Seek Alternate Route: MBTA Experiencing Severe Delays Due to Weather

Climate change promises to derail business as usual in Boston’s aging transit system.

Extraordinary winter weather events in 2015 paralyzed the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (“MBTA”) prompting unprecedented system shutdowns, widespread public condemnation, and a bleak picture of public transit in an era of climate change. Snowstorms and other extreme weather events such as heatwaves, hurricanes, and floods are expected to increase in frequency due to climate change. Like many public transit systems across the country, the MBTA faces the challenge of adapting to climate change while confronting a large maintenance backlog and chronic underinvestment. The MBTA is especially vulnerable to such weather events given the age of the system and its reliance on tunnels that flood, roads that are made impassable by snow, and signals and electric systems that are strained in extreme temperatures.

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MBTA Functions and Vulnerabilities

The MBTA is a key component of the Greater Boston economy and a necessary public service to commuters and the underserved. Over 389 million MBTA trips were completed in 2013 for travel between work, home, school, and play across 1,329 route miles [1]. Ridership is expected to increase between 1.2% and 2.9% per year over the next 5 years in a system that is partially overcapacity. [2]

The MBTA system is composed of heavy and light rail, bus, and ferry routes that each face unique climate change challenges given increased ridership and public dependency on reliable service. The following weather events are expected to become more frequent in an era of climate change and will impact specific services within the MBTA system:

Intense Precipitation Events

  • Flooding of track, bus ways, tunnels, maintenance lots, and facilities
  • Risk of landslides and structural failures
  • Heavy snow inhibiting tracks, rail switches, signals, and bus routes

High Heat

  • Track buckling
  • Customer comfort issues
  • Worker safety issues
  • Electricity Demand and Supply Issues

Extreme Cold

  • Pipe, motor, and other core infrastructure failures

Rising Sea Levels

  • Flooding of track, bus ways, tunnels, maintenance lots, and facilities
  • Higher groundwater level floods tunnels [3]

Each of these vulnerabilities can result in reduced or cancelled service, long-term infrastructure damage, potential threat to passenger and worker safety, and increased customer service complaints. Given Boston’s position along the ocean, flooding is especially damaging as salt water exposure can corrode rails, signals, and communication tables [4].

Existing MBTA Climate Change Resiliency and Response

As part of a system-wide sustainability program, the MBTA has created an Environmental Sustainability Management System (ESMS) that emphasizes continuous improvement, review of operating procedures, and coordination with partner agencies to improve sustainability and adapt to climate change across the MBTA system [5]. The MBTA is currently conducting a comprehensive risk assessment and analysis of all assets vulnerable to climate change events and is “flagging” vulnerable assets in its internal asset management system. The MBTA has also added climate change vulnerability to its decision-making criteria for funding projects in its 5-year capital improvement plan [6]. Furthermore, the MBTA is collaborating with local, state, and federal agencies to coordinate climate change response and share expertise [6].

Specific climate change resiliency projects include the construction of a retaining wall and watertight barriers in the Green Line’s Fenway Portal tunnel and the reconstruction of a seawall adjacent to a bus maintenance facility in Charlestown. Following the winter of 2015, the MBTA installed third rail heaters to clear snow and ice on the Red and Orange Lines, constructed snow barriers to prevent snow drifts on tracks, and purchased power generators and snow removal equipment to build in additional capabilities during extreme precipitation events [7].

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The Future for the MBTA and Public Transit

The MBTA has a unique opportunity to incorporate climate change resiliency into existing infrastructure improvements as it works to make investments in an aging system. However, the MBTA must propose and prioritize direct climate change adaptation projects into core components of the system such the installation of flood gates and plugs at key subway portals [4] and pumping systems in flood-prone areas. The MBTA must also invest in auxiliary and readily deployable assets such as movable generators and pumps and maintain back-up equipment such as supplementary subway cars and buses to respond to and minimize the impact of severe weather events. Contingency planning and frequent risk reassessment given the challenges of predicting the effects of climate change must also be practiced and communicated within the MBTA system and with partner state and local agencies.

