Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

Senate, House split on T fare hike size

Senate, House split on T fare hike size

Did a 2013 law impose a 5% or a 10% cap?

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

ACTIVISTS AND KEY SENATORS say a 2013 tax law capped fare hikes at the MBTA at 5 percent every two years, while a key House lawmaker and the Baker administration are pointing to the same law and saying it clearly caps fare hikes at 10 percent every two years.

The MBTA could next implement fare hikes July 1, 2016 at the earliest and, while there have been discussions about fare hikes at the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, there is no proposal, according to a T spokesman.

At stake for riders is potentially significant variation in how much they will see fares increase. For the most expensive commuter rail pass, the difference per month between 5 percent and 10 percent is $18. For those with a subway pass the difference is $3.75 per month, and the cap limits the overall fare increase, so on certain modes of transit the percentage increase could be greater than on others.

“The Senate’s position was clear from the beginning,” said Sen. Tom McGee, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman. “We came up with the position that 5 percent over two years was the appropriate fare increase and that the cap made sense,” he said.

“In my view the language we passed in 2013 does permit as much as a 10 percent increase consisting of 5 percent year one, 5 percent year two,” Rep. Bill Straus, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, told the News Service.

Straus and McGee both served on the closed-door conference committee that reconciled House and Senate versions of the bill, where a Senate provision establishing a cap on fare hikes was altered. Straus said he didn’t know whether McGee specifically agreed to the slight but potentially significant change, which he described as an attempt at clarification, saying it “implements what was a Senate initiative.”

Katherine Clark, who was then a senator and is now a congresswoman, sponsored the fare-hike-cap amendment, which was not addressed on the House side, Straus confirmed. The conference committee inserted the word annual into a provision that limited fare increases to “intervals of less than 24 months or at a rate greater than 5 per cent,” an alteration that even opponents of the 10-percent cap acknowledge can be interpreted to limit fare hikes to 10 percent every two years.

The point of the provision was to replace the ad hoc system of fare hikes with a new system where increases would be regular and moderate.

“Quite simply this amendment ensures that fare increases, if they are to occur, are reasonable and fairly spaced,” Clark said during a Saturday April 2013 floor debate on the Senate bill. “The fares could only be increased under this amendment every two years and not more than 5 percent at any time.”

Rafael Mares, vice president and director of Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, said 10 percent raises every two years would defeat the purpose of a fare cap because he said the increases would not be predictable or small.

Citing the passage of time, McGee said he couldn’t say whether he had agreed to the change or whether he even knew about it.

“It’s two years ago, but my position at the time and my position today is that the right approach was 5 percent cap over a two-year period,” McGee said. Noting a separate provision of the bill that refers to a 5 percent cap, McGee said there would be a discussion about how to “clarify” the legislation.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who co-sponsored Clark’s amendment, agreed with McGee that “it capped fare increases at 5 percent every 24 months.”

“When we voted on the final bill, I think that folks in the Senate believed what we were passing and still believed what we passed was 5 percent,” Chang-Diaz said.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has said the cap is 10 percent every two years. “What we have is the legislative language,” said Pollack.

Straus said where there is ambiguity “you rely on the words themselves,” and he said, “I don’t remember after the conference report was issued that this caused any confusion for 200 legislators.”

Mares said the inclusion of the word “annual” altered the meaning of the provision so that if read on its own it can be reasonably interpreted to limit fare increases to 10 percent every two years.

Improving the ‘Amtrak experience’

Improving the ‘Amtrak experience’

How about assigning everyone seats?

LIKE MANY PEOPLE who live between Boston and Washington, I ride Amtrak.  So when I got a call a few weeks ago asking if I would participate in a focus group for riders, I quickly agreed.  The eight people in our group were a pretty standard slice of what you see on the train – a couple of middle-aged businessmen, a few younger women who travel to New York for meetings or to visit a boyfriend on the weekend, and a retired woman who travels to visit friends.  (We didn’t have any of those college students you find sprawled out across two seats with headphones on, either sleeping or faking it, you can never be sure.)

To no one’s surprise, folks had a few suggestions for how to improve the “Amtrak experience.”  There was broad consensus that bathrooms should be cleaner; the café car should be outsourced to a fast-food restaurant chain; the Wi-Fi should work more consistently; there should be a plug for every seat; passengers should be able to choose an assigned seat; and boarding should be less chaotic.  Only one participant made the obvious, sad, comparison to European train travel.  She was quickly countered by another’s account of travelling India’s railroads.  So let’s call that one a draw.

What was somewhat surprising was that, over all, our expectations were so low.  No one dared suggest more frequent, or faster, trains.  No one expected nicer cars, or more modern locomotives.  No one complained about cost.

Perhaps prompted a bit by me, because it’s a huge pet peeve of mine, there was some discussion of the boarding process – specifically, boarding in New York.  As soon as I raised it, eyes rolled and hands went up.  For myself, this is the sole reason to pay extra for Business Class – to know that there is only one car I need to worry about, and that I’m more likely to find a seat.

O'Connor, Peter

Anyone who has tried to board the train to Boston at Penn Station knows exactly what I am talking about.  Fellow travelers constantly glancing at the giant status board hanging over the waiting area; warily checking each other out, trying to guess who looks “Boston” and therefore getting on the same train; nonchalantly drifting toward the escalator where passengers are emerging, furtively asking any of them who looks approachable – are you coming from DC?

As departure time draws nigh, the individual decisions begin to coalesce into small group movements, like schools of fish, anticipating which escalator the announcer will call.  When the gate is announced, passengers from all over the vast waiting area surge toward it en masse, jockeying for position, squeezing onto an escalator to be carried, single file, down to the platform and the waiting train.

I am usually travelling to and from New York alone to visit friends in the city. I travel light and I’m able-bodied.  But pity the family traveling with small children, the elderly, the disabled, or just the poor inexperienced passenger who is new to this bedlam.  Every time I go through it, I can’t help but think:  “This is what it must have been like when Castro took over Cuba.”

Once safely on the train, the search for a seat can often be daunting even for me, as a single person.  If I were travelling with family, or trying to escort an elderly or disabled person and needed adjoining seats, I’d be out of luck on most of the crowded trains I’ve been on, or would have to rely on some good soul to switch seats for me.  There must be a better way.

