Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

T notes: Bus network redesign coming next year

T notes: Bus network redesign coming next year

Pads suspected in March 16 Orange Line derailment

THE MBTA plans to begin phasing in a redesign of its entire bus network starting a year from now.

T officials, who not long ago overhauled many of the system’s individual bus routes, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday that they are now at work on redesigning the whole network to focus service in core areas and along busy corridors.

They offered few details, but said the redesign will attempt to get the vast majority of T bus riders to their destinations faster by redrawing routes, working with cities and towns to create dedicated bus lanes, and offering better connections to trains and subways.

While the emphasis was on the positive benefits, T officials said there will be tradeoffs involved in the redesign that will negatively affect some passengers. Christof Spieler, a consultant working for the T, said he helped Houston redesign its bus network and in the five months leading up to implementation complaints outnumbered positive comments 333 to 1.

“This is going to be a heavy lift,” said Steve Poftak, the general manager of the T, warning that change will be very difficult.

In developing the redesign, the T is relying on anonymized data from cell-phone users that have opted into location-based applications. T officials said the data will allow the T to track traffic patterns across all providers (passenger vehicles, Uber, Lyft, etc.) and determine where best to deploy buses.

T zeroing in on cause of Orange Line derailment

MBTA officials say they are close to determining what caused a new Orange Line train to derail on March 16, with the focus now centered on pads attached to the truck frames that allow the vehicle to turn.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the deputy general manager of the T, said extensive testing suggests the pads as they age tend to grip harder, increasing tension and making it more difficult for the vehicle to turn. He said the T is now doing a microscopic materials analysis of the pads and will keep all new Orange and Red Line trains out of service until the root cause of the problem is identified and addressed.

The T is in the process of replacing all its Red and Orange Line trains, so the stakes of working out all the bugs are enormous.

The Orange Line train derailed at a slow speed as its was transferring to a different track near Wellington Station on March 16. The initial focus was on the train switch itself, which was 46 years old. But Gonneville said the pads are now the focus of the investigation by the T, the train manufacturer CRRC, and other companies that produce key parts for the vehicles. He promised to update the Fiscal and Management Control Board at its June 7 meeting.

Riders flock to T on Fridays

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said ridership is highest on Fridays, particularly on the bus and subway systems, but gave no explanation for the phenomenon.

“The trend has been Friday is consistently our heaviest ridership day of the week,” Poftak said in briefing the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday.

He said subway ridership hit its highest level so far this year on April 30, with more than 150,000 passengers. The Friday phenomenon is also holding true for bus service, which hit 200,000 passengers on April 9 and came close to that level again on April 30.

T board calls for $10 fine for fare evasion

T board calls for $10 fine for fare evasion

Shows interest in linking fare evasion, income-based fares

THE MBTA oversight board called for making fines for fare evasion among the lowest in the country – at least until fares based on the income level of the passenger are implemented.

The current fines for fare evasion at the T are $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense, and $600 for the third or subsequent offenses. T staff, as part of an internal review, recommended reducing the fines to $50 for first, second, and third offenses and $100 for all subsequent offenses.

But members of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday signaled that a $50 fine was still way too high. During a lengthy debate on the issue, they called for reducing the fine for fare evasion to just $10. According to the T’s research, the $10 fine would be well below what six peer transit agencies charge – a range of $50 to $120 for an initial offense.

There also seemed to be some consensus on the board in favor of linking fare evasion fines and fares based on income. Control board member Brian Lang proposed setting the fine for fare evasion at $10 until low-income fares are implemented at the transit authority. Once that happens, he said, the fare evasion fine could be raised to $50.

The board took no action on the fine level on Monday, and indicated a final decision would be made later this month.

The debate surfaced as the T is struggling with a series of issues related to fares. Politicians at the state and local level are pushing for free fares on some routes and some modes of travel. T officials, including General Manager Steve Poftak, don’t like the idea of abolishing fares entirely, partly because of the high cost and partly because the benefit is not tailored to those who need it.

