The history of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority spans two centuries, starting with one of the oldest railroads in the country.
Mass transit in Boston was provided by private companies, often granted charters by the state legislature to create limited monopolies and grant powers of eminent domain to establish a right-of-way, until the creation of the MTA in 1947. Development of mass transportation both followed existing economic and population patterns, and helped shape those patterns.
The steam locomotive became practical for mass transportation in the 1810s, and came to the United States in the 1820s. The private Boston and Lowell Railroad was chartered in 1830, connecting Boston to Lowell a major northerly mill town (which was also on the Middlesex Canal). It was one of the oldest railroads in North America and the first major one in Massachusetts. This marked the beginning of the development of intercity railroads that evolved into the MBTA Commuter Rail system and the Green Line "D" Branch. Origins of the various lines are listed below.
The Cambridge Railroad was the first streetcar company in Massachusetts. It was chartered in 1853 to connect the West End of Boston to Central Square and Harvard Square in Cambridge via the West End Bridge (which was at the site of the modern Longfellow Bridge), using horse-drawn streetcars. This is the same route as the Red Line subway, but on the street. The Dorchester Railroad, another streetcar company, was chartered in 1854. A profusion of streetcar lines were laid down throughout the Boston area.
In 1885, the West End Street Railway was chartered. The company consolidated ownership of existing streetcar lines in Boston and the inner suburbs, and began converting the animal-drawn vehicles to electric propulsion. The first electric trolleys ran in 1889, and the last horsecar went out of service around 1900.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, two other streetcar companies gained consolidated ownership of many smaller lines. The Middlesex and Boston Street Railway came to control the western suburbs, and the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway came to control the northern and southern suburbs.
Streetcar congestion in downtown Boston created the need for subways and elevated rail. These grade-separated railways both added additional transportation capacity and avoided delays caused by intersections with cross streets. The West End Street Railway was renamed the Boston Elevated Railway and undertook several such projects.
Boston's subway was the first in the United States and is often called "America's First Subway" by the MBTA and others. The Tremont Street Subway is the core of the precursor to the Green Line, and opened in 1897 and 1898. In 1901, the Main Line Elevated, the precursor to the Orange Line opened, a rapid transit line running as an elevated railway through outlying areas and using the Tremont Street Subway downtown, with the outer tracks and platforms reconfigured for Elevated trains; the Atlantic Avenue Elevated opened soon after, providing a second route downtown. This was the first elevated railway and the first rapid transit line in Boston, three years before the first underground line of the New York City Subway, but long after the first elevated railway in New York.
The Washington Street Tunnel opened in 1908, giving the Elevated a shorter route through downtown and returning the Tremont Street Subway to full streetcar service. Various extensions and branches were built to the Tremont Street Subway in both directions, bypassing more surface tracks. In addition, when the Main Line El opened in 1901, many surface routes were cut back to its Dudley and Sullivan Square terminals to provide a transfer for a faster route downtown. Elevated extensions were soon built on each end, and more streetcar lines were cut back.
The next line to open was the East Boston Tunnel, a streetcar tunnel under Boston Harbor to East Boston, in 1904. This replaced a transfer between streetcars and ferries, and provided access to the other subways downtown. The tunnel was converted to rapid transit specifications in 1924, with an easy cross-platform transfer at the East Boston end.
The Cambridge Tunnel opened in 1912, connecting the downtown lines to Harvard Square in Cambridge, and was soon extended south from downtown to Dorchester as the Dorchester Tunnel. The Dorchester Extension, opening in stages from 1927, took the line further along a former New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad branch through Dorchester, with the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line continuing along the old right-of-way to Mattapan. This too resulted in cutbacks in streetcar service to its terminals.