Simply assigning seats would calm the whole mess down.  And the cost seems minimal – some tweaking to the electronic reservation system and labelling the seats.  I understand that trains may sometimes be oversold for stretches along the Northeast Corridor, and there might not be a seat for me for some part of my travel, but even knowing that is the case, and at what stop my seat will become available, would lessen the negative experience of having to stand (or sit in the café car) for a while.  And in these times of heightened security, when we know precisely who is in what seat on every plane in the sky at any given moment, it seems archaic, unnecessarily chaotic, and even, perhaps, unsafe, to continue with this “festival seating” arrangement.

Amtrak wants to know:  What can we do to improve the experience of train travel overall?  Let’s make it an easier question:  What can we do to improve the experience of train travel, without making large investments in infrastructure and rolling stock (since these are unlikely in the foreseeable future)?

How about this?  Let’s let everyone know where they’re going to sit ahead of time, and make boarding a train in Penn Station less like fleeing Havana in 1959.

Peter O’Connor, former deputy secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, is a Boston lawyer and development consultant.  He can be reached at peteroconnorboston@gmail.com.

Straus says MBTA can raise fares 10 percent

Straus says MBTA can raise fares 10 percent

Advocates say law only allows 5 percent hike

One of the leaders of the Legislature’s transportation committee said Tuesday that state law allows the MBTA to raise fares  10 percent next year, twice the level that transit advocates say is permitted.

“I think the language permits it, yes,” said Rep. William Straus, the House chairman.

Transportation advocates claim that two provisions in the 2013 transportation finance law are inconsistent and do not reflect what state lawmakers intended at the time, which, they say, was a 5 percent increase every two years.

MBTA fares are currently scheduled to increase on July 1, 2016. The MBTA’s fiscal 2017 pro forma, its working budget plan, currently includes a 5 percent increase, but that could change. The MBTA last raised fares in 2014 – by 5 percent.

Straus said that there were two distinct ideas at work in the 2013 law: Restricting fare increases to predictable two-year cycles and the percentage by which the authority can raise fares.

“The distinction that at least I thought was clear in the language was while fares could only be increased in two-year cycles, the rate of increase was distinct and reflected in the annual rate of 5 percent,” said Straus.

Confusion arises because the word “annual” appears in one section of the law pertaining to fare increases, but not the other. Section 78 of the 2013 transportation finance law refers to limiting fare increases “to not more than 5 percent every 24 months.” But Section 61(d) says: “The authority shall not increase fares at intervals of less than 24 months or at an annual rate greater than 5 per cent.”

The 2016 state budget says that the control board has “the authority to establish, increase, or decrease any fare… subject to and consistent with Section 61 (d).”

The Mattapoisett Democrat added that the 5 percent number was originally proposed by the Senate and the conference committee came up with the language that now appears in the statute.

Representatives from the Conservation Law Foundation, Alternatives for Community and Environment/T Riders Union, and Transportation for Massachusetts appeared before the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board Monday to try and tamp down any movement by the control board toward any fare increase that would exceed 5 percent.

“I ask that you keep these riders in mind,” said Lee Matsueda of Roxbury’s Alternatives for Community and Environment, which runs the T Riders Union. “Find alternatives to fare increases.”

“We strongly support a fare cap,” said Charlie Ticotsky, policy director for Transportation for Massachusetts.

After the control board meeting, Ticotsky said that there is “some ambiguity” in the language of the statute and that the “intent” of Patrick administration officials and state lawmakers in 2013 was to restrict fare hikes to 5 percent every two years.

Ticotsky added that, going back to the Legislature to resolve the confusion could be “on the table.”

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the control board was not ready to weigh in on a specific fare hike rate. She held open the door for Beacon Hill to step in and address the problem. “If the Legislature feels like they meant one thing and said another, they always have the opportunity to make changes,” said Pollack.

The issue first came to public attention during a MBTA control board meeting last month when, in response to a question about fare increases from control board member Brian Lang, MBTA/Massachusetts Department of Transportation General Counsel John Englander said that the authority could raise fares by 10 percent next year.

Straus said that state lawmakers knew what they were doing. “I don’t agree with anyone who would suggest that there was a mistake in the draft or that it was a drafting error,” he said. “I think that people are coming to grips with what the language had said for almost two and a half years—and that’s fine.”

Straus conceded that the Legislature could revisit the issue, but he said that Baker administration officials are really the ones driving the bus on fare increases. “The administration has a lot of flexibility in the way they design the fares and, of course, that’s only one part of what’s really needed out there in terms of funding for the T,” he said.

Conservation Law Foundation vice president Rafael Mares said the policy issue frames the larger concern about providing riders with clarity about the timing and the amount of fare increases.

“I personally don’t think 10 percent is small,” he said. “The most important thing, considering this [past] winter and where we stand right now, is that we stay with what people expected, which is a 5 percent increase every other year.”

Mares added that regardless of how the 2016 fare increase unfolds, state lawmakers should move to reconcile the language of the two provisions to avoid future problems.

 

T eyes new revenue-raising efforts

T eyes new revenue-raising efforts

Higher parking fees, new developments possible in $40m plan

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

WITH THE GOAL OF BOOSTING its own-source revenues by about $40 million, the MBTA is looking at hiking parking fees, converting surface lots into developments, and maximizing revenues from telecommunications and utility companies that want to use the system’s rights of way.

“We’re trying to put everything on the table and quantify everything,” MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve told reporters ahead of a Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting on Friday. He said, “There’s a lot of opportunity out there.”

Shortsleeve said no decisions are imminent, but the goal is for the T, which now generates about $60 million through real estate and advertising, to be on pace to generate $100 million annually by the end of fiscal 2017.

Most of the T’s surplus property has already been sold off following a directive in the 2000 forward-funding law, said Mark Boyle, the authority’s real estate chief.

Boyle said the T would look to convert surface parking lots into a mix of transit-oriented development with new garages built to replace the lost spots. He said the T would typically sign 99-year leases to secure a steady stream of revenue.

MBTA officials have not yet determined how to go about restructuring parking fees, according to Boyle. A presentation suggested parking revenues could be boosted by $10 million to $15 million with “price adjustments” accounting for $6.6 million to $9.6 million, and other enhancements from operational improvements, outsourcing lot management, and adjusting capacity.

“We don’t have any specific fees that we’re studying at this time,” said Boyle, who added that the T had not raised fees since 2008 and stressed that officials would need to look at the “total cost of commuting” when considering changes.

Subway riders, under the current structure, can pay up to $7 per day to park at an MBTA lot while commuter rail riders can pay $4 per day to park, though they pay much more for the ride.

