Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

T notes: Scrambling for electric trains

T notes: Scrambling for electric trains

Some service cuts will be restored in June

THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board pressed agency officials on Monday to accelerate the rollout of commuter rail trains that run on electricity instead of diesel fuel, but it was evident it will be years before that happens even in the most ideal conditions.

The control board adopted a series of resolutions in November 2019, including one calling for more subway-like service on the commuter rail system and full or partial electrification of the Providence, Fairmount, and Newburyport-Rockport lines. Officials from communities along those lines and transportation advocates have been pressing the Baker administration to follow through as quickly as possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in communities along those lines.

T officials provided an update Monday, and it was clear some progress is being made but many challenges lie ahead. The T on April 5 began the move toward more subway-like service, reducing the number of trains at traditional peak periods and spreading trains out at regular intervals over the course of a day.

According to Monday’s presentation, a series of feasibility studies are underway to determine what would need to be done to electrify the three lines. All but 1.7 miles of the Providence line are already electrified, but the other two lines have no electricity infrastructure in place. The studies are exploring what kind of electricity infrastructure is needed, how much power is needed, and an assortment of other modifications to bridges and platforms.

T officials said they are talking with three other transit systems that have already placed orders for electric multiple units – self-propelled passenger cars that run on electricity. The T is trying to purchase the options those systems have to procure additional vehicles.

The MBTA’s capital budget for fiscal 2022, which begins July 1, currently contains most of the money needed for the feasibility studies but no money to purchase electric multiple units.

Joseph Aiello, the chair of the control board, indicated he would support carving more money out of the proposed $2 billion capital budget for the studies and the electric multiple units, if the units become available. Negotiating contracts for vehicles on the fly is not something the T does very often, but officials indicated the chance to purchase the vehicles without going through a long procurement process would be appealing.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said some risk is involved. “There are going to be some risks and it will be up to the collective wisdom whether those risks are manageable,” he said.

Officials said it’s unlikely electric vehicles could be operating on the Providence line until 2024 or 2025 and it could be 2030 before the Fairmount and Newburyport/Rockport lines are electrified. Those three lines account for only 10 percent of the existing commuter rail system.

The debate over the future of the commuter rail system comes at a time when passenger traffic on the system as a whole is way down – roughly 11 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Still unclear when T service cuts will be restored

In late June, the MBTA will restore service on several closed bus routes, add frequency on the highest-ridership bus lines, and boost trips on the core subway system, early steps in the agency’s effort to walk back unpopular COVID-era cuts.

Two weeks after the T’s board voted to resume pre-pandemic levels of service on most of the system “as soon as possible,” officials outlined the first major batch of changes coming to the bus network starting June 20.

MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville told the board on Monday that the T will resume running buses on Routes 18 in Dorchester, 52 from Dedham to Watertown, 55 in Boston to Copley Square, 68 in Cambridge and parts of the 465 that runs from Danvers Square to Salem Depot — all of which were partially or fully suspended on March 14 in a package of service cuts — in a summer schedule that takes effect June 20.

The T will also further boost service on some other bus lines that are already running more frequently than they did before the pandemic hit, such as the Route 32 in Boston, the 77 from Arlington to Cambridge, the 111 and 116 between Revere and Boston, and the 117 from East Boston to Revere.

The latest plan calls for increased service on the Red, Orange, Blue and Green Lines starting this summer as well, though Gonneville did not provide many details on those lines Monday. Officials intend to bring more service back in the fall as well, Gonneville said.

In December, the T’s board approved a package of cuts affecting all modes, aiming to recalibrate service while ridership languished at less than a third of pre-pandemic averages. The proposal drew sharp criticism from federal lawmakers and others, who said the T should not trim service after receiving nearly $2 billion in aid, prompting the agency to pivot late last month.

Gonneville said efforts to restore service quickly are complicated by staffing challenges. The MBTA did not lay off employees in response to its COVID-fueled budget crunch, but its workforce still shrunk from close to 1,680 to about 1,660 due to attrition. Hiring has been slow to fill openings and COVID-19 has also reduced staff levels temporarily – as many as 40 employees in recent weeks.

