Surging MBTA ridership could overwhelm system, report warns

By Eric Moskowitz | The Boston Globe | June 14, 2012

By the end of the decade, Boston’s subways could grow so packed that trains would roll past waiting commuters, unable to accommodate more riders, a new report from a leading land-use think tank warns.

Surging T ridership and booming construction around transit stations, the study from the Urban Land Institute found, are poised to overwhelm the MBTA, potentially limiting future development and slowing the regional economy.

The findings in the report, scheduled for release Thursday, inject additional urgency to the T’s financial crisis and come amid debate on Beacon Hill debate over how much to invest in public transportation. The MBTA shoulders the biggest debt burden of any transit agency in the nation.

The 390 million transit trips in Greater Boston last year were the most since 1946, and the T has registered a record 15 straight months of ridership growth. Fare increases scheduled for July 1 could dampen the numbers temporarily.

But authors of the study from the Boston branch of the institute, a national nonprofit, issue this warning: Riders who think it is crowded now should be prepared for 20 percent more company by the end of the decade.

Developers are clamoring to build in areas near public transit, and real estate trends, state and local policy, gas prices, and highway traffic are causing demand for the MBTA to grow faster than the regional population.

But without investment in more subway cars, better power and signal systems, and other tools to relieve MBTA crowding, scattered congestion will become widespread, with riders at “hot spots’’ unable to board because cars are too full, and with backups and bottlenecks causing delays systemwide, according to the “Hub and Spoke’’ report.

“Congestion relief has long been a priority for highway spending; it is past time to recognize that addressing congestion is equally important for the transit system,’’ wrote lead author Stephanie Pollack, associate director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

Some 30,000 housing units and 45 million square feet of commercial space are planned or under construction within a half mile of rapid transit and commuter rail stops, in places like the South Boston Waterfront and Kendall Square in Cambridge.

In Assembly Square in Somerville, construction is underway on a $1.5 billion redevelopment to turn a former industrial zone into 2,100 residences, a hotel, and more than 2 million square feet of office and retail space. The linchpin is a new Assembly stop that the state is shoehorning onto the Orange Line between Sullivan and Wellington stations.

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