Thursday, May 13, 2010

Boston Beat: Through Fire and Water...

In the span of only a week or two, Boston experienced two major, but for the most part inconvenient events that cast cost businesses money and threw some people into panic mode.  Two weeks ago a fire broke out in the city's Red Line tunnel clouding two other lines  with smoke and that weekend a major pipe that carries water from Quabbin to the city and many of its suburbs burst.  The former posed a particular harm to human life (although nobody died) and the latter cost businesses, particularly in the food industry as some closed while others spent extra money on ice and bottled water.
These two incidents, however, also underscored some of the problems that face Massachusetts as a whole.  Similar problems of decaying infrastructure and shoddy engineering have been familiar in Western Mass for years.  The monumental inconvenience of lengthy shutdowns on Connecticut River bridges, I-91 and its ramps and poor design along parts of the 413's highways were made possible by a lack of adequate maintenance or proper design.  Boston lived through the Big Dig, whose inconveniences make Western Mass's pale in comparison, but that was heavily localized in downtown Boston and although at times seemingly unending, could be avoided with a little sense of direction.  Moreover, locals were promised more than just the same highway made anew.  They got beautiful parks and sunshine in a previously shadowed area.  All the while, money was diverted away from Western Mass until Uncle Sam, bailing out the state once again, and demanded money be spent west of Worcester. Moreover, let's not forget that Quabbin Reservoir was made possibly by flooding four Western Mass towns in the 1930's (although it does serve some communities to its west today).  So when fire and water made Bedlam out of Boston, it was impossible for Western Mass to not feel at least a little schadenfreude.
The Big Dig taught all Bay Staters to realize the excesses, malfeasance, and outright corruption in seemingly beneficent projects (the Big Dig on many levels was necessary, but horribly executed).  However, in the past such failures of government could easily be deflected by a game of hot potato among state agencies, the termination of an unelected hack (cough, James Aloisi), or demands by elected officials for answers that culminate in humdrum hearings that could put a C-SPAN camera man to sleep.  However, this year, the establishment among the state's political elite is the most frightened its been in years.  Even before the election of Scott Brown, Democrats on Beacon Hill were bracing for the worst, namely losing the governor's office and its veto-proof supermajority.
It will not take much for the Republicans running for the Massachusetts House and Senate to connect the dots between the failures of the water pipe (which went online only a few years ago) and the fires in the Red Line tunnel to incompetence on Beacon Hill.  For example, as with the Ted Williams connector tunnel ceiling that killed Milena Del Valle, officials are looking into shoddy work done on the brace that connected the tunnel running underneath the Charles River near Weston.  Although the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, an independent agency, was able to act quickly to activate among others, the Chestnut Hill Reservoir to maintain water pressure, how could they have let this brand new pipe go with poor workmanship?  If it is not a failure of any individual, it could be the culture of laziness and lip-service diligence that permeates from Beacon Hill and all the way into the state's numerous agencies that serve the public good.
As for the fires in the Red Line tunnel, as well as other outages along the city's other subway lines, the culture of poor decision making and superficial efforts is more apparent.  Globe articles have noted how things like poor maintenance of the electrical cables (the source of the fire) is due to their unsexy nature.  In others words, the marvelous rebuilt stations at Arlington and Copley (still underway, after nearly destroying a historic church) captured the lion's share of the heavily indebted agency's capital budget because they getting better press, attention, contracts, and voter interest than something that could be a matter of life and death.  MBTA officials have promised up to $200 million in "nonsexy" projects including wiring, but that was nine months ago after yet another fire.

The renovations specifically mentioned were part of a wider effort to make the MBTA more handicap accessible.  Although this blog has been critical of certain elements of the Americans with Disabilities Act relating to mass transit, it directs more blame to the MBTA for choosing expensive, time consuming, and inconvenient ways to make the subway accessible.  Temporary measures should have been installed at stations thus-far not accessible if it meant electrical cables were updated regularly.  No disability advocate would argue for greater fire risk simply to acquire state-of-the-art accessibility and no fully mobile T rider would grumble if one entrance (most stations have many) was obstructed to allow wheelchairs and others to get to platform level.  Once at the platform, temporary measures that grant access to the train itself, could be easily made.  Long story short, there is no need to choose between access and safety/efficiency if both disabled and not agree to accommodations.  It is the MBTA and the politicians that herald the renovation projects that choose to compromise safety for politics.
Demonizing grandstanding or fanfare of projects like these is not the answer because something new is not or improved is not inherently bad.  It comes down to an end justify the means.  Is the ends of a new Green Line station worth the potential human cost on the Red Line?  No.  For example, in other cases, a project is expensive, perhaps over budget, but yields a quality product without harming other aspects to which it belong.  

However, Massachusetts is not well-known for this.  Consider I-91.  Through Massachusetts, it was poorly designed with dangerous on-ramp/off-ramp intersections.  Some exits are inaccessible in one direction and not the other and its connections to other highways leave a great deal to be desired.  However, through Connecticut, which improved and expanded I-91 over its forty-plus year life, it is much better designed and safer (critical since CT drivers are nuts!).  Technical faults such as a missing ramp connecting 84 East to 91 North were later corrected.  Its biggest flaw?  Left handed exits south of Hartford.
The failure of the water tunnel and Red Line cables is, schadenfreude aside, important to Western Massachusetts residents, however.  Although Springfield and most of its suburbs benefit from the city-controlled Coble Mountain water supply (with numerous backups), some communities do receive water from Quabbin and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.  As such, the WMRA's ability to deliver water and maintain its infrastructure is of critical importance.  The MBTA, however, may be more difficult to care about, but Western Mass Residents should.  Remember 1% of the states 6.25% sales tax goes exclusively to the MBTA.  Although many in the 413 may not use the system, they should be eminently concerned whether the MBTA is effectively using our money.  Moreover, part of the boon gleaned from the sales tax increase was given to the T to plug its budget holes.
Perhaps now that such a wide swath of greater Boston has experienced this breakdown, residents there may begin to think about how poorly the business as usual on Beacon Hill serves its residents; this is something WMass residents have experienced for years.  Because the most culpable parties are independent authorities, voters will need to visualize the line of responsibility from disaster to authority to legislators whose job it is to not just ask for answers but develop and institute changes and solutions.

*Kennedy Greenway, Chestnut Hill Reservoir, Red Line, and I-91 in CT photos all from wikipedia

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