“The commuter rail ticket prices are much higher than the subway,” Shortsleeve noted. The MBTA’s parking fees are about average compared to peer agencies, according to the T.

The MBTA is looking at a projected $242 million deficit in fiscal 2017, a sum certain lawmakers have suggested state budget-writers could be willing to cover. The control board, formed after last winter’s repeated failures and shutdowns, is developing plans to diminish or eliminate the structural deficit.

The T’s proposal to develop spare portions of surface parking meshes with an idea Gov. Charlie Baker discussed on the campaign trail last year to supply more affordable housing by developing commuter rail lots into transit-oriented developments, describing some existing underused property as “basically beer cans, burned out automobiles, and tall grass.”

“He’s very interested in this,” Shortsleeve said of Baker. On Monday, Baker will attend an open house for utility companies, the solar industry, and real estate developers where state transportation officials as well as MassDevelopment and the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance will educate the business community about opportunities. The “Commonwealth is Open for Business” event will be held at the Transportation Building Monday morning.

Boyle said the MBTA has 6,785 acres and about 4,000 parcels of land, most of which is used by the MBTA for its operations. The T also has about 1,200 real estate agreements, the majority of which are for land rental, Boyle said. He said utilities and telecommunications companies are interested in using the MBTA’s subway routes and commuter rail rights of way to avoid digging up city streets.

In addition to other efforts to tackle the $242 million projected fiscal 2017 deficit, the T sketched in $27 million to $32 million from increased real estate, concessions, and parking revenue, along with $5 million to $9 million in increased advertising revenue.

Boyle said it is “important” that the MBTA retain its exemption from local regulation of its advertising, such as billboards.

“That’s important that we have that,” Boyle said. He said, “There’s been various legislative discussions about changing that.”

Among other money-makers, the MBTA is looking to add more ATMs on its properties, an initiative that Boyle said the banking industry is “very excited” about.

Shortsleeve said the MBTA receives about $41 million in gross parking revenue annually, and nets $17.2 million. The T securitized part of its parking revenue in 2012 so that this year $15.4 million goes to bond-holders and $9.2 million will go to pay LAZ Parking, a property manager, in fiscal 2016, Shortsleeve said.

Also in the area of parking finances and operations, Teamsters Local 25 has spent the past two years organizing parking lot attendants, a union official told a legislative committee in September.

Overlords of the MBTA

Overlords of the MBTA

A close-up look at the T's Fiscal and Management Control Board

Photographs by Michael Manning

THE NAME JOSEPH AIELLO probably means nothing to most MBTA riders. But the first major snowstorm might change that.  Aiello is the chairman of the five-member MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board that has the job that has overwhelmed governors, transportation secretaries, and the system’s general managers for more than a decade: Molding the MBTA into a reliable transit system run by people who have a handle on what they are doing, especially when it snows.

Aiello and the four other members of the MBTA control board have embraced the chore with a rigor that the MBTA hasn’t seen in years. They are holding meetings, issuing reports, grilling staff, and generally upending business as usual at the woebegone MBTA. Calling on five experts in various fields to work part-time to clear out the miasma hanging over the country’s fifth-largest transit system is an unusual tack to take.  Yet it was a similar type of control board that recently brought the city of Springfield back from the brink of financial disaster. Gov. Charlie Baker is hoping the same can be done at the MBTA.

The T was never at the top of candidate Baker’s to-do list. If Mother Nature had not forced Baker’s hand, the MBTA would have continued to plod along with the delays and other idiosyncrasies that bus, subway, and commuter rail riders grin and bear.  However, the snows of 2015 presented a not-to-be-ignored opportunity to confront the crisis and wrestle with the problems.

Bereft of original ideas and unwilling to expend any more political capital on the MBTA, state legislative leaders stepped back and let governor have at it by authorizing the control board. The decision to fight for a control board carries some political risk for Baker, who is now tethered to its successes and failures.  A decision about the control board’s future will have to be made in 2018, a gubernatorial election year, when it’s widely assumed that Baker will run for reelection.

Yet no sooner had Baker moved on to other priorities than the MBTA work got more complicated. In August, MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola announced that the Green Line extension to Somerville and West Medford had incurred cost overruns of as much as $1 billion. “It just doesn’t compute in my brain that it was possible to happen,” Aiello says.

But it did happen. And how the control board deals with this latest crisis, one that sums up many of the MBTA’s bureaucratic pathologies, may determine the outcome of this latest turnaround exercise.
“To have a governor that is hands-on and taken responsibility for fixing this problem, to have both House and Senate leadership be very, very clear that they want this problem fixed and that they are prepared to be complicit in this, is a highly unusual alignment of interests,” says Aiello.

BIG GUNS

In 2006, Joseph Aiello made it onto former governor Deval Patrick’s short list for secretary of transportation along with Jim Aloisi (who served as one of Patrick’s transportation secretaries) and Stephanie Pollack, the current secretary appointed by Baker. Aiello did not get the top job, but he has returned to the state transportation sector in a more challenging role.

He has long been a player in transportation circles, working as a deputy to Fred Salvucci, former governor Michael Dukakis’s transportation czar. Currently, he is a partner and North America CEO at Meridiam, an international infrastructure firm.

Joseph Aiello, chairman of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, presides over a recent public session.

Joseph Aiello, chairman of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, presides over a recent public session.

Aiello is well-suited to cope with the challenge of the T, including the Green Line cost shocker, the first big crisis to land in the board’s lap.  As an expert on public-private partnerships, he has had deep experience in project management over the course of his career. He has overseen mega-projects such as the Port of Miami Tunnel, which opened last year; the Greater San Juan subway system in Puerto Rico, the first in the Caribbean; and the redevelopment of South Station, which faces another transformation.
“Joe has a good sense of what is going on around the nation and knows the right questions to ask to get at some of the core issues that are facing the MBTA,” says Jeffrey Mullan, who succeeded Aloisi as transportation secretary.

Aiello, an unassuming East Boston native, came of age riding the Blue Line. “You realize from a very, very early age how central the MBTA is to people’s lives,” he says. “For me, it was a door opener: you’d ride the T, pop up on the other side of East Boston, and there is this whole world you only knew existed because you could look across the harbor.”

Aiello went on to work at the MBTA for 10 years as a planning and budget and construction and finance official. He commutes to his New York City office during the week from his home in Winthrop and uses the Blue Line on weekends. “He cares about the average person using the T,” says Aloisi, who is a close friend and also grew up in East Boston.