T officials estimated on Monday that the cost of free bus service, which is being pushed by the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, would cost between $97 million and $137 million in its first year without adding new service to reduce overcrowding. Adding more service to avoid overcrowding would drive up the cost to between $184 million and $486 million.

The estimates include the cost of making paratransit service free because under federal law that service cannot cost more than two times what the same ride would cost on the bus network. The T acknowledged there is some wiggle room on its cost estimates because it is lumping in all paratransit rides, including those beyond the reach of the federal law.

Members of the control board favor fares based on the passenger’s income level, but they are growing frustrated that the T seems to be slow-walking that initiative. Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the board, said T officials have been talking about low-income fares since 2017 but never seem to get anywhere.

Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, said the T’s lack of action on low-income fares is allowing the push for doing away with fares entirely to gain momentum. “We need to get moving on it [income-based fares] or we’re going to get run over by the free fare movement,” Aiello said.

The other concern is what to do when a new $1 billion cashless fare collection system kicks in in 2023. Buses and above-ground Green Line trains will allow passengers to board more quickly at all doors by tapping their passes at on-board readers, but the T is concerned that the new system will lead to much greater levels of fare evasion.

Andy Stuntz, the T’s senior manager of fare analysis, estimated $72 million in fare revenue would be at risk with the new all-door boarding system. He said the risk would be minimized with a fine big enough to get the attention of riders combined with a fare verification team large enough to make passengers think twice about boarding without paying.

Stuntz said the optimal combination would be a $50 fine and a team of 80 to 100 fare verification agents who would check 3 to 5 percent of all boarding passengers. He estimated the team of 80 to 100 fare verification agents would cost the T as much as $12 million.

Several control board members said they believed the $50 fine was too high and showed little interest in increasing the size of the fare verification team. Tibbits-Nutt said a $50 fine for evading a $1.40 bus fare or a $2.70 subway fare was excessive. She also said most of the people who evade fares are doing so because they don’t have the money to pay the fare.

Lang came up with the idea of linking fare evasion to low-income fares as a way to build a fiore under T staff to get moving on the establishment of fares based on income. He recommended lowering the fare evasion fine to $10 and raising it only when low-income fares kick in.

T officials promised to deliver a more concrete action plan for delivering low-income fares later this month, along with a new recommendation for fare evasion fines.

T officials also revised a number of earlier proposals on fare evasion. They dropped plans to bar riders who fail to pay fines from renewing their driver’s license until the fines are paid. They also acknowledged that fare evasion fines should not be uniform across the T system and indicated fines could be higher on the more expensive commuter rail system than the bus system.

Newton cut off from all-day rail

Newton cut off from all-day rail

Poor decisions in 1960s causing today’s problems

NEWTON HAS FOUND itself on the outside looking in as the MBTA’s commuter rail system transitions from service geared around morning and afternoon peak periods to more frequent service at standard one-hour intervals throughout the day.

On the Worcester commuter rail line, which runs through Newton, service out of South Station under the new system starts at 4:55 a.m. and runs at roughly one-hour intervals through the day, with some extra service thrown in during the late afternoon that runs just to Framingham. Service from Worcester into Boston, after a 4:15 a.m. start, runs every hour on the hour beginning at 5 a.m.

But while stations in Worcester, Grafton, Westborough, Southborough, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, and Boston see service every hour, the Newton stops on the line are bypassed by trains heading west for long stretches of the morning and heading east for long stretches of the afternoon and early evening.

In a letter to MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak last month, Newton Mayor Ruthann Fuller said her community was being shortchanged and needed relief. “We have found that Newton is the only community along the Worcester Line that the planned schedule changes would have less service starting on April 5 than we had earlier in the pandemic,” she wrote.