As built, many of the key transfer stations were prepayment stations, in which free transfers could be made between surface streetcar lines and grade-separated subway or elevated lines. This was made possible by the operation of all services under one umbrella; suburban services that operated over the same tracks used different areas outside fare control. Some of the streetcar levels were later converted for bus or trackless trolley operation; others have been closed. Free transfers were eliminated in October 1961 except between subway routes, returning in a limited capacity in 2000 and in full in 2007 as long as a CharlieCard is used. Some of the prepaid transfer areas still exist architecturally, though transfers from bus to subway are not free, and faregates enclose all subway stations (but not most above-ground Green Line stops). Prepayment stations included Andrew (still in place), Arborway, Ashmont , Broadway, Dudley, Egleston, Everett, Fields Corner, Forest Hills, Harvard (still in place), Hynes Convention Center, Kenmore (still in place), Lechmere (still in place), Maverick, Ruggles (built for buses, still in place), Savin Hill, Sullivan Square, Watertown (only served surface and surface-subway streetcars) and Wood Island (built for buses).
The Boston Elevated Railway started replacing rail vehicles with buses in 1922. In 1936, it started replacing some rail vehicles with trackless trolleys. The last Middlesex and Boston Street Railway streetcar ran in 1930.
By the beginning of 1953, the only remaining streetcar lines fed two tunnels - the main Tremont Street Subway network downtown and the short tunnel (now the Harvard Bus Tunnel) in Harvard Square. Gasoline-powered buses could not be used in the tunnels due to the problem of venting exhaust.
The Harvard routes were replaced with trackless trolleys in 1958, and with the new phase 2 Silver Line and a short non-revenue connection from the terminus of the 71 to the Watertown Carhouse are the only MBTA trackless trolley routes.
The old elevated railways proved to be an eyesore and required several sharp curves in Boston's twisty streets. The Atlantic Avenue Elevated was closed in 1938. The beginning of the decline of the Atlantic Avenue line was the Boston molasses disaster of 1919, which interrupted service on the line. In 1944, passenger service on the Fairmount Line was canceled by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad after a long period of declining ridership.
As rail passenger service became increasingly unprofitable, largely due to the increasingly popular automobile, government takeover became necessary to prevent abandonment.
In 1959, MTA streetcar service opened on what is now the Green Line "D" Branch, connecting to the Boylston Street Subway and using track from the New York Central Railroad, which had stopped running on the line the previous year. It required many more cars than expected due to heavy ridership.
On August 3, 1964, the MBTA succeeded the MTA, with an enlarged service area. The original MTA district consisted of 14 cities and towns — Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Milton, Newton, Revere, Somerville and Watertown. The MBTA covered an expanded area of 78 cities and towns, with a 79th (Maynard) joining in or before 1972 and leaving in or after 1976.
The MBTA was formed partly to subsidize existing commuter rail operations, provided at the time by three private railroad companies — the Boston and Maine Railroad, the New York Central Railroad (via the Boston and Albany Railroad) and the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad — with the B&M running the north-side lines and the NYC and NYNH&H (both merged into Penn Central in 1968, and taken over by Conrail in 1976) on the south side. The MBTA soon began to subsidize the companies, and acquired the lines in stages from 1973 through 1976 amidst large cutbacks in service and coverage area. Since then, many of these lines have seen service return, most notably the Old Colony Railroad (NYNH&H) lines to the South Shore.
By 1964, commuter rail service to Worcester was being provided. The Boston and Maine Railroad started receiving MBTA subsidies for its commuter service in 1965. The MBTA bought most of the present-day commuter rail trackage from the Boston and Maine Railroad and Penn Central (into which the New York Central Railroad and the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad had merged), in 1973. It also purchased rolling stock at this time. Track between Framingham and Worcester was not acquired by the agency, and due to a lack of state subsidy, commuter rail service on this portion was cut in 1975. It resumed in 1994, though the track is still privately owned (by CSX, as of 2006). The Fairmount Line was purchased from Penn Central in 1976. Passenger service resumed there in 1979 during diversion of other lines during Southwest Corridor construction, and was not discontinued when the project was complete.