The T’s goal is to have roughly 1,670 bus operators by the fall of this year and 1,780 by the spring of 2022. T officials plan to keep a fairly large contingent of employees in reserve to cover absences rather than the current practice of paying workers overtime to handle the shifts. STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

T board gives boost to means-tested fares

T board gives boost to means-tested fares

One member proposes fare-free week in fall

SEVERAL MEMBERS of the MBTA’s oversight board called for a major overhaul of the transit system’s fare structure, including a much more serious look at the implementation of charging customers based on how much income they earn, often referred to as means-tested fares.

At a meeting of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday, the members pressed transit authority officials to rethink how the T charges its customers and to resuscitate the idea of means-tested fares. The board appeared to embrace the idea of means-tested fares a year ago, but the policy gained little traction at the T, particularly after Gov. Charlie Baker in January vetoed a provision in transportation bond legislation that would have authorized the T and regional transit authorities to charge customers based on their income levels.

In his veto message, Baker said the idea needs a lot more study. “No means-tested fares can be implemented until the MBTA and RTAs have a financially sustainable plan in place to replace the lost revenue,” he wrote.

Chrystal Kornegay, a member of the control board, said at Monday’s meeting that the T needs to more fully explore means-tested fares, partly as a way to blunt the growing push to do away with fares entirely.

“There’s a lot of movement around free bus and things like that,” Kornegay said, apparently referring to proposals by Boston officials and Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. Kornegay said she is not a fan of free bus, since it does away with fares even for those passengers with the means to pay them.  “It makes more sense to do a means-tested fare,” she said.

Another reason the T is reluctant to do away with fares is the transit authority is developing and preparing to install a billion-dollar cashless fare collection system that would give the agency the ability to use one system to collect fares across all transportation modes and provide a lot more flexibility in setting prices.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, another control board member, backed more study of means-tested fares, but she also directed T staff to explore the idea of doing away with fares entirely for a week in the fall.

“It is a concrete way to show our appreciation for our riders,” she said.

The discussion about free and means-tested fares surfaced during a report to the board on a number of commuter rail fare experiments. For example, the T offers monthly commuter rail passes and daily tickets, but during the pandemic it tried out a flex pass offering passengers five rides at a discount of 10 percent off the regular price. The flex pass generated 6 percent of the T’s commuter rail revenue, but it is being discontinued 90 days after the end of the state’s COVID-19 emergency.

The T also experimented with lower fares on commuter rail service from Brockton and Lynn into Boston to divert passengers away from crowded buses. The experiments attracted 99 new commuter rail passengers in Brockton and only eight in Lynn. The experiments are being discontinued May 31 in Brockton and June 30 in Lynn.

Joseph Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said COVID and the embrace of remote work have scrambled who rides the commuter rail system and how often, and the T needs to figure out how to better serve existing riders and attract new ones.

Aiello asked T staff if they were completely rethinking the existing fare structure. “We ought to be doing it if we’re not doing it,” he said. “We’ve got to experiment.”

MBTA needs to get on decarbonization train

MBTA needs to get on decarbonization train

Equity calls for electrifying public transportation

MASSACHUSETTS IS ADVANCING its efforts to decarbonize by 2050, and the general consensus around the need to address climate change and the negative public health impacts of carbon emissions is something worth celebrating.

Since December, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs has submitted a draft clean energy climate plan for 2030 for public comment, and the Legislature has enacted into law a landmark climate bill that sets more aggressive compliance standards and defines, legislatively for the first time, environmental justice communities.  These are good and important steps forward. But there’s an important piece missing: an actionable plan to decarbonize transportation equitably.

There are many facets to equitable decarbonization. Here we address one of them: the impacts of our public transportation system on the overall effort to reduce emissions in ways that are specifically designed to take into account the unique attributes of environmental justice communities.  It starts with a fundamental question: will the MBTA, a state agency, be required to support the administration’s decarbonization efforts, and if so, in what ways?

Encouraging mode shift to public transportation is, and ought to be, an important element of any successful decarbonization plan. This is important for many reasons, notably transport equity and the time value of reducing carbon emissions sooner rather than later. The Clean Energy Climate Plan, and the MBTA, have not fully engaged this issue in a way that anyone should feel comfortable with. This is a large and overarching topic, one that requires a longer discussion.  One facet that deserves prompt attention is the MBTA’s current plan to invest in heavily polluting equipment that will set back emissions reduction efforts for a longer time than most people realize.