Aiello devotes one day a week in Boston to MBTA issues. He meets with Pollack, attends briefings, and presides over the control board’s public sessions. He admits that “glamorizing the good old days” is a hazard for someone who has been gone from the T for some time and now is back on a more difficult mission.

He says people who work on large transit construction operations typically think in billions of dollars. Sometimes they forget that “the savings on a $2 billion project could be passed on to an opioid clinic to save kids’ lives,” he says. “The preciousness of that dollar was really evident when I was there. I hope that we can get back to that point.”

The physical deterioration of the system and the state of mind of MBTA employees troubles him. “The place feels sort of beat up,” Aiello says. “There doesn’t seem to be a culture of excellence that you want an organization to have.”

His control board colleague Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the executive director of the 128 Business Council, agrees. “Anyone who has had a crappy job with a crappy culture [knows] that it trickles down,” says Tibbits-Nutt, whose organization provides transportation strategies and solutions, such as shuttle services, for businesses, institutions, and communities. “You are not rewarded for doing good work, you are not rewarded for being innovative or trying to actually make a change because the culture doesn’t care. You take great professionals and basically make them irrelevant.”

The control board held its first meeting in July and divided its work into seven areas, each overseen by one member of the control board and a designated MBTA staff person, according to their areas of expertise. Aiello examines procurement and contracting issues. Tibbits-Nutt handles performance standards, and customer survey improvements and planning. Lisa Calise, the former administration and finance director for the city of Boston and the current chief financial officer at Watertown’s Perkins School for the Blind, is tackling the capital and operating budget. That has her working closely with Brian Shortsleeve, Baker’s hand-picked finance guru, who holds the new title of MBTA chief administrator, a position suggested by a special panel that Baker appointed after the winter collapse to study the MBTA’s deficiencies and come up with new strategies to cope with them.

MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola briefs the Fiscal and Management Control Board.

MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola briefs the Fiscal and Management Control Board.

While the panel called for the chief administrator to take over the duties of the general manager, Pollack announced that those responsibilities would be divided between Shortsleeve and DePaola. The arrangement enables DePaola, who inherited the title of general manager, to concentrate on buses, subways, commuter rail, and other daily operations issues. That frees up Shortsleeve, a General Catalyst Partners and Bain & Company veteran, to focus on stabilizing the authority’s capital and operations budgets.

Steve Poftak, the executive director of Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, dissects capital planning and system maintenance and considers what to do about system expansion. Brian Lang, the head of Unite Here Local 26, the Boston hotel and service workers union, studies how to modernize the MBTA workplace and implement best workplace practices. The entire control board works together on safety and security and winter preparedness.

Three of the control board members — Aiello, Poftak, and Tibbets-Nutt — have some history with the MBTA. Poftak, was a former research director at the Pioneer Institute, which has been a persistent critic of the MBTA, particularly on labor issues. Tibitts-Nutt served as a consultant to the MBTA Advisory Board which, provides oversight of the MBTA on behalf of 175 cities and towns. Poftak, Tibbits-Nutt, and Calise also sit on the MassDOT board that oversees the rest of the state transportation sector.

No one has given up their day job to serve on the control board, so that translates into lots of night and weekend work for the five volunteers, who are eligible for annual reimbursements of up to $6,000 for certain expenses.

The control board represents “the last, best chance for the T to finally succeed,” says Pollack. “The history of the T has been to address whatever the most current big problem is in the hope of going back to the way things always were. This is not a group of people that is interested in letting the T go back and operate the way it always has.”

MAKING HEADWAY

The special panel Baker appointed last winter carried out a seven-week “rapid diagnostic” review.  It confirmed that the MBTA is ailing badly, providing a rationale for the control board, whose mandate is to figure out the cure. Under the terms of the authorizing legislation, the control board has three years to overhaul the T’s operations, finances, and management. If the MBTA still needs more work after June 2018, the board can ask the Legislature to grant it two additional years.

The control board is well into a multi-pronged probe of more than a dozen distinct areas of the MBTA: procurement and contracting practices, infrastructure maintenance backlog, debt, capital planning, operations budgeting, workforce productivity, and more. The goal is a complete overhaul and turnaround to produce a solvent transit system, an efficient people-mover, and a better-functioning work environment.

The control board delivered its first major report in September, a 60-day “baseline” evaluation of the system’s major challenges. The MBTA had dribbled out the bad news over several weeks, so the report landed with more of a thud than a bang. Though the control board announced that some problems were “more serious and deep-seated” than the governor’s special panel found earlier in the year, their conclusions were also in sync with the dismal downward trajectory for the transit authority that previous administrations had identified.

A public meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board.

A public meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board.

The report focused on operating, capital, and workforce issues. The authority has a $ 7.3 billion deferred maintenance and capital investment backlog; an operating deficit of $242 million in fiscal 2017 that rockets up to $427 million by fiscal 2020; and flat ridership and revenue. The report indicated operating expenses are rising at a rate that is three times the rate of revenue growth, numbers that surprised Shortsleeve when he arrived at the MBTA.

The MBTA faces additional pressures from the Green Line cost overruns and federally-mandated safety mandates such as installing positive train control systems. These systems track train speeds and movements to avoid collisions and will cost the MBTA about $500 million.

The data that the five members churn through during board meetings provide a window into what it takes to decode the complex MBTA bureaucracy. They know how to mine the transit authority’s data and pose tough questions to MBTA staff during public sessions. Understanding that material will help the board guard against being viewed by MBTA staff members as another group of outsiders that they can maneuver around if they wait long enough.

“We’ve been trying to make sure that we really do give a good scrub of those numbers,” Aiello says. “All we can do is lay out the facts.”

In fact, however, the board is doing much more than just laying out facts. Its members are rolling up their sleeves and taking on the job of problem fixers. Unlike traditional boards, they’re digging into operations and giving marching orders for new policies and procedures.

To understand why problems at the MBTA have been so difficult to tackle, consider that, between the five-member control board and the management duties that have been split between Shortsleeve and DePaola, seven people now oversee functions that had been the responsibility of one person overseeing a team of senior staff.

Dan Grabauskas, who ran the system as general manager from 2005 to 2009, was hailed as the man who would duplicate his successful overhaul of the Registry of Motor Vehicles at the MBTA. He stepped down after coming out on the losing end of Patrick administration infighting over safety issues and the mounting fiscal crisis.

Neither of his successors, Rich Davey, a former Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail executive, or Beverly Scott, the one-time head of the metro Atlanta transit system who took over from Davey when he was promoted to transportation secretary, had any better success with taming the T.