Newton’s current plight can be traced back to poor decision-making by state transportation officials back in the early 1960s. As Andy Monat of TransitMatters explained in a blistering CommonWealth article back in 2017, the optimal design for the two-track Worcester Line is to have two passenger platforms at each station, one on each side of the tracks so passengers going in either direction can get off at each stop.

 But Monat said that optimal design was scrapped when the Massachusetts Turnpike opened running through Newton in the 1960s. He said the existing Newton stations were demolished and replaced with one passenger platform at each station on the south side of the tracks, next to the Turnpike. To make matters worse, none of the platforms were handicap accessible.

 This means that at busy times of the day, it’s not possible to serve passengers who are reverse commuting (coming out of Boston in the morning or going into Boston in the evening), because the sole platform at each Newton station is needed to serve the peak-direction riders. The result? If you miss the 1:12 p.m. train to Boston from Auburndale, you’ll have to wait until 7:31 p.m., even though six inbound trains will go through the station in the interim without stopping. They’ll be on the wrong track, where there’s no platform for you to board,” Monat wrote.

State transportation officials offered up a Rube Goldberg solution in 2017 – tear down the existing platform at the Auburndale stop and replace it with a new handicap-accessible platform on the north side of the track. The plan also called for installing switches to allow trains to swap tracks temporarily to service the platforms at the other Newton stations.

Monat said the solution provided handicap accessibility at Auburndale but at a steep cost to the line overall in terms of efficiency. Then-Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack agreed. Even though the project had been fully designed, she pulled the plug on it and went back to the drawing board.

What emerged from the review process was a $46 million project to rebuild handicap accessible platforms on the south side of the tracks at three Newton stations and leave the question of adding platforms on the north side to a later date. The project addresses the inaccessibility of the existing platforms but not the service issues associated with having just one platform at each stop.

That’s why Newton can’t fully participate in the T’s new scheduling experiment, the first step in what advocates hope will eventually be a more subway-like service on the commuter rail system.

The MBTA is offering folks in Newton some temporary fixes to the gaps in service by running shuttle buses to the closest commuter rail stop (It’s call railbus on the schedule) or to the Green Line. But Greg Reibman, the head of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, says businesses are not happy with the shuttles. “It’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “Newton really got screwed with this concept.”

 Mayor Fuller wants the situation addressed, presumably with the construction of platforms on the north side of the tracks. In the meantime, she wants the T to run express buses back and forth between Newton and Boston.

 We need the MBTA to stand up right now to help all of us recover, reopen, and rebuild,” she said in a statement.

An ex-staffer’s perspective on T governance

An ex-staffer’s perspective on T governance

‘It was like being the child of 7 divorced parents’

LAUREL PAGET-SEEKINS spent six years at the MBTA, rising through the ranks to assistant general manager for policy before she left at the end of last year to become a fellow at the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundations. She was considered one of the T’s top employees and often made presentations to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which makes her recent blog musings on the T’s governance structure illuminating.

The control board was established after the transit authority’s snowmageddon collapse of 2015. Previously, the T had been overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board – a largely hands-off group of overseers known for listening politely and doing what they are told. The control board is much more hands-on, although it wouldn’t be characterized as independent. All the key players – the five board members, the secretary of transportation, and the T general manager – are appointed directly or indirectly by the governor, so consensus is prized and differences tend to be muted.

Still, the control board is very good at bringing transportation policy out of the backroom and into the light. And on those rare occasions when policy is actually debated, the board provides a glimpse at how the sausage is made. With the control board set to expire in June, it’s unclear what, if anything, will replace it. 

Paget-Seekins offers a staffer’s perspective. In her blog post, she said the board should play an important role on major policy decisions, such as fare and service changes, budgets, and long-term planning. But she said all too often the board delves into lower-tier issues, which tend to take up a lot of staff time and undercut the authority of the general manager, who normally would have made those decisions. The divided power structure – Paget-Seekins calls it “muddled”— creates a confused chain of command while allowing staff members like herself to do some freelancing.