The T is planning to buy 160 diesel buses – you read that right, diesel buses – with options for hundreds more, and if purchased with federal money these vehicles will be on the road for 12 years. The T also has no timeline for electrifying its bus fleet in line with New York City’s MTA, which plans to electrify its bus fleet by 2040 or the entire state of California, which plans to do the same for its transit agencies.

To make matters worse, the T has proposed buying 25 more diesel locomotives for the regional rail fleet.  Diesel locomotives pollute heavily, and they are profoundly inferior in cost and reliability to electric equivalents. Locomotives are typically brought into service for 30-40 years, so if the T buys these, they will be calling the question on decarbonization accountability (and service quality) for decades to come.

If you wanted to buy the most unreliable, most expensive to maintain, and most heavily polluting equipment to power your rail system, you would buy more diesel locomotives.  In view of the availability of electric multiple units as alternatives to these locomotives (EMUs could be placed into service quickly on the Providence Line and in fairly short order on a newly electrified Fairmount Line and on the environmental justice portion of the Newburyport line running from Lynn to Boston), this decision must be considered as a deliberate one, which is mind-boggling in view of the Commonwealth’s position on decarbonization and the clear need to improve service quality at the T while reducing long term maintenance costs.

Despite the direction of the FMCB, and the best advice received from its own rail vision panel, the T does not have a planned date to have its fleet electrified and these new purchases will make it hard to do so in a timely manner.

To be fair to the T, the Legislature hasn’t been enthusiastic about funding transit and rail decarbonization. The T shows their capital spending being cut in half by the end of this decade. This should be raising alarm bells on Beacon Hill, where legislators are pushing for decarbonization mandates for the T; these mandates could dramatically harm service without new funding. Public agencies should be setting an example, and the one being set at this moment by the T runs contrary to both the legislative intent as expressed in the climate bill and the Baker administration’s own decarbonization plan.

Here’s the bottom line: Massachusetts is not close to getting it right when it comes to decarbonization equity.  And this article is meant to highlight just certain reasons why that is the case. If you believe in the importance of decarbonization equity, then you wouldn’t be investing in diesel buses that will pollute inner core environmental justice communities for a decade or more, and you certainly wouldn’t invest in diesel locomotives that will have a similar impact on environmental justice communities across eastern and central Massachusetts. Moreover, the reality is that the state’s decarbonization plan is almost exclusively about a long-term plan to transition everyone with a car to an electric vehicle.

The state’s decarbonization plan contemplates massive (upwards of $800 million) public subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles as well as the deployment of charging infrastructure.  By definition, those subsidies will go mostly to extremely wealthy communities that are also extremely white. Excellent reporting from Christian MilNeil at StreetsblogMass has already shown that the current MORE-EV program provides a massive wealth transfer to well-off people. “In all, 79 percent of the MOR-EV program’s rebates (about $30 million) went to car buyers in ZIP codes where the median household income exceeds the statewide median income.” Less than 10 percent went to communities in the 80th percentile or below.

But what about those who cannot afford to own or maintain a car even with subsidies? Or those who don’t want a car or are unable to operate one?  In many communities, the percentage of people who fall into the first category can reach upwards of 30 percent. What about those in the environmental justice communities that will continue to bear the brunt of MBTA diesel emissions, and of particulate matter emissions from all vehicles, including electric vehicles?  We know that this is a serious public health issue, and while decarbonization is primarily about reducing carbon emissions, we cannot have an equitable plan if it disregards the continued and potentially worsening particulate matter emissions issue.

At this moment, there is no subsidy equity plan for Massachusetts, and it is unconscionable for a decarbonization plan to deliberately leave already disadvantaged people behind. A truly equitable plan would call for investments in not just electric vehicles but in electrifying public transit. That investment is the only one that tackles climate change, congestion, housing affordability, and quality of life at the same time.

Massachusetts deserves a comprehensive, equitable pathway toward decarbonization.  We won’t get there without short term commitments to transit and rail investments that support mode shift, without every state agency, including the MBTA, doing its part and setting the right example, or without firm commitments to provide decarbonization and subsidy equity to those people who are not privileged to share in the opportunities of personal EVs. We have to think of those in places where urban and housing design make it virtually impossible to provide equitable charging facilities and irresponsible to push more congestion and parking demand.