Climate change is a formidable challenge to public transportation systems across the United States. As the MBTA experienced in the winter of 2015, extreme weather events place unique strains on a transit system’s ability to deliver service and expose core vulnerabilities. Preparing for such climate change effects is essential to serving the passengers and regional economies that increasingly depend on a reliable public transit system.

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[1] MBTA Blue Book. 2014.

[2] MBTA Ridership: History and Projections. Presentation delivered to Fiscal and Management Control Board. November 18, 2015.

[3] Federal Transit Administration. Flooded Barns and Buckled Rails: Public Transportation and Climate Change Adaptation. August 2011 FTA Research Report.

[4] Climate Change Resiliency at the MBTA: Presentation at MassDOT Moving Together Conference. September 29, 2016.

[5] MBTA Sustainability Program Presentation to the MBTA Fiscal Management Control Board. May 16, 2016.

[6] About the MBTA: Sustainability. Accessed November 4, 2016.



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Student comments on Seek Alternate Route: MBTA Experiencing Severe Delays Due to Weather

  1. Hey World Traveler,

    Thanks for the great post highlighting such a critical vulnerability in our public systems! I remember travelling to Boston during the winter of snowpocaylpse-level weather and being struck by how totally shut down the T was. The Boston-dwelling friend I was staying with had effectively given up on trying to commute using the T, which is obviously not a tenable solution to urban mobility issues.

    I really like the set of things you highlight for incorporation of climate change resiliency into infrastructure improvements. The first thing that occurred to me in response was wondering about the budgetary feasibility of the changes you described. I know that part of why the cars on many of the lines are so old and so unreliable is that budget shortfalls have led to years of deferred maintenance, and the MBTA has already drawn down dramatically from all existing funding sources (i.e., State funding). In response to budget pressures, the T is in the midst of an initiative to increase revenue and decrease costs to reduce shortfalls. I was wondering if that makes changing gears to incorporate further resiliency planning especially hard given lack of resource flexibility and the fact that senior managers may be preoccupied with this initiative. I know that part of the point of the cost cutting in the operating budget, though, is to create more buffer for capital improvement projects, so hopefully the conclusion of the budget initiative will be an opportune time to push for the changes you describe (!

    I also started wondering about how else the MBTA can set itself up for success with climate adaptation issues. First, there are likely interesting practices to borrow or learn from in other cities, and there are thought leaders like the Rockefeller Foundations 100 Resilient Cities project ( working to improve various elements of cities’ responsiveness to climate change and other long-range threats. Maybe there are practices the T can learn from?

    I also started wondering about other creative financing schemes like “green bonds” and pay-for-success contracting. (
    ( Is there a way to demonstrate all of the costs associated with non-functioning MBTA trains and to leverage creative financing tools to pay for interventions that prevent incurring of these costs?

    Very interesting and important post! Thanks!

  2. This is a subject that is close to my heart since I lived in Boston during the 2014-2015 winter and witnessed the madness that was Boston back then. I snowshoed into the office at the heart of the financial district twice that winter! I lived on the Red Line, where rush hour trains came every 10 minutes at best (compared to the 3 minute frequency that they typically run at). People would just give up and leave the station. Uber surged for over a month straight.

    Along the lines of what Reilly said, I was curious how if you thought the MBTA plan was sufficient to meet the challenges it faces? I wrote about the MTA’s (New York’s public transit authority) adaptation to sea level rise and concluded that they their adaptation plan is fundamentally flawed due to a lack of central planning by city, state, and federal authorities. Is investing in pumps and station barriers enough to keep the seas out when the Atlantic Ocean starts (continues) rising and what is the appropriate time frame to address the more fundamental issues facing the MBTA?

    Thank you for posting this! go sox

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