Some transportation observers such as former governor Dukakis support a shorter oversight period control board, for a year or two. He would then prefer to see the authority turned over to a CEO who could install deputies to head key areas, such as maintenance, operations, and planning and construction.  The CEO “doesn’t need to be a transit person but must be an excellent public manager,” says Dukakis.

The view from the state transportation building is that the MBTA needs as much hands-on attention as it can get for as long as possible. “It’s a three- to five-year effort,” says Pollack, the state transportation secretary. “No one thinks that fixing the T is a six- or nine- or 12-month effort.”

Given what the T is now up against, a general manager on his or her own, without the new chief administrative officer slot Shortsleeve fills and without the efforts of the five-member control board, would have been “working 100 to 110 hours per week,” says Tibbits-Nutt. Even then, the attitude would have been “let’s just keep it going, just keep it running,” she says. “But it gives you no room to actually fix any of the problems.”

To manage her slice of the MBTA pie, Tibbits-Nutt is in almost constant communication with the MBTA, speaking to staff members and getting reports every day. She sits down with them one to two days per week and averages about 35 hours each week reading materials and researching best practices in other large urban transit system that can be adapted for use at the MBTA.

While the big issues are systemic, there are easy fixes that can be implemented right away, too. One of her first moves was to find ways to better use the MBTA Twitter account, which has been criticized for not providing timely information about delays and other system problems.  She has directed the three people who currently monitor the feed to follow trending hash tags closely.

“If someone is tweeting that a subway car is super-hot and super-crowded, we can start tracking that,” Tibbits-Nutt says. Data that a rider provides can be matched with specific vehicles to determine where problems lie.

The control board wants to see more accountability in subway operations. The board proposed that the MBTA return to a single “chief of the line,” akin to an executive director for each subway line, a position the MBTA dispensed with years ago. Currently, there are managers for subway signals, fleet maintenance, and the like. But there is no one, in the words of Aiello, who had the job of “having nightmares” about the Red Line. The new heads should be in place before the winter.

When it comes to the T workforce, figuring out who works where is not easy. Brian Lang is working on a master list of all the MBTA job classifications, such as machinist or customer service agent, with the goal of totaling up how many people work in those positions and how many of the positions are currently vacant.

On the financial side of the ledger, recent boards of directors and general managers have not been able to plug growing deficits, so perhaps the most surprising thing about the board is its optimism on that score.

Calise, the former city of Boston finance director, believes that the group has an opening to provide stronger controls in areas like hiring, which can provide longer-term savings. She says that during the Menino era, the city had strong, central administrative controls on expenditures.

In July, she was surprised to learn that the MBTA had not placed a moratorium on one practice that has been widely criticized:  paying employees through the capital budget rather than the operating budget.
“We don’t necessarily have controls in place to make sure that we aren’t adding to our problem,” she says. According to a MBTA spokesman, the practice of putting brand new employees on the capital budget has since ended.

The control board has kicked transparency up a notch with meeting minutes and reports promptly posted to the MBTA web site, a modest if long-overdue move. Even so, a T Riders Union representative questioned that commitment at a September meeting (where the board discussed a downgrade of the MBTA’s credit rating): The meeting notice had not been posted in the usual news media outlets.

The key difference for the control board is not just more bodies, but more power. With the exceptions of fares and binding arbitration, the five members have latitude to operate in areas that previous MBTA general managers did not have. The three-year suspension for the MBTA of the Pacheco law regulating the privatizing of services is the most important and controversial of these powers.

The control board aims to hire private firms to run late night, express, and moderately-used bus routes. Some MBTA union leaders were put off by how quickly those discussions moved. Robert Gittlen, who sits on the state Department of Transportation board and is the New England area director of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the T’s second largest union, claimed he had been left out of the talks. Although the MBTA says that bus drivers now on those routes would be transferred to busier ones, union members view the move as an attempt to chip away at the workforce. Gittlen later met with DePaola and Shortsleeve and downplayed the earlier discord. Baker jumped into the mix to emphasize that the MBTA would have to get bids that save money or it would abandon the plan.

LAST STOP

There had been chatter in transportation circles for months before the news broke that the Green Line extension was over budget. Cost overruns on large projects are not unusual. But the size of the budget bust floored everyone. The price tag surged from $1.9 billion in January, when Federal Transit Administration formally agreed to provide about half of the funding for the train line, to nearly $3 billion in mid-year. “I can’t think of anything in my private sector experience where you’ve seen a cost overrun of that magnitude in that short a period of time,” says Shortsleeve.

Somerville and Medford leaders have indicated that they would be willing to accept a scaled-back train line rather than none at all.  Shaving off a few million here and there, however, won’t get the MBTA to the $1 billion needed to close the gap. The control board will bring on an outside firm, which they can do under the legislation that established the board, to investigate the Green Line overruns.

The Green Line issue undermines the MBTA’s ability to make a case for new state funding. However, the sad state of the T has not tempered calls for transit expansion. Planning for the future is always good, but conversations about the South Coast Rail project and the North-South Rail Link only amplify the MBTA’s distress.

Joseph Aiello doesn't think the Green Line extension cost overruns will be the last surprise for the board.

Joseph Aiello doesn’t think the Green Line extension cost overruns will be the last surprise for the board.

Aiello doesn’t think the Green Line cost overruns are going to be the last surprise for the control board. The situation is an unwelcome development, since it will hinder the control board’s ability to make any future case for new revenues.  In the current political climate, it is not surprising that all five members of the control board deflected questions about new revenues. “It’s not a topic that we have looked at now,” says Poftak.

“We have to demonstrate to the governor, the Legislature, and the taxpayer that if they give the MBTA a dollar, it will spend that dollar wisely and efficiently,” says Aiello. “I don’t think we are there today.”

Baker was even more definitive on the subject at a September news conference designed to showcase the system’s winter preparations. “I’m not talking taxes, period,” Baker told reporters. He said the T has “a long way to go here to demonstrate to the public, to each other, and to everybody else that this is a grade-A, super-functioning machine that’s doing all the things it should be doing.”

Rep. William Straus, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, says that the Green Line procurement issues are just more evidence that the MBTA should be folded into the state Department of Transportation. To him, money problems are old hat, especially after the Legislature looked at the problems in depth two years ago. “To do all these things, they are going to need more money than they have coming in now,” Straus says.