Jarred Johnson is CEO of TransitMatters.

T proposes $50 fine for fare evasion

T proposes $50 fine for fare evasion

Those who don’t pay won’t be able to renew driver’s license

THE MBTA’S proposed new fare evasion policy calls for sharply lower fines with the possibility that the offender’s driver’s license will not be renewed if two or more penalties are outstanding.

Previously, only MBTA transit police could issue citations for fare evasion and the fines were $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense, and $600 for subsequent offenses.

Under the proposed regulations, a civilian fare verification team would be formed and fines would be reduced to $50 for the first three offenses and $100 for all subsequent violations. Those who misuse a reduced fare card would be subject to $70 fines and seizure of the card.

Fare evasion fines are rare on the MBTA currently, but a new cashless fare system is being developed that would allow passengers traveling above ground on buses and Green Line trains to board at any door by tapping their fare card at on-board card readers. The approach is expected to speed up boarding and cut trip times by 10 percent, but it raises the question about what to do about people who hop on board and don’t pay.

The expectation is that the T will hire a civilian enforcement team that will randomly check to make sure passengers have paid. A T spokesman said on Thursday that no decision has been made about how big the civilian enforcement team will be.

The T will also have to build out an appeals process. According to the proposed regulations, those who feel they have been wrongly issued a citation for fare evasion can make an appeal in writing or electronically and can also ask for a hearing overseen by someone appointed by the MBTA.

The regulations also provide an alternative method for resolving outstanding fines. “The MBTA, in its sole discretion, may waive or reduce a fine … or may offer a violator an alternative way to resolve a fine other than immediate payment in full. A request for a waiver based on financial hardship will be considered in accordance with the MBTA’s procedures and may be appealed to the MBTA, in writing, within 10 days,” the proposed regulations say.

The Legislature set the process in motion last session by passing a transportation bond bill that decriminalized fare evasion, called for the hiring of a civilian fare verification team, and authorized the issuance of regulations lowering fines to an appropriate level.

Amid concerns about selective enforcement of fare evasion, the proposed regulations require the T to issue an annual report tracking the issuance of citations and how they were resolved.

The new fare evasion efforts — and the development of a new $1 billion fare collection system — come at a time when calls to eliminate fares are rising from Boston mayoral candidates and the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, Joseph Boncore.

The T announced on Thursday that it is hosting a virtual hearing (register here) on the new fare regulations on April 15.

Biden infrastructure plan and ‘fix it right’

Biden infrastructure plan and ‘fix it right’

There’s a lot to like about this proposal

THE BIDEN INFRASTRUCTURE initiative, branded as The American Jobs Plan, may be the most important transportation investment program since the Eisenhower Interstate Highway Act.  The Interstate Highway Act kicked off a decades-long era of massive federal investment in a national highway and bridge program, designed to respond to the post-World War II impulse to leave cities for a suburban ideal that required more auto mobility.

From the mid-1950s through to this century, highways and aviation became the primary recipients of federal largesse and private sector investment, while investments in transit and rail lagged and other sustainable modes (cycling and walking) were demeaned and diminished by the federal mischaracterization that they were “enhancements” rather than necessities.

The investment priorities of the Eisenhower era have been difficult to shake away, but the Biden plan appears to be the first meaningful effort to do that. It does not ignore the need to invest in highways and bridges; to the contrary, the bill proposes $115 billion to undertake worthy road projects.  What makes the Biden bill so potentially groundbreaking is not its dimensional aspects (it seems somewhat modestly funded to me) but its directional change.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  Rather than talk about highway investment in the tiresome anti-growth language of “fix it first,” it rebrands the effort as “fix it right.”  This is more than semantics; it takes a clever conservative soundbite and transforms it into something fundamentally different – achieving state of good repair is about more than filling potholes or reconstructing deteriorated bridges.  It is also about redesigning highways to respond to an era where modal connectivity is increasingly important and highway reconstruction and replacement projects must be undertaken to correct past mistakes.

