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MBTA bolsters rush-hour train, bus service

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 4, 2008
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After another month of record public transit use, the MBTA is adding rush-hour trains and buses in hopes of taming some of its burgeoning crowds, general manager Daniel A. Grabauskas said yesterday.

"We're hearing more and more about people having to wait for the next bus or the next train," Grabauskas said. "If we can't offer you a seat, let alone a place to stand on a bus or a train, then we're going to lose those passengers."

The changes - some previously planned, others new - are limited in scale and Grabauskas concedes they will not completely solve the T's crowding problems. But the agency does not have a lot of money to work with. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is operating out of its reserve accounts to keep its budget balanced and could implement a potentially substantial fare increase in 2010 to combat its multibillion-dollar debt.

Later this year, the MBTA board will consider a much broader change in service that could eliminate some lesser-used routes and add capacity on others.

But yesterday on the T riders said they would welcome even modest additions.

"In the morning, it's almost impossible to find a seat," said Roberto Gonzalez, an attorney from Providence who takes one bus and two subway lines to get to work in Boston every day.

Grabauskas said the 34.7 million trips taken in July represent the busiest month in at least a decade, though all counts before 2007 are considered less reliable because they were estimated. July was also the seventh month in a row to record an increase in passengers over the same month last year. Transit systems around the country have been attracting more riders since gas prices began rising sharply late last year.

Except the commuter boat, every form of transportation the T runs attracted more riders in July. Overall, the increase in average weekday trips was 6.9 percent over the previous year.

"I'll often wait for the next train. I don't want to stand the whole time," said Linda Bain, a financial executive from Lexington who takes the subway between Alewife Station and South Station.

Riders say commuter rail parking lots and trains are also packed. Sitting down with room to unfurl a newspaper is becoming a rare luxury.

The biggest addition, phasing in longer trains on the Blue Line, has been anticipated for years and was expected to begin in the summer. Grabauskas said the first three long Blue Line trains - six cars per train set instead of four - will begin rush-hour service Sept. 15. Others will be phased in by the end of next year, as the T continues integrating its fleet of 94 cars purchased from Siemens Transportation Systems Inc. and introduced in February.

Additional cars on the Green and Red lines and additional buses might be more difficult for commuters to recognize because they involve shifting existing resources in some cases and, in others, dispatching cars to crowded areas on an as-needed basis.

The biggest cost - $136,974 to maintain and power the new Blue Line cars - was already set aside this year in the T's operating budget. Costs for other changes will be about $120,000 and will be made up by shifting employee schedules, Grabauskas said.

The T has been exploring other ways to increase capacity, including getting rid of some seats on subway cars and adding more straps. A recent study found that it would cost $40,000 to $60,000 per car to reconfigure Red Line trains. Grabauskas said that he would try it in Boston only if experiments in New York and Chicago demonstrate that it effectively serves more commuters.

"Before we spend money, let's see whether it works there or not," he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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