The MBTA assigned colors to its four rapid transit lines in 1965, and lettered the branches of the Green Line from north to south. However, shortages of streetcars, among other factors, caused bus substitution of rail service on two branches of the Green Line. The "A" Branch was replaced in its entirety in 1969. The portion of the "E" Branch from Heath Street to Arborway was replaced by buses in 1985.
The MBTA purchased bus routes in the outer suburbs to the north and south from the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway in 1968. Western suburban routes were purchased in 1972 from the Middlesex and Boston Street Railway. (Both of these companies had long since ceased running any streetcar service.) A few routes to the north were taken over from Service Bus Lines in 1975, and one in the south in 1980 from the Brush Hill Transportation Company. As with the commuter rail system, many of the outlying routes were dropped soon before or after the takeover due to low ridership and high operating costs.
In the 1970s, the MBTA received a boost from the BTPR areawide re-evaluation of the role of transit relative to highways. Producing a moratorium on highway construction inside Route 128, numerous transit lines were planned for expansion by the Voorhees-Skidmore, Owings and Merrill-ESL consulting team. The Charlestown Elevated, part of the Orange Line north of downtown Boston, was replaced by the Haymarket North Extension in 1975, and the Washington Street Elevated lasted until 1987, when the Southwest Corridor was opened to replace it. The closure of the Washington Street Elevated south of downtown Boston brought the end of rapid transit service to the Roxbury neighborhood. Both of these were built next to existing rail corridors.
The Braintree Extension, a branch of the Red Line to Braintree, opened in stages from 1971 to 1980, again next to an existing rail corridor. The Red Line Northwest Extension to Alewife opened in 1985, with an intermediate opening in 1984, partly along a railroad corridor and partly through a deep-bore tunnel.
These recent extensions provided not only additional subway system coverage, but also major parking structures at several of the terminal and intermediate stations, the best-known of which is Alewife, where the Route 2 freeway ends at the Red Line terminal.
With the 2004 replacement of the Causeway Street Elevated with a subway connection, the only remaining elevated railways are a short portion of the Red Line at Charles/MGH and a short portion of the Green Line between Science Park and Lechmere.
The district was expanded further to 175 cities and towns in 1999, adding most that were served by or adjacent to Commuter Rail lines (including Maynard). The MBTA did not assume responsibility for local service in those communities, some of which run their own buses.
Prior to July 1, 2000, the MBTA was reimbursed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for all costs above revenue collected (net cost of service). Beginning on that date, the T was granted a dedicated revenue stream consisting of amounts assessed on served cities and towns, along with a dedicated 20% portion of the 5% state sales tax. The MBTA now must live within this "forward funding" budget.
The Commonwealth assigned to the MBTA responsibility for increasing public transit to compensate for increased automobile pollution from the Big Dig (see "Big Dig remediation projects" below). The T submerged a nearby portion of the Green Line and rebuilt Haymarket and North Stations during Big Dig construction, however these projects have strained the MBTA's limited resources since the Big Dig project did not include funding for these improvements.
Since 1988, the MBTA has been the fastest expanding transit system in the country, even as Greater Boston has been the slowest growing metropolitan area. When, in 2000, the MBTA's budget became limited, the agency began to run into debt from scheduled projects and obligatory Big Dig remediation work, which have now given the MBTA the highest debt of any transit authority in the country. In an effort to compensate, rates were hiked on January 1, 2007 from $1.25 up to $2.00 per subway ride with a CharlieTicket, and $1.70 with a CharlieCard. Increasingly, local advocacy groups are calling on the state to assume $2.9 billion of the authority's now approximate debt of $9 billion, the interest on which severely limits funds available for required projects.
On 10 October 2007, the MBTA introduced a pilot program in North, South, and Airport stations called T-Radio. The program would have been expanded to pipe in music, light news, weather, entertainment tips, and eight to ten minutes of commercials each hour to every MBTA subway station. After the agency received an overwhelming number of e-mails — 1,800, mostly complaints — it decided to shelve the program on 25 October.