The best example of what I’m talking about is the reconstruction of the elevated Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston.  Simply “fixing it first” no longer cuts it.  Rather, the Biden plan directs that state’s “fix it right,” and fixing it right means two primary things: replacing the elevated viaduct with an at-grade highway and building a vibrant multi-modal connection at West Station. That’s what “fixing it right” means, and it ought to be a signal to MassDOT officials that the federal rules are about to change in ways that require them to adopt the affordable, achievable at-grade solution promoted by the city of Boston, A Better City, and many other advocates.

There’s a lot more to like with regard to highway and road funding, including the plan’s specific focus on safety and a Complete Streets approach. We can’t rebuild our cities without redesigning and reimagining the streetscape as something other than places to drive and park cars. A return of the public realm to the people who inhabit it, and the small businesses who depend on it, is an essential component of emerging stronger from the pandemic, and this plan appears to both understand that and fund it.

The Biden plan is a bit disappointing on transit funding — $85 billion overall – but again it is directionally on target.  That sum may sound like a lot of money, but in the context of a national transit investment effort spread out over eight years, it is probably not nearly enough to accomplish everything that must be done.

I’m inclined not to complain about the funding but rather to applaud the redirection inherent in the plan. The focus on helping transit agencies modernize equipment and systems will provide much-needed support for projects that will improve the rider experience, attracting riders to revitalized public transportation networks that offer reliability and connectivity.  When the Biden plan refers to expanding transit systems, I take it to mean providing that critical connectivity that can make transit so powerfully efficient as a way to reach your daily destinations. Locally, this is exactly what projects like the Red-Blue Connector would do, exactly what connecting the Blue Line to Lynn would do.

There’s a lot more to like in this bill.  For example, it provides substantial funding for electrification of agency fleets, providing more than mere hope that critical initiatives like replacing the MBTA’s antiquated diesel locomotives with electric multiple units can finally be achieved on a reasonable schedule. The Biden plan, if enacted into law, removes both funding and electric power capacity uncertainty.

The plan’s focus on electric buses is in line with the move away from fossil fuels, but I caution that battery electric buses remain unreliable in cold weather conditions and much needs to be done by way of research and development to achieve the kind of reliability a highly functioning system would demand.

Finally, the plan provides $20 billion targeted toward redressing historic inequities that have remained unaddressed since the construction of the Interstate Highway system.  They are littered across the nation, urban interstates that were designed, with unambiguous racist intent, to separate or destroy established low-income communities and neighborhoods of color.

Almost everywhere you go – Syracuse, New York (I/81), Dallas (I/35E), New Orleans (I/10), Nashville (I/40), Atlanta, (I/75 & 85), St. Paul (I/94), Orlando (I/4) – they remain as ugly barriers, diminishing quality of life and depressing economic growth. Repairing these injustices is long overdue, and with targeted investments that arise from a collaborative effort with local communities, the Biden plan will begin to make modest but important amends for the ravages of mid-20th Century highway construction.

The Biden plan should not be considered as a stand-alone bill.  It is inextricably linked to the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation act (the FAST Act), which will be considered by Congress later this year.  Several provisions of the FAST Act need to be revised and reformed for the full effect of the Biden plan to work.  One example: federal funding support for worthy transit projects must be raised from the current 50/50 split to the 80/20 split that is in place for highways.

And the Federal Transit Administration needs to be directed to revise its approach to transit capital projects, moving away from the artificial constraints of cost-benefit analyses that fail to understand what true “benefits” are in the context of projects that open up access to opportunity for thousands of people. Thus, while the Biden plan is a critical step forward, the reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act with critical reforms is an essential component of a complete redirection of federal transportation investment policy.

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is a groundbreaking step in a new direction.  If enacted into law, it will pave the pathway (pun intended) for a more sustainable, equitable future, helping build a national transportation policy that lifts all boats by providing both the funding and the direction America needs as we remake our nation in the 21st Century.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation who serves on the board of TransitMatters.

T notes: Train derailed while using 46-year-old switch

T notes: Train derailed while using 46-year-old switch

Site for new Quincy bus garage obtained for $38.2m

MBTA OFFICIALS said the new Orange Line train that derailed on March 16 did so in a work zone near Wellington Station while moving slowly from one track to another using a 46-year-old switch.

