opportunity, from educational opportunities to the health care that they need for their families.

When we are increasingly living in a segregated society, having the ability to go between different geographic areas is the only way that we will be able to close the other gaps as well as racial disparities and income inequality. There are some things that are public goods that everyone has a right to be free from having to pay. Think about public education, how we don’t charge kids and families to go to public school. Everyone has the right to have that preparation and that access.

Public libraries—think about someone proposing that idea today—we will have a place that people can go and they can take [books] out for free! Our thinking has changed so much. Public transportation is the same concept. When we get more people to ride public transit and get out of cars, it’s not only helping those individual people get to work, it’s also helping people who have to drive. Every person that gets out of traffic and onto public transit is reducing congestion and emissions, cleaning up our air, and giving us a fighting chance against climate change.

Right now, we think of public transportation as a service for the people who use it and need to be responsible for maintaining it through user fees. But that model doesn’t work for so many reasons, and it doesn’t match where we need to be in terms of our economy and our climate.

Multiple local organizations have proposed all sorts of revenue streams, everything from increasing the surcharges on Uber and Lyft, because they are directly contributing to traffic as well as siphoning users from public transit. Massachusetts has one of the lowest assessments on Uber and Lyft in the country at 20 cents per ride.

Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Commons

Boston City Councilmember Michelle Wu

That’s very low.

We were one of the first states to come up with a regulatory scheme, but that number needs to be adjusted. There is also talk about congestion pricing or gas tax, which hasn’t increased. There was even [voters’] rejection of indexing inflation. The relative cost of driving versus public transit, when you account for all of the maintenance costs, is very out of whack.

There are income revenue sources, whether it’s a tax on the wealthiest in the state or removing certain types of exemptions; for example, we give an exemption on the sales tax to aircraft parts and fuel. There are a lot of transportation revenue sources if we went with every single one of them would [total] $20 billion over the next ten years.

After a decade of debate, New York finally implemented congestion pricing. Why isn’t there more state-level urgency about the MBTA after years of careening crisis to crisis? 

There are two pieces to it: One is that fundamentally, it is tricky to ask a body with representatives from all across the state, including many districts with no access whatsoever to the MBTA, to think about potentially moving funding away from one bucket toward this bucket that they believe doesn’t touch their residents and constituents.

There’s a lack of a plan and vision. We need to move to a regional rail system. It’s hard for those elected representatives to be on board. It would be very different if it were, for example like Chicago, where the city ran the subway and bus system and there was a separate authority that managed commuter rail.

The other piece of it is often because our transit system is only designed for a particular type of movement even within the city of Boston, it funnels people from neighborhoods to downtown. People have just gotten used to finding other ways when they need to get around and that includes elected officials who have to travel from the State House and City Hall.

Meanwhile, climate resilience is a huge concern in coastal Boston. In neighborhoods like the Seaport, which lies in a floodplain near downtown, there has been a tremendous amount of construction, investment, and flooding of a subway station and streets during storms. What’s the way forward?

It’s a similar conversation to parts of the system being shut down and not being able to function. This is all about preparedness and redundancy: How can we make sure that if something needs to [close] down for repairs or there is flooding from a weather event, that there are other ways that people can get around the city.

I have proposed an ordinance around green development and better regulation of development with my colleague, Matt O’Malley, the chair of our environment and sustainability committee. State law explicitly says that cities can regulate on top of that and almost every coastal city in Massachusetts has done it. Boston is one of only three that has not. Therefore, development decisions particularly related to climate and resiliency are handled by the city development agency just as any others are.

The conservation commission kind of weighs in, most often in an advisory way but not with real teeth. The ordinance would shift some of that regulatory power to the conservation commission and create some more accountability and some more consistency in development near climate-sensitive areas or directly on the waterfront or near wetlands.

What’s preventing Massachusetts from resolving this transportation crisis?

The barrier here really seems to be the unwillingness of the governor and most of his appointees to [the Fiscal and Management Control Board] to even consider greater investment in the MBTA. Ultimately, it does come back to the willingness to seek more funding. But the political will to do that, from those that have the most direct authority over the system, isn’t there.


This post has been updated.

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