“The creation of the FMCB broke the wall between the board and staff,” Paget-Seekins said. “I, and a few other staff members, took advantage of this access and pushed through changes that we wanted by going around the GM and/or secretary directly to board members. (It was like being the child of seven divorced parents.) This made a few good things happen (and some things that could have been better thought out), but in the end I realized it wasn’t good for the long-term functioning of the organization.”

For Paget-Seekins, policy-making in public is good in theory but often difficult in practice. “During my many presentations I tried my best to push back on unrealistic expectations or explain the interconnected nature of decisions, but there was often a lot I left unsaid,” she said. “Sometimes the secretary or general manager would help us out, but they didn’t always have the technical knowledge, or probably want to have the conversation in public either. I wonder if sometimes we didn’t get the most optimal policy decisions because the discussion was happening in public. I value transparency, but is it transparency if there are important details that aren’t being said because of how power works? I am not sure how exactly to solve this problem.”

The control board meetings were also a time sink. “As an example, a powerpoint presentation I prepared for a board meeting would often require two to three levels/rounds of review, while no one reviewed the decks I prepared for a meeting with the GM,” Paget-Seekins said. “When I talked to peers at other agencies, they would laugh incredulously at the idea of their board meeting that often.”

Paget-Seekins also thinks the GM’s role needs to change. “I worked for five GMs during my time at the MBTA and likely three of them wouldn’t be considered qualified to be GM at almost any other major transit agency due to their lack of transit and/or management experience. (Hint, I am not talking about the Black woman who had already been GM at other agencies.) The long string of GMs before I (or the FMCB) arrived indicates that there is a mismatch in the skills/experience required, the responsibility of the position, and the power or authority the position holds. In my personal opinion, the MBTA would be better off if the GM role was a technical hire drawn from the transit industry, not a political or Massachusetts insider hire.”

For the record, Beverly Scott is the Black woman who had already been GM at other agencies. The GMs that followed her on an acting, interim, or permanent basis were Frank DePaola, Brian Shortsleeve, Luis Manuel Ramirez, and Steve Poftak.

T lays out bus electrification plan

T lays out bus electrification plan

Rollout dependent on build out of new bus garages

MBTA OFFICIALS on Monday laid out a multi-billion-dollar plan for reducing the bus fleet’s carbon emissions to zero by annually rolling out a steady stream of hybrid electric-diesel and battery-electric buses with the share of all-electric buses dependent on how fast the agency’s old maintenance garages can be overhauled and rebuilt.

Scott Hamwey, director of the MBTA’s bus modernization program, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that the pace of bus maintenance facility modernization efforts will dictate the pace of bus electrification.

Members of the control board welcomed the plan, but Joe Aiello, the chairman, seemed skeptical the agency could pull it off, particularly the quick acquisition of new garage sites. “I think it is a very aggressive schedule,” he said. “Not everybody wants to have a bus maintenance facility in the neighborhood.”

Financing for the plan is also uncertain, with funding committed for only the early stages.

Transit advocates have been pressing the MBTA to embrace all-electric buses as quickly as possible to reduce carbon emissions, but the transit authority has moved cautiously. The T currently operates nine bus maintenance facilities; the oldest dates to 1904 and the newest to 2004. Most of the facilities are outdated and not equipped to handle electric buses, so the T needs to either renovate existing facilities or find additional locations and build new.

Hamwey proposed renovating or replacing a bus maintenance facility every two to three years and buying between 80 to 100 new buses a year, with the agency shifting more and more to battery electric buses as the maintenance facilities needed to service them come on line.

He said the T plans to renovate the North Cambridge repair facility by 2023 and move in battery electric buses to replace the current trolley electric buses that pull power from overhead caternary wires. He said the T plans to open a new all-electric bus repair facility in Quincy in 2024 and then build or renovate the Arborway, Fellsway, and Lynn garages at two-year intervals through 2030, followed by the Albany, Southampton, Cabot, and Charlestown garages over the next eight years.