Jeff Gonneville, deputy general manager of the MBTA, declined to say whether 46 years exceeded the useful life of the switch. He said it would all depend on how much use the switch received and how it was maintained over the years. “Newer is better,” he said at a meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board.

The T has not specified the cause of the crash, but Gonneville said a new switch has been installed, additional track is being replaced in the area, and the Orange Line train involved in the incident is being checked out top to bottom.

While the investigation goes on, the T is running shuttle buses between Oak Grove and Sullivan Square.

New site of Quincy garage purchased for $38.2m

The MBTA on Monday agreed to pay $38.2 million for a 13-acre parcel of land on Burgin Parkway in Quincy that will be the site of a bus repair garage capable of servicing electric vehicles.

The new garage, located at a former Lowe’s site at 599 Burgin Parkway across from the Quincy Adams T station, takes the place of an old, decrepit garage in Quincy that is long past its useful life.  It is also the first of what the T hopes are many new repair garages that are needed to transition away from diesel buses.

Several people complained during the public comment period for the Fiscal and Management Control Board that the T is moving too slowly to embrace electric buses. The current capital plan for the coming year calls for the purchase of 460 diesel-electric buses, which transportation advocates called “a retrograde step” and “a move in reverse” for an agency trying to help the state meet its climate change goals.

City, state officials press for electrification of 3 rail lines

 A host of state lawmakers and mayors pressed the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday to follow through on a promise made 17 months ago to electrify the Providence-Stoughton and Fairmount commuter rail lines and a section of the Newburyport/Rockport Line connecting Boston to Lynn.

Many of the officials also pressed for service as frequent – and at the same price – as subway service.

The mayors of Everett, Lynn, Revere, and Beverly and lawmakers representing many of those same communities left messages for the virtual meeting urging the T to launch a planning study on how to go about electrifying the tracks and procuring electric trains, often known as EMUs.

Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, said he and his colleagues would take up the issue in April and Aiello indicated he wanted to pursue the study.

Amid shortage of riders, T to restore service

Amid shortage of riders, T to restore service

Agency lays out plan for spending $845m in federal funds

MBTA OFFICIALS said on Monday that they plan to restore bus, subway, and commuter rail service to pre-pandemic levels as soon as possible even though they are forecasting that ridership will not return to pre-pandemic levels for at least five years.

The T abandoned its plan to reduce service levels after being pressured by the state’s congressional delegation, which said there was no need to cut service levels because the federal government is preparing to pump $845 million in stimulus funds into the transit authority, on top of two earlier infusions of cash totaling $1.128 billion.

The MBTA signaled last week that it planned to restore service levels, but General Manager Steven Poftak and his staff provided many more details Monday at a meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which approved the changes. Poftak said higher levels of service would be retained on some busy bus routes and said some routes that had been suspended (he specifically mentioned the number 55 and 68 buses) could be restored. He said a 20 percent reduction in subway frequency on the Red, Orange, and Green Lines will be eliminated and weekend commuter rail service restored on all lines. The control board approved resumption of direct ferry service from Charlestown and Hingham and more frequent service between Hull/Hingham and Boston.

Many of the changes were approved by the control board Monday on a 3-0 vote, with members Chrystal Kornegay and Tim Sullivan present but abstaining. No explanation was given for their abstentions.

But while Poftak promised to restore the services as quickly as possible, he and his top deputy couldn’t say when that will happen. They said the bottleneck is manpower, not money.  The T hasn’t laid off or furloughed any workers, but Poftak said the long lead times to restore service as well as attrition, absenteeism, and the lack of training classes for new workers make it difficult to predict when the cuts or reduced services will be restored.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the control board, said she was troubled to hear T officials couldn’t say when full bus service would be restored. “It does seem we are treating this as a second-class service,” she said.

Jeff Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, said restoring service to pre-pandemic levels hinges on a bunch of staffing variables. He said the transit authority is currently down about 12 operators compared to pre-pandemic levels and is losing between 9 and 12 a month due to attrition. Poftak said the T is aggressively expanding its hiring efforts to close the gap.

Gonneville said the agency is also struggling with a high rate of employee absenteeism caused by COVID-19 – 43 staffers are currently infected and T officials say one infected person typically means two others are out for testing or in quarantine.

