Boston’s transit system named among nation’s best – truly

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BOSTON – Despite its well-documented troubles, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority ranks as the nation’s third-best mass transit system, according to a new study.

The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology released its list of top urban transportation networks last week. Though behind San Francisco and New York City, Boston received higher marks than other big cities, including Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.

Still, a rating of 9.44 out of a possible 10 might come as a surprise to regular riders of the T.  The transportation authority has weathered months of criticism since it ground to a halt during the record snows of the 2014-15 winter.

More recently, MBTA managers faced the ire of advocacy groups as it moved to adopt higher fares. Despite the protests, the cost to use the transit system will rise by an average of 9.3 percent starting July 1. Agency officials, who approved the hike in March, said the money is needed to fill a $138 million budget deficit and put a dent in the system’s $7 billion maintenance backlog.

In compiling its rankings, the Center for Neighborhood Technology combined data regarding commuting habits, job access, frequency of service and connectivity, organization officials said in a statement. It’s those criteria that gave the T an advantage over many systems across the country, said Charles Chieppo, a research fellow at the Ash Center of Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

“The T’s a mess, there’s no doubt about that,” said Chieppo, who previously served on the MBTA’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Forward Funding. “I think that the key to how the T did on this particular survey … really has more to do with Boston.”

The Hub is a tightly packed city and there are “more T stations closer to more jobs than there are certainly in most American cities,” Chieppo said. Plus, Boston is home to the oldest subway line in the country, meaning residents have a history of using mass transit to get around town, he said.

“It is a system that people use and goes to where people want to go,” Chieppo said. “[The ranking is] much more a commentary on the density of the city and the fact that the T is an integral part of the transportation network here than it is on the glories of how efficiently it operates.”

Even T officials greeted the news with a nod to the challenges still facing the agency.

“The MBTA is pleased to be ranked among the most accessible and convenient U.S. transit systems, but a lot of work remains before we achieve our goal of delivering consistently reliable service,” Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, said in a statement. “Under the direction of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, the MBTA will maintain a laser-like focus on the maintenance and repair work that is necessary to provide customers with the level of service they expect and deserve.”

The struggles facing the MBTA are not unique. Nationwide, there is an $86 billion backlog in unfunded transportation system needs, said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association. Every city, he said, “has to be constantly looking at their system and how you can add to it.”

“But it’s also critical to keep it healthy and keep care of the infrastructure they have,” Guzzetti said. “Those are all critical parts of the American economy – Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia – you have to make sure those systems are kept in good repair so they can serve their communities. We’re finding statistically they’re in a pretty big state of backlog.”

Nationally, transit agencies ought to be spending about $43 billion a year on capital improvements, Guzzetti said. Instead, commitments amount to about $15 billion this year.

Boosting spending on mass transit spurs economic development, Guzzetti said. While transit systems get commuters to work and back, they also encourage tourism, nightlife, fuel real estate demand and factor in when major organizations consider where to host large conferences, he said.

“Access to jobs is critical – you can’t have commerce without connectivity,” Guzzetti said. “You need access to get people to work, but not only get people to work. Businesses themselves won’t even be viable without transit. It’s not just the nine-to-five crowd, it’s the evening economy, the tourism economy and the weekend economy.”

Prime examples abound in and around Washington, where Guzzetti’s organization is located. Marriott International, the hotel company based in suburban Bethesda, Maryland, is planning to move into the nation’s capital in the near future.

While the move isn’t far, it will put the headquarters office closer to transit services, and that played into the decision, Arne Sorenson, the chief executive of hotel company Marriott International, told Bethesda Magazine last year.

Another example in D.C. is the development spurred by the addition of the Metro system’s New York Avenue station, in what’s known as the city’s “NoMa” (North of Massachusetts Avenue) neighborhood. Developers partnered with public officials to fund the subway station, which opened in 2004.

“They knew what they were doing, they’ve gotten that [investment] back many times over,” Guzzetti said. “Once that station was in, that’s all it took. That’s what transit can do.”

In the Hub, planners and city officials in Somerville have long expected the proposed Green Line extension, bringing trolleys from the Lechmere Square stop in East Cambridge through Union Square and into Medford, to spur economic development and push up property values. Escalating costs have thrown the project into question, however, and may lead the state to cancel the plan.

One indication of the impact of a transit system is just how much it costs the local economy when a network shuts down. A study by the American Highway Users Alliance found that snow-related closures of highways and mass transit in 2015 could have cost Massachusetts as much as $262 million in lost economic output a day, according to the Boston Globe.

Chieppo describes the MBTA as an economic engine for the region, but one that could generate even more growth if it begins firing on all cylinders. Convincing voters that heavy and long-term investment is needed will be a challenge for politicians, he said.

“The reality is that this is a tough one for elected officials,” Chieppo said. “The reality is, this took decades to screw up and it’s going to take a very long time to fix. It’s not going to take a very long time to see some improvement, but to really get it to where we want it to get it is going to take a very long time.”