An investment in future pays off with new Orange Line cars

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It’s true: They really do have a new-subway smell.

The shiny new Orange Line train that pulled into stations Wednesday was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air for a beleaguered subway system that desperately needed a shot of good news after a summer of derailments. It was also a timely reminder for Beacon Hill that, yes, investing in public transit does pay off.

Judging by the first few days, the T’s long-suffering customers like what they see — and what they don’t. The cars have wide doors, crystal-clear speakers for announcements, and bright display panels that show station information. So far, there’s no bubblegum stuck to the seats, and there are no dingy windows, no broken doors that mysteriously decide they’d prefer to stay closed at stations.

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So impressive are the new cars that they’ve inspired a most unusual sight: excited passengers taking selfies with a train.

Eventually, the T will scrap the entire fleet of ratty old Orange Line trains and replace them with the new trains, which are under construction at a factory in Springfield. For now, though, if riders want to experience First World-style transit, they’ll have to count on luck or check a website that an enterprising software engineer built to keep track of the new cars.

While enjoying the sleek new trains, it’s worth remembering that this didn’t just happen. They’re on the rails because public officials thought about the big picture — and the long term.

These trains come courtesy of a tax hike approved by the Legislature in 2013. Under former governor Deval Patrick, the agency used the new revenue to place an order for 284 new Orange and Red Line cars. (The Baker administration later added 134 more cars to the order, which totals around $1 billion.) The T expects all the new trains to be on the rails by 2023.

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Still, the state needs so much more.

Public transit agencies (not just the T) need zero-emission buses — maybe the kind of trolley-buses already used in Cambridge, or electric buses powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.

The T needs some key infrastructure projects, like the long-discussed connection between the Blue and Red Lines and the proposed West Station in Allston. It needs more high-level platforms at commuter rail stations so passengers can board faster and trains can run more quickly.

And it needs to tackle those projects with a sense of urgency, since transit projects tend to take years or decades to plan and construct.

Like the new train that passengers admired this week, that’s inevitably going to take money, and a willingness by politicians to back long-term projects that they might never be around to claim credit for.

For years, the Baker administration has claimed that more funding for the T wouldn’t help, because the state is spending as fast as it possibly could.

Lately, though, the governor has started to change his tune, and it’s a welcome shift.

For starters, the administration is in talks with other states to create a regional greenhouse-gas reduction program that would effectively constitute a gas tax hike, with the proceeds used for climate-friendly programs such as transit. The governor also asked for a $50 million one-time infusion for the T, then submitted an $18 billion bond bill full of MBTA spending and provisions to speed project delivery.

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If the T really can’t spend any faster than it does now, the answer has to be to improve the agency’s capabilities so that it can handle greater levels of investment.

Yes, it goes without saying that the T should also continue to seek savings and efficiencies. But the arrival of the new Orange Line trains is a reminder of what report after report, commission after commission, has found: If the state wants anything resembling (or smelling like) a world-class transportation system, it’s going to have to pony up the money for it.