Gonneville said the absence of any training classes for new operators for the past several months and crowding standards on buses and subways, which limit how many riders they can carry, are also having an impact. Gonneville said the bus crowding standard is currently 20 passengers.

The T also has difficulty ramping up and down service because of the long lead times required to select employees for routes. In the meantime, the T intends to ramp up bus and subway service by running more buses and subways where passenger levels warrant it;  the ad hoc service won’t show up on schedules, but it will help speed up service.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation prodded the T to restore service levels, saying it was unconscionable that the agency would be cutting service while awash with federal funds from the latest federal stimulus package. But aside from vague statements about potential overcrowding and poor service for essential workers, members of the state’s delegation have not addressed the issue of buses and trains running with relatively few riders.

Bus service is currently the top performing mode, running about 180,000 trips a day, or about 43 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Subway and commuter rail are worse off, operating at 24 percent and 11.2 percent of pre-pandemic levels, respectively.

The absence of riders, and the fares they pay, will eventually become an issue for the MBTA. T officials on Monday said the $845 million in new federal funds should allow the T to balance its budget in fiscal 2022, which begins July 1, without repurposing funds set aside for capital projects. T budget officials said they plan to use $139 million to help balance the fiscal 2022 budget, $503 million to balance the fiscal 2023 budget, and $203 million to put toward the fiscal 2024 budget.

Once the federal funds run out, the T is currently forecasting budget deficits of $202 million in fiscal 2024, which begins July 1, 2023, and deficits of $458 million in fiscal 2025 and $495 million in fiscal 2026.

The T is currently going with the most pessimistic forecast for ridership of three scenarios under consideration. There was some talk at Monday’s meeting about adopting a more optimistic forecast, but the board ultimately decided not to do that because even with the most optimistic scenario the federal money eventually runs out and deficits surface.

“One way or another this is going to be a long-term structural deficit,” said control board member Sullivan.

Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, pressed the T staff to get more aggressive in addressing the agency’s looming budget problems by transforming the way the agency operates. “The T that exists today cannot continue to exist in fiscal 2024 and fiscal 2025,” he said.

For example, Aiello said, a new fare collection system is being developed that its backers said will help the T to recover some $40 million in uncollected fare revenue. Aiello asked whether that estimate was incorporated into the budget projects, and was told it was not.

Aiello said the T can increase productivity by shifting to electric trains and buses, which require less maintenance. He said new Green Line cars will allow one driver to transport as many passengers as two do currently. And he said the new commuter rail schedule coming April 5, which features service spread out over the course of the day rather than concentrated at peak periods, will generate tens of millions of dollars in savings. More labor savings may be possible once trains equipped with automatic doors pull up to stations with door-level platforms, dispensing with the need to have conductors opening doors at each stop.

But some of the productivity gains that Aiello was talking about are likely to face opposition from members of the congressional delegation, who complained when 40 assistant conductors were going to be permanently furloughed with efficiencies realized from the April 5 changes on commuter rail. The T eliminated those furloughs after US Rep. Steven Lynch complained.

Should we still call it ‘commuter’ rail?

Should we still call it ‘commuter’ rail?

New schedules feature regular service throughout day

THE MBTA is launching a fairly radical change to its commuter rail operations on April 5, running fewer trains at the traditional morning and evening peaks and spreading service out at regular intervals over the course of the day – what some call regional rail.

On the Framingham-Worcester line, trains currently depart from Worcester for Boston at 5:30 a.m., 7 a.m., and 8:50 a.m. and then run at roughly two-hour intervals the rest of the day. Under the new approach starting April 5, the first train from Worcester will depart  at 4:15 a.m., the next train at 5 a.m., and then trains will depart every hour on the hour for the rest of the day until 7 p.m. The three late-night trains will depart at 8:20, 9:20, and 10:20.

The idea behind the scheduling experiment is that COVID has disrupted ridership patterns. No one is quite sure what riders will want in the future, but the feeling is that they will no longer rigidly commute into work in the morning and return in the evening. They want more flexibility and greater frequency. And they want schedules that are easy to remember.