The authority is staring at a structural of deficit of $242 million next year. The control board and Shortsleeve, the chief administrator, believe that the MBTA can squeeze extra dollars from current revenues streams such as advertising, and selling real estate to help balance the authority’s fiscal 2017 without having to go to Beacon Hill for extra funds as the authority has had to do in the past.

Not everyone believes that. “The discussions that we are having now are not new; they took place when Dan Grabauskas was here, when Bev Scott was here, when Rich Davey was here,” says Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, the T’s municipal oversight group. “Unless somebody is going to get way outside the box, there are no ways to tweak the revenue streams that the MBTA currently enjoys to the tune of quarter of a billion dollars.”

Despite 10 years of focused attention from state lawmakers, transportation officials, and advocates, poor planning, procurement, management, and oversight practices remain embedded in the authority. No state lawmaker of sound mind would vote for new funding as long as the perception persists that MBTA construction projects will go $1 billion over estimates in a matter of months.

The changing Boston skyline is just one marker of a growing and expanding city. But the region is yoked to a transit system that cannot keep up.  Aiello understands that there are limits to the patience of the governor, state lawmakers, and the T-riding public.  There will be deep and grave consequences if [the MBTA] can’t be fixed,” he says. “If we can’t straighten it out to the satisfaction of [the stakeholders], there is a danger that it could be constituted in a radically different form.”

The Green Line extension snafu was a there-you-go-again moment for the MBTA. Seeking to disrupt old ways of doing business, the fiscal and management control board came face to face with the fallout from the old ways of doing business. “The T has to earn the right to have a conversation about revenue,” says Shortsleeve, the chief administrator. “When the system runs better, we can talk.”

The control board is the last chance for the MBTA. If these five people cannot break the system down and build it back up, it is looking very unlikely that anyone or any other management fix-it strategy can.

DeLeo backs north-south rail link

DeLeo backs north-south rail link

Speaker joins 150 lawmakers in coalition

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

SAYING IT WOULD BE A “TERRIBLE MISTAKE” for the state to embark upon an expansion of South Station at the expense of a rail tunnel linking that hub with North Station, a coalition led by former governor Michael Dukakis is working to ramp up advocacy for the rail link in an effort to convince Gov. Charlie Baker of the project’s merits.

A letter originally penned by 21 lawmakers in 2012 to the Federal Railroad Administration in support of the North-South rail link now bears the signatures of more than 150 representatives and senators, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo. Proponents are hoping the critical mass of support and increased education efforts will be enough to sway the governor.

Dukakis, with the help of Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton and Rep. Sean Garballey of Arlington, convened a private meeting at the State House on Monday of the newly formed North-South Rail Link Working Group.

“The goal is to persuade the governor that South Station expansion makes no senses at all,” Dukakis said after the meeting, calling Baker a “thoughtful guy” who’s “obviously interested in doing what’s right.”

The group, according to the former governor, aims to engage in traditional means of advocacy and public education to build the case for a tunnel that they say would allow for uninterrupted rail service from Washington D.C. to Canada. With 34 members to start, including the mayors of Somerville, Salem, Quincy and Newton, the working group plans to meet monthly.

“I think it’s really a grassroots strategy speaking to the fact that there is support for this outside of Boston and also has benefits beyond the transportation benefits but economic development, housing benefits reducing traffic that reach, I would say arguably, all across Massachusetts,” Eldridge said.

Eldridge and Garballey co-chair the MBTA Caucus in the Legislature.

Noting that over 100 legislators have indicated support for the project, Eldridge said, “But I think, perhaps, they don’t understand the benefits to their districts about completing the North-South rail link so now it’s about a more comprehensive education to our colleagues as well as to people across the state as to the benefits of this project.”

The meeting came two weeks after Dukakis and former Gov. Bill Weld, another supporter of the North-South rail link, met with Baker to bring him up to speed on the project. The governors want Baker to release $2 million already approved by the Legislature for a study of the rail tunnel.

While Baker said he hasn’t ruled out supporting the rail link, he has expressed skepticism about its ability to reduce train congestion and said he does not see the project as mutually exclusive from an expansion of South Station.

Baker said the idea of expanding South Station interests him as both a way increase rail capacity into Boston and open up the Fort Point Channel area for development if a deal can be reached to relocate the U.S. Post Office building.

Dukakis reiterated his contention that a South Station expansion would be only a short-term fix for the rail system, and would need to be followed up soon after with an expansion of North Station.

“Expanding two stub-end stations is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem,” he said.

Garballey told the News Service after the meeting that the number of lawmakers signing on to the 2012 letter, including 16 new members just this year, demonstrates “support for this project, certainly showing the desire to have an analysis done so that we can have solid figures to move forward on.”

The original letter referenced by Garballey was sent by lawmakers to the Federal Railroad Administration and requested that the rail link be a “key component” of the administration’s environmental impact statement for the Northeast Corridor of high-speed rail.

Project supporters continued gathering co-signers to the letter during the 2013-2014 session and this session. The list of co-signers includes Martin Walsh, who signed the letter before he became mayor of Boston, and several Republicans, including Reps. Paul Frost, Todd Smola, Donald Wong, Angelo D’Emilia, Shawn Dooley, Leonard Mirra, Steven Howitt, Peter Durant, Hannah Kane, and Matthew Muratore.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Newton Mayor Setti Warren attended Monday’s State House meeting, a turnout that Garballey said was evidence that the project has attracted regional interest and support to help relieve congestion on the roads.

Eldridge said Warren spoke about how the North-South rail link would create workforce development opportunities for underserved communities. Attendees also received a presentation from Brad Bellows, the architect member of an advisory committee on the link appointed by Weld.

The project, should it ever come to fruition, is likely many years off as state officials are struggling to pay for a backlog of road, bridge and train infrastructure needs as well as other major projects like the Green Line Extension and commuter rail to the South Coast.

Garballey said he shares Baker’s concerns about costs, noting estimates over the years have ranged from $2 billion to $8 billion.

“We need to get a firm grasp on how much this is doing to cost and I think by doing the analysis we can have those questions answered,” he said.

Noting that Baker’s chief of staff Steve Kadish used to work for both him and Weld, Dukakis said persistence will be the key to getting Baker on their side.

“I’m convinced that we can persuade him that this makes a lot of sense,” he said.

T begins targeting absenteeism rate

T begins targeting absenteeism rate

2% of trips dropped; two-thirds due to operator absence

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

HOPING TO REDUCE ABSENTEEISM at the MBTA, transit officials have begun looking at the roots of the problem and making human resources hires. They are also considering bringing in an outside manager.

From January through August of this year, the MBTA dropped 34,702 trips, or close to 2 percent of the 1.8 million trips scheduled, Jessie Saintcyr, chief administrative officer at the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, told members of the T Fiscal and Management Control on Monday. Operator absence accounted for 68.7 percent of the dropped trips.

“We developed and implemented a process to track long-term employee absences,” Saintcyr told the board.

Saintcyr said the MBTA has worked with the Boston-based law firm Morgan, Brown and Joy, and issued a request for information about potentially bringing in an outside manager. She said she has also started the hiring process for a leave-management position that has been vacant for two years.

[The T’s rate of absenteeism was highlighted in a report prepared earlier this year for Gov. Charlie Baker by an advisory commission. That report used numbers that were later changed after questions were raised about them, but that didn’t change the fact that the T faced an absenteeism problem.]

Paul Andruszkiewicz, the T’s senior director of human resources, told the control board that dealing with absences by scheduling other employees for overtime rather than making new hires is cost-effective for about 98 days.

“If they’re being overworked, the customer service aspect is going to come down as well,” Andruszkiewicz said. He said prior-year hiring freezes and the time-consuming process of hand-entering data from employee applications, which has been updated, delayed new hiring. The T employed 6,479 employees in fiscal 2015, up from 6,282 in fiscal 2014.

“They’re definitely short hundreds in transportation,” Boston Carmen’s Union President James O’Brien said. O’Brien said better procedures for shifting work schedules on the fly, additional hires, and better management of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) would all be improvements.

“I would support the authority tightening up their FMLA,” O’Brien said. He said a “small percentage” of T employees take advantage of the act.

The federal law allows employees with a major medical problem to become certified to miss up to 12 weeks of work, Saintcyr said. FMLA accounts for 47 percent of the unscheduled absences from January through August of 2015, she said.

“We have a strict attendance policy, and if you are late, unfortunately, there are repercussions,” Saintcyr told the board. “And because of those repercussions we have seen a trend in the use and overuse of the FMLA leave policy.”

Agreeing that the policy is “strict,” Andruszkiewicz said the first missed day, late arrival, or unsubstantiated sick day of the year results in a warning and then penalties escalate to include suspensions.

Unscheduled absences cost the MBTA $7 million in overtime in fiscal 2015, while vacancies cost the authority $4 million and scheduled absences cost $3 million, according to Saintcyr. Weather, the biggest overtime driver in fiscal 2015, accounted for $12 million in agency spending.

Baker cautious on North-South rail link

Baker cautious on North-South rail link

Governor doesn't buy key claim of Dukakis, Weld

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER told two of his predecessors on Wednesday that he and his staff would explore a proposed rail link between North and South Stations, but he appeared to reject one of their central arguments.

Former governors Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld say the state has to deal with severe congestion at North and South Stations and must soon choose between building the rail link or expanding the two stations to accommodate more trains. The two former governors say the rail link is the best option because it would provide a long-term solution to congestion and allow the commuter rail system to operate more like a subway system with its north and south lines connected. Dukakis after the meeting said expanding South Station would only temporarily solve the congestion problem. He called building the North-South rail link “a no-brainer.”

Gov. Charlier Baker talks with reporters after his meeting with former Governors Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld.

Gov. Charlier Baker talks with reporters after his meeting with former Governors Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld.

Baker, however, rejected the notion that the two projects are mutually exclusive and indicated he favored the South Station expansion because development initiatives associated with the project would yield enough money to pay for it. He said Weld and Dukakis had told him the North-South rail link may cost somewhere between $2 billion and $4 billion.

Dukakis said the rail link project could also pay for itself with revenue from increased ridership on commuter rail lines. He said the rail link project would also eliminate the need for more rail lines at North and South Stations and free up for development tracks that are currently being used for train layovers. By connecting the north and south rail lines, Dukakis said, those layover areas could be relocated to anywhere on the commuter rail network.

Dukakis, a professor at Northeastern University, and Weld, a lawyer-lobbyist, met with Baker in his suite of offices at the State House. Afterwards, Baker spoke to the press, followed by Dukakis. Weld left without talking to reporters.

Weld and Dukakis urged Baker to release $2 million set aside in a bond bill to study the North-South rail link, but the governor declined to say whether he would do it.

Asked if it made sense to explore such a major transit project given the T’s many operating problems, including significant cost overruns with the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, Baker said his administration’s top priority is fixing the T. But, in the larger context of economic development and regional planning, Baker said, “this is certainly something’s that’s worth considering.”

The North-South rail link would not only connect the commuter rail lines north and south of the city but build underground stations in Boston that would allow passengers to get off one train and board another heading in a different direction. Dukakis said such a system would open the door to much greater regional development by allowing people to connect to jobs more easily.

Former governor Michael Dukakis meets with reporters after his sitdown with Gov. Charlie Baker.

Former governor Michael Dukakis meets with reporters after his sitdown with Gov. Charlie Baker.

Dukakis said tunnel-boring technology is well established and reassured everyone that “this is not the Big Dig, folks.” He rattled off projects around the country and the world, including the Red Line extension to Alewife, that have made use of the technology.

After Dukakis answered questions from reporters, he walked out of the State House and headed down to Park Street Station to catch a train to Northeastern, where he said he was teaching a class on the 1960s.

For a primer on the North-South rail link, click here.

Once again, MBTA maps out growing budget deficits

Once again, MBTA maps out growing budget deficits

Gap would hit $427 million in four years with costs outpacing revenues

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE MBTA HAS sketched out a growing deficit within its transit system that would balloon to $427 million in four years, as expenses far outpace growth in ridership and revenue.

News of the looming budget deficits arrived two years after the Democrat-controlled Legislature attempted to finance transportation through a 3-cent gas hike and a few other measures, two of which were subsequently repealed.

Part of the deficit includes the $88 million it will take to quit using capital funds, from debt and federal grants, to pay the salaries of roughly 530 T employees who work on construction, vehicle design and engineering, among other tasks.

The MBTA plans to shift those employees onto the operating budget in fiscal 2017 and 2018 with some additional moves made in fiscal 2019, MBTA Interim General Manager Frank DePaola and Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

While increasing operating expenses, the shift of workers from one budget to another will free up funding in the capital budget.

“We can repurpose that to do more physical work,” DePaola said. He said transit officials will need to be organized to make sure those freed up capital dollars are put to work.

The deficit analysis shows a $242 million gap in fiscal 2017, which begins July 1, 2016, that grows larger annually as revenue is expected to rise 1.6 percent per year while operating expenses and debt service grows at about 4.4 percent per year.

“This is really current course and speed, status quo,” said Shortsleeve.

In December the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board plans to recommend proposals to the Legislature to try to reduce or eliminate that structural deficit, the T officials said.

“Between now and December we’re going to run some scenarios of what it would take to balance the budget,” DePaola said.

In fiscal 2016 the state is providing $986 million to the MBTA and cities and towns in the service area are contributing $163 million, while fares are expected at $618 million and other revenue is pegged at $50 million. The state funding includes $187 million for fiscal 2016 that MBTA officials consider as “discretionary,” helping to bridge a projected $170 million deficit in the $1.57 billion MBTA operating budget.

Borne out of last winter’s major transit problems caused by the snow and cold, the control board is now wrestling with a variety of financial challenges, from the potentially $1 billion uptick in the cost of the Green Line Extension to the new pricetag of $7.3 billion for bringing the system into a state of good repair.

The MBTA has been working to protect tracks and trains from future blizzards, and will need to consider how to comply with the requirement for a new commuter rail safety feature called positive train control.

Partially owing to an arbitration award to the Boston Carmen’s Union, the MBTA’s expenses outran its revenues and ridership growth by even larger measure in fiscal 2013 and 2014, when operating expenses – outside debt service – rose 6.5 percent annually while ridership grew a quarter of a percentage point per year and revenues grew at a fifth of a percentage point.

The Dukakis-Weld rail link

The Dukakis-Weld rail link

What’s their rationale for another Big Dig?

FORMER GOVERNORS Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld are heading up to Beacon Hill next week to put a rail link between North and South stations on Gov. Charlie Baker’s radar. Dukakis cooked up the Democrat-Republican collaboration, reaching out to Weld, who serves with him on the board of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance. Weld, of course, is a political mentor of Baker’s, and both Dukakis and Weld are into trains. Dukakis, a big MBTA supporter, previously served on the Amtrak board. Weld said Dukakis knows more about train policy than him, but he’s no slouch. “I’m not as big a train buff as Michael, but I’m a pretty big train buff,” he said.

The rail link is an old idea that few people fully understand any more. What follows is a primer on the subject based on interviews with Dukakis, Weld, and others. 

Why is the political odd couple of Dukakis and Weld pushing for a north-south rail link?

It’s a mutual interest. Dukakis tried to get the link built as part of the Big Dig, but ran up against stiff opposition from the administration of Ronald Reagan. Weld pursued the north-south rail link when he was governor, and his administration did a lot of the planning for it. Weld says he first saw the need for the rail link when he was 11 and on his way to boarding school at the Middlesex School. He took the train from his home in New York to South Station and then had to schlep himself and his bags to North Station to continue his journey to Concord. 

Why do we need to connect South and North stations?

The goal isn’t to just connect North Station and South Station. The goal is to connect the separate northern and southern commuter rail lines and to connect both of them to the MBTA subway system. A link would allow Amtrak trains to travel right through Boston on up to Maine. It would also allow someone to travel on commuter rail from Plymouth to Newburyport or out to Worcester and Framingham. Ideally, the link would better connect workers and employers across the region. 

What’s the advantage of that?

Proponents say it would mean the planned expansions of North Station and South Station would be unnecessary and allow the possibility for the commuter rail system to run more like a subway system. Right now, passenger trains coming into South Station have to stop there. If the passengers on the trains want to go north, they have to take the subway to North Station and board a new train there. If the two networks were connected, passengers could go straight through to their destination. 

Why wouldn’t the North Station and South Station expansions be necessary? We keep hearing the stations are running out of room.

They are, but with the north and south commuter rail lines connected you wouldn’t need more tracks at the two stations. Currently, trains coming into South Station pull in and unload passengers, then they board passengers and head back out the way they came in. It’s an inefficient and space-intensive process. It can take 25 minutes or more for a train to enter and depart a terminal platform. If the north and south commuter rail lines were connected, trains would just stop briefly at downtown stations and then continue on, eliminating the need for more track berths and layover space for trains.  Layover areas at North Station and South Station, where land is potentially very valuable, could be pared back and moved to other locations on the commuter rail system where land is cheaper and future expansion easier. 

How much money would be saved by not expanding North Station and South Station and how much money would the north-south rail link cost?

The expansion of South Station is currently priced at $1.6 billion. The North Station expansion, for which land has already been acquired, is at least several hundred million more dollars. It’s not clear how much the north-south rail link would cost, but $2 million earmarked in the state’s capital bond bill to update prior engineering and environmental studies could help answer that question. Dukakis and Brad Bellows, an architect collaborating with the former governor, say the downtown rail yards freed up by the north-south rail link would generate a lot of new tax revenue. Skeptics say the MBTA is having a hard time extending above-ground Green Line trains to Somerville and Medford, so it has no business even thinking about digging a tunnel to connect the north and south commuter rail lines. 

How would the north-south rail link allow the commuter rail system to operate more like a subway system?

The idea is to have two or three underground rail stations in downtown Boston where commuters could not only connect to the subway system but also connect to other commuter rail lines. Someone coming into town from the South Shore could travel to any of the northern or western lines with a cross-platform connection in Boston, or to subway lines with an escalator connection. 

How would the north-south rail link be built?

With tunnel-boring machines. 

This is starting to sound like the Big Dig all over again.

The Central Artery was built with the so-called “cut and cover method,” which caused great disruption in the city. The rail link tunnels would be dug with automated tunnel boring machines operating almost entirely below the surface. It’s the same technology that was used to extend the Red Line into Somerville in the 1980s, and it has been used on hundreds of other similar projects around the world. Still, problems do crop up. A very large tunnel boring machine dubbed Bertha ran into a steel pipe in in Seattle in 2013 and incurred severe damage, resulting in extensive delays and cost overruns. 

Isn’t the commuter rail system in the process of purchasing new diesel locomotives? Would they work on this new system?

The system took delivery of 40 diesel locomotives late last year and they are now entering service. They could not be used underground, so building a north-south rail link would also require purchasing new engines capable of switching between diesel and electric power.

This is starting to sound pretty pricey.

It won’t be cheap, but the alternatives are also costly and do little to improve service. Dukakis and Weld say a north-south rail link would make the region’s transportation system operate more efficiently, give passengers a lot more flexibility, and open for development a lot of prime real estate that is currently being used to warehouse trains. The former governors also say the rail link would also take 55,000 cars a day off the area’s highways and reduce carbon emissions.