Derailments. Delays. All-day rush hour. Whether by road or by rail, getting around Boston is increasingly agonizing. Could it get so bad that people — and employers — stop moving here?
Quite possibly. A study by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation confirmed that traffic around Boston “has worsened to the point where it reduces access to jobs,’’ threatening to choke the local economy. Rush hour can now be defined as the yawning 12-hour span between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., when anywhere from 17 percent to 66 percent of all roadways inside Route 128 are congested or highly congested on an average day. God help you if it rains or someone hit the brakes too hard three hours ago.
That unpredictability is driving Bostonians crazy. “People can tolerate an average commute time that increased from, say, 29 minutes to 34 minutes,’’ the study’s authors write. “What really frustrates people is how that commute can occasionally spike to an hour or more due to accidents, weather, or seemingly for no reason at all.’’ When a spot of drizzle can completely upend people’s workdays and the $438 billion economy they participate in, there’s a problem.
Meanwhile, our alternative to highway hell — the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority — has reached a literal breaking point of its own, as years of postponed investment manifested in multiple train derailments this summer. Even before those Red and Green Line cars jumped the tracks, records show MBTA trains derailed 43 times from 2014 to 2018, the second most in the nation after New Orleans, the Globe reported in June. And despite the addition of a few new trains, our subway cars and buses are among the oldest fleets in the country.
People pay absurd amounts of money to buy or rent homes around Boston, a cost burden they endure partly because of the quality and quantity of jobs here. But if we don’t invest in our transit system — not just fixing what’s broken, but adding capacity through new trains and better bus service — the Boston area could become less desirable to major employers over the long term, said Eric Bourassa, director of transportation at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “The number one asset we have is an educated workforce, that’s why employers come here — to tap into the workforce,’’ he said. If it’s too hard for those workers to get to their jobs, other rival areas will become more attractive to employers.
A well-functioning MBTA isn’t just a requisite for a healthy job market: It buoys home values. A 2017 study by national brokerage Redfin analyzed home sales data to see what kind of premium buyers placed on transit access, as measured by Redfin’s Transit Score ratings (which reward proximity to subway, rail, ferry, and bus service). The impact was negligible in areas where public transit is more or less an afterthought, such as Phoenix or Orange County, Calif. But in Boston, a 1-point increase in a home’s Transit Score correlated with a 1.1 percent rise
in its sale price, making every few hundred yards closer to the T worth a few thousand dollars.
As weary as the system may be, the mere existence of the MBTA saves Bostonians an estimated $11.4 billion a year, according to A Better City, a nonprofit comprised of local business leaders. That includes $7.1 billion saved in wasted time alone, as the system eliminates more than 1.7 million hours of additional driving every workday.
MBTA officials estimate it will cost more than $10 billion just to replace outdated equipment and bring the system into good working order, an endeavor it hopes to accelerate this fall with weekend closures from September through December. If that elicits a groan, you’re not alone. Interrupting regular service to spend billions of dollars on routine maintenance is a lot less exciting than building new train lines or stations; it’s the infrastructural equivalent of replacing a roof versus remodeling a kitchen. That’s one reason upkeep so often gets kicked down the road.
“In most places, it’s an easier political lift to raise money for building new infrastructure than to raise money for maintaining existing infrastructure,’’ said Carole Turley Voulgaris, assistant professor of urban planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “Things have to get pretty bad before there gets to be a lot of public enthusiasm for paying to maintain an existing system.’’
Well … here we are. Governor Charlie Baker has proposed an $18 billion transportation bond bill that would help fund the T’s 13-year maintenance backlog, as well as expansion efforts.
It may not be flashy, but don’t underestimate the impact of mundane maintenance and upgrades to existing service. Consider the Framingham/Worcester line, which was once so plagued with problems that barely two-thirds of its trains arrived on time in 2007. But in 2012 after the MBTA purchased part of the railway that was owned by freight carrier CSX, a series of investments brought more trains, new track, and improved speeds to the neglected line. And in 2016, the MBTA added a pair of express trains that travel non-stop between Worcester and Boston in under an hour.
Ridership skyrocketed. That’s partly due to population and job growth, as overall commuter rail ridership increased by 21.2 percent between 2012 and 2018. But the Framingham/Worcester line saw a 45.7 percent increase, from 12,787 weekday journeys to 18,636. And while there are many factors at play, it’s worth noting that median home prices increased 38.4 percent in Framingham over the past five years and 42.6 percent in Worcester, compared to 31.4 percent statewide.
“I don’t necessarily think that the extra commuter rail services kick-started the current upswing that we’re experiencing in Worcester real estate right now, but it is a contributing factor for sure,’’ said Gillian Bonazoli, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Worcester. Bonazoli said there are several reasons for Worcester’s upturn, including the affordability of the housing stock, investments throughout the city, and the overall economy. “But transit and infrastructure is definitely part of that equation.’’
And while a new subway station often stirs a buzz of construction, existing transit also can help facilitate new development — by influencing local zoning decisions. “There’s this notion that if you build transit, development will just skyrocket,’’ Bourassa said. “That’s not necessarily true. It totally depends on the support of the municipality to allow that to happen through zoning.’’ What reliable, existing public transit can do, however, is assuage worries among local leaders and residents who fear that new housing will create more traffic in their community.
“Cambridge would never have allowed as much growth around Kendall Square if not for the Red Line,’’ Bourassa said, and new developments in Somerville might have struggled for approval were it not for the coming Green Line Extension. “To support more housing — which we desperately need as a region, to continue to have the workforce here to lead to more job growth — we need good quality transit, so cities won’t be fearful that new housing will lead to more roadway congestion.’’
Of course, big-ticket transit projects can spur their share of exciting, supercharged growth, too. Some developers even kick in money to fund the construction of a new station or expanded service: Federal Realty Investment Trust helped fund the first new Orange Line station in 27 years at Assembly Square, while the developer of Cambridge Crossing is chipping in for the Green Line Extension.
The conventional wisdom is that the Red Line’s mid-1980s expansion helped usher in a boom in Somerville’s Davis and Porter squares, but the truth is more muddled, said realtor Steve Bremis, who has worked in Somerville real estate since 1981. “Davis Square was always the go-to place,’’ Bremis said. “Even before the subway, everyone wanted to be in Davis. This just enhanced it, took what was very good and made it great.’’
Similarly, Hingham has been a desirable suburb for as long as anyone can remember, but the restoration of commuter rail service to the South Shore in 2007 — along with added trips to the popular harbor ferry — has put Hingham on the minds of more young Boston home buyers, said Joanne Conway, a realtor with William Raveis Real Estate. “I’ve been selling real estate for 33 years and I would say within the last 15 to 20 years, especially since the train has come, that we have gotten such an influx of younger people coming to town who lived in Boston or South Boston.’’
If we can’t get our act together — if the MBTA continues to unravel — could it harm home values in areas whose desirability is centered on their subway access to downtown Boston?
T troubles or not, people still want to be closer to the city, said Marcella Sliney, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Boston. “I just find people are sick of commuting … the closer they can be to the city, the better,’’ she said. “I just spoke to a woman who literally left South Boston, moved to New Hampshire to be closer to her family, and the traffic was unbearable — they’re coming back and going to Andover. She just couldn’t do it.’’
If anything, Sliney added, problems with the subway system just draw buyers even closer to downtown — where they can walk to work.