The new approach is also more efficient to operate because trains aren’t bunched together at certain times of the day. It was this efficiency that allowed the T to “permanently furlough” nearly 40 conductors and assistant conductors, a move that was reversed late last week after pressure from US Rep. Stephen Lynch and the rest of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. Lynch was outraged that the T was laying off people and cutting service after receiving $1 billion in federal aid under the American Rescue Plan.

“We’re trying to put people back to work and they’re laying off people,” Lynch said on WBUR.

While MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak agreed on Friday to halt any layoffs, he was less forthcoming about restoring all services that had been cut. He said he would ramp up service initially by adding unscheduled subway trains and buses and adding staff to replace those workers lost through attrition. But he was vague about what will happen with ferry service and weekend commuter rail service, which has been canceled on all but five lines.

“This is an overall approach that will ramp up MBTA service as quickly as possible, preserve staffing levels, and maintain the MBTA’s commitment to offer appropriate levels of service as the public returns to transit in a post-pandemic world,” said Poftak in a letter on Friday to Lynch.

What is an appropriate level of service is unclear. Overall, the T’s bus, subway, and commuter rail ridership is roughly a third of what it was prior to the pandemic while service levels are much higher. Commuter rail is perhaps the hardest hit MBTA service. As of April 5, the T will offer 89 percent of the commuter rail service it did prior to the pandemic even though ridership is only 12 percent of pre-pandemic levels. 

New Orange Line train derails; none injured

New Orange Line train derails; none injured

Incident occurred near site of maintenance work

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

ONE OF THE MBTA’s new Orange Line trains derailed in a work zone near Wellington Station on Tuesday morning, creating significant delays while passengers were shifted to shuttle buses, the agency said.

A spokesman for the T said the northbound train derailed while crossing over to the southbound track and “moving at a slow rate of speed” around 11:40 a.m. Tuesday. About 100 passengers were on board at the time of the incident.

“The cause is under investigation,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an email. “There were no injuries. The train was crossing to the southbound track to accommodate the ongoing Orange Line maintenance work.”

T employees are working to put the train back onto the rails, and shuttle buses will replace Orange Line service between Oak Grove and Community College stations in the meantime.

The T plans “a thorough damage assessment” to examine the train set once it returns to a maintenance facility.

A string of high-profile derailments in 2019 prompted creation of an independent panel to examine safety at the MBTA. In December of that year, the group concluded that the T had a “questionable” approach to safety including frequent lapses in maintenance and inspections.

Lynch: Congressional delegation 'furious' about T cuts

Lynch: Congressional delegation ‘furious’ about T cuts

Says service reductions unnecessary with more federal aid on the way

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

MEMBERS OF THE state’s Congressional delegation will have “hard discussions” with the MBTA and Gov. Charlie Baker in hopes of encouraging the transit agency to back off of service cuts, US Rep. Stephen Lynch said Monday.

Lynch joined Boston Mayor Martin Walsh for a press conference to tout provisions of the $1.9 billion spending bill that President Biden signed last week. The idea of that legislation is “to get America back to work,” Lynch said.

The stimulus package, Lynch said, provides “almost another billion for the state in terms of their transportation systems, and then a targeted increase for the MBTA as well.”

The pandemic has carved into the T’s ridership, and the agency decided to pare back service at a time when riders are scarce to sock away money for when federal money runs out. The agency has come under fire from transportation advocates who say the T shouldn’t cut any service and be ready for when riders return. It’s difficult to gauge when riders will return, and the advocates fear the agency will be caught flat-footed when they do.

The latest portion of a package of money-saving service cuts took effect Sunday, with trip frequency reduced across bus and subway lines and the elimination of nine bus routes. MBTA staff are developing plans that would restore some bus and subway service later this year based on spring demand.

“Speaking for the delegation, that an agency would take federal support from the taxpayer, and then cut services to those same taxpayers, that doesn’t work for us,” Lynch said. “So we’re going to have some hard discussions with the MBTA and with the governor. We hope that more thoughtful ideas would emerge from those discussions, and that there would be a pullback on the reductions of service to the public and also an elimination of any proposed furloughs or layoffs for those transportation employees.”

Lynch said he has talked to his colleagues in the delegation, “and they are furious about this.”

“I understand the difficulties,” he said. “I understand what the ridership is right now, but the idea is to provide this money to get the ridership to where it needs to be over the next weeks and months.”