Hamwey recommended the T procure a mix of 80 to 100 hybrid-diesel and battery electric buses each year, at a cost of $750,000 to $850,000 per bus for hybrids and $850,000 to $1.1 million for the battery electric buses. He said the first 80 battery electric buses would arrive in fiscal 2023 and fiscal 2024 and be split between the North Cambridge and Quincy facilities.

With the combination of battery electric buses and hybrids generally replacing all-diesel buses, Hamwey predicted the T could reduce the emissons of its bus fleet by 80 percent by 2032.

Four questions for the MBTA’s Steve Poftak

Four questions for the MBTA’s Steve Poftak

GM says he plans to hire 80-120 fare verifiers

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak came on the Codcast this week and we asked him about four issues: returning to full service levels, means-tested vs. free fares, fare verification efforts, and the new commuter rail schedule.

 Here’s what he had to say.

Returning to full-service levels. The T initially lowered its service levels during COVID to match lower ridership, but then encountered strong pushback from the state’s congressional delegation, which insisted funds from the third stimulus package should be used to maintain full-service levels.

 While the dispute was characterized as a test of wills, Poftak said it was more a question of timing. He said the T initially scaled back service to fit demand and save resources for when they would be needed. No T employees were laid off, but personnel lost through attrition were not replaced.

 “When we put that in motion, we did it with the best of intentions of putting the T on a sustainable path,” Poftak said. He said that approach was scrapped when the congressional delegation made clear it wanted the money used to provide full service.

 “We’ve really reoriented ourselves from trying to husband that stimulus money for as long as possible to bringing service back as soon as we can. We are full speed ahead right now,” he said, referring to efforts to replace workers lost through attrition. A planned layoff of 45 workers at Keolis Commuter Service was also scrapped. 

Aside from the need for more employees, it also takes time for the T to build up to full-service levels. It often takes months to go through the union and logistical requirements of adding service, which means the T will slowly resume full-service levels, which raises its own set of issues. 

Even though ridership overall is roughly 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels, on some modes of travel ridership is much higher – 45-50 percent recently on bus and 43 percent on the Blue Line. On those modes, full service comes in handy as ridership bumps up against lower COVID crowding standards. A 40-foot bus used to be considered crowded with 58 people on board; now that same bus is crowded with 20 people on board.

“Even with a lower ridership level it does make sense to support higher levels of service to allow people to distance,” Poftak said.

But at some point the T will face a new set of problems if ridership returns and social-distancing standards are not eased. The T has only so many buses and employees.

 “At some point an irresistible force meets the immovable object,” Poftak said. “At some point we will hit a tipping point.”

 Free service vs. means-tested fares. Politicians have been calling on the T to offer free service, while the Fiscal and Management Control Board favors fares based on the rider’s income level.

 Poftak doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about either approach. In general, he says, the T favors people-based fares rather than place-based fares, but the agency is also exploring running a free bus service pilot at the request of Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey.

 Fare verification system. Poftak says the T will probably hire between 80-120 people to verify riders have paid their fares when the T goes to a new cashless fare collection system.

 Under the new system, buses and above-ground Green Line trains will open all their doors at stops and riders will board and pay by tapping card readers. By doing away with drivers collecting fares, the system should speed up boarding significantly. But it also means paying for a ride is something of an honor system – thus the need for a team of new employees who will verify that fares are being paid and assess new lower fines if necessary.

 “We’re moving away from this culture of where the operator is the one who is notionally enforcing all the taps as people come through the doors,” Poftak said. “We’re trying to build a culture where everyone taps as they go in and just the prospect of being checked is enough to incentivize you to tap. There are many systems in Europe that do this.” 

New commuter rail schedule. Poftak said riders really like the schedule, which launched April 5 and features trains spaced out at regular intervals through the course of the day. “It’s easy to understand. It’s easy to plan your day around,” Poftak said. “We’ve seen an uptick of thousands of new riders or riders coming back even in the first week.” 

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.