MBTA repair spending climbs, but things are moving slower than expected

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File
An MBTA T train passing a retaining wall near Quincy Center.

The MBTA’s quest to repair and replace its worn-out infrastructure will take longer than previously thought to kick into high gear, but officials still expect to meet a goal to fully fix the system by 2032.

The T is now projected to spend about $950 million this fiscal year on capital projects, like new vehicles, track work, and the Green Line extension — about $50 million less than its $1 billion goal. About $775 million of that total will go toward repair and modernization work.

Repair spending by the T is still up more than $50 million from the previous fiscal year. But officials acknowledged Monday that they’re still struggling to tackle all the projects they want to take on.


“We are obviously disappointed not to have reached the very ambitious goal we set, but we’re seeing a very significant increase here,” MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said.

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In 2017, the MBTA pledged to eliminate its lengthy repair backlog within 15 years. The goal was to increase spending steadily but aggressively until the 2023 fiscal year, at which point the agency would begin spending about $1.4 billion a year until knocking out the to-do list in 2032.

Poftak said the T still expects to meet the 2032 goal. But the agency will take longer to reach the highest levels of spending. And when it does, in fiscal 2024, it will instead need to spend about $1.5 billion a year to stay on schedule.

Years after Governor Charlie Baker said the T should make fixing the existing system a priority, Poftak said the agency is still lacking the “capacity” to do so quickly. He said the T must hire dozens of new employees to work on the myriad repair projects, as well as a new executive to keep an eye on the capital spending across 22 MBTA departments. Also, he said, the agency must develop strategies to perform repair work without overly inconveniencing riders.

“We’ve identified staffing as one issue, and we’re working on that,” Poftak said. “Also, it’s a complicated piece of work to continue running the system as much as we can while fixing it. If we could do multi-year shutdowns of the system, it would make it a lot easier, but we have to fit in a lot of these repairs around a system that’s functioning.”


Although the T’s spending plans are fully funded for about five years, it’s not clear how the agency expects to increase its repair spending to $1.5 billion a year, a figure that doesn’t include any future expansion projects that would require even greater capital spending.

Some civic groups, such as the business organization A Better City, have said the T should receive more state funding to fix the system. In a recent report, the group argued that even reaching the prior goal of spending $1.4 billion a year may require the MBTA to borrow so much money that the debt payments would affect funding for daily transit operations, a separate budget from the capital projects that officials have sought to keep low.

Baker on Monday declined to say how the T would afford such big payments in the future, and instead said the agency’s biggest challenge is coming up with a strategy to spend the money it has in place.

“The T’s current problem is not the availability of resources,” Baker said. “And I’ve said this many times. The T’s current problem is being able to actually organize and spend the money that’s been made available to them.”

Baker praised the T for its plan to hire the new capital workers to help improve the system.

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.