Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

Biden infrastructure plan and ‘fix it right’

Biden infrastructure plan and ‘fix it right’

There’s a lot to like about this proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Site for new Quincy bus garage obtained for $38.2m

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

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

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

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

New site of Quincy garage purchased for $38.2m

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

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

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

City, state officials press for electrification of 3 rail lines

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

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

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

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

Amid shortage of riders, T to restore service

Amid shortage of riders, T to restore service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should we still call it ‘commuter’ rail?

Should we still call it ‘commuter’ rail?

New schedules feature regular service throughout day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Orange Line train derails; none injured

New Orange Line train derails; none injured

Incident occurred near site of maintenance work


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

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

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

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

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

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

Lynch: Congressional delegation 'furious' about T cuts

Lynch: Congressional delegation ‘furious’ about T cuts

Says service reductions unnecessary with more federal aid on the way


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

T notes: Capital spending about to start falling

T notes: Capital spending about to start falling

Official urges putting projects on hold to conserve funds

THE MBTA said its spending on capital projects is expected to start falling in fiscal 2023 and plummet to half its current level by fiscal 2026, prompting the chair of the T’s oversight board to say the transit authority should start scaling back or delaying long-term projects to conserve funding.

Joe Aiello, the chair of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, suggested the COVID-induced drop in ridership might make it possible to postpone some projects for the time being to help reduce the looming capital crunch.

Aiello mentioned as possibilities the effort to reduce the interval between trains on the Red and Orange subway lines, the addition of a third track at the Worcester commuter rail station, and the reconstruction of four stops on the Worcester Line between Weston and Framingham. Aiello also questioned the need for the purchase of 64 bi-level passenger cars for the commuter rail line being built between Boston and New Bedford and Fall River.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has been warning for some time that funds for capital spending at the T are going to start falling off a cliff in fiscal 2025. The T didn’t dispute the foundation’s numbers, but also didn’t produce its own estimates – until Monday.

Using the T’s new numbers, capital spending is forecasted to hit $1.9 billion in fiscal 2022 and then start dropping – to $1.7 billion in fiscal 2023, to $1.3 billion in fiscal 2024, to $1.1 billion in fiscal 2025, $984 million in fiscal 2026, and $898 million in fiscal 2027.

At the same time, the money needed for maintenance and modernization of existing T assets is expected to keep growing, meaning the T will face a widening gap between what it can afford to fix and what it needs to fix. Even as the T falls behind in maintaining and modernizing its existing infrastructure, there will be less money for new projects, including east-west rail, climate adaptation, the proposed West Station as part of the I-90 Allston interchange, and expanded capacity at South Station.

Gov. Charlie Baker has taken great pride in the T’s ability to dramatically increase its capital spending over the last several years, but it now appears those days may be coming to an end.

The T’s capital numbers are shrinking because state and federal sources of funds for borrowing are starting to dry up. The T said on Monday that it is increasing its annual borrowing from $500 million to $590 million from fiscal 2022 through fiscal 2025 before dropping back to $500 million a year in fiscal 2026 and beyond. The T’s higher borrowing level is a double-edged sword, however, because the higher level of borrowing will mean more interest that the T will have to pay in its operating budget.

Andrew Bagley, a vice president at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said a paring back of capital spending would be a wise course to follow. He said the situation could be eased if the Biden administration succeeds in not only passing another stimulus bill this week but also passes an infrastructure bill that could provide new funding to agencies like the MBTA. The Legislature could also provide additional funding.

Keolis permanently furloughs 9% of conductors 

Keolis Commuter Services, the private company operating the MBTA’s commuter rail system is permanently furloughing 40 conductors and assistant conductors, roughly 9 percent of the conductor workforce.

Keolis said the staff reduction was necessary as ridership on the commuter rail system has plummeted and there is far less for workers to do.

News of the furlough surfaced when a member of the conductor’s union called into Monday’s meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board to plead with members to overturn the furlough plans, which he said would primarily affect women and minorities.

New fare collection challenges, opportunities

 The new cashless fare collection system being developed for the MBTA presents some challenges and some opportunities.

The challenges include expanding the number of locations where Charlie Cards can be purchased or where value can be added to existing cards. Another challenge is verifying that those who board a bus or subway pay their fare.

T officials told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that a fare verification team will be assembled and outfitted with devices that can verify if a person has paid their fare. “MBTA personnel will aim to check all passengers on a vehicle to reduce discretion and avoid bias in enforcement,” officials said, noting that passengers who board without paying will be issued a warning or a citation.

The officials said the T is considering revising existing transfer rules to accommodate additional second transfers between buses and subways and transfer discounts to the bus or subway system from the commuter rail or ferry system.

MBTA planning to restore some service in summer, fall

 MBTA officials say they plan to begin restoring some service cuts his summer and fall, but acknowledged that they will have few options to reorient service if ridership rebounds after the summer schedule is set in late March.

The T cut some service levels in December amid slumping ridership and the need to conserve cash to deal with looming deficits. Ferry and weekend commuter rail service cuts took effect in January, while cuts in subway and bus service will come next week.

The Fiscal and Management Control Board approved the cuts in December, which are expected to save $21 million a year. Some of the cuts could be restored in the summer and fall if ridership begins to rebound. Officials say they will try to build flexibility into the system in case ridership rebounds earlier than expected, but they said they are constrained by work rules that assign drivers to routes months in advance.

T projects fare revenue to be down for at least 5 years

T projects fare revenue to be down for at least 5 years

Poftak prefers to plug gap with federal aid, not new state funding

THE MBTA is projecting that fare revenue will not return to pre-pandemic levels for the next five years and possibly longer, and transit authority officials say they are counting on federal stimulus funds and spending controls – not additional state funding – to close the gap.

Using three scenarios for future ridership, the T is currently projecting fare revenue will range between 66 percent and 89 percent of pre-pandemic levels through fiscal 2026, which would end June 30, 2026. The pre-pandemic fare revenue total was just under $700 million. The T also receives $1.1 billion from the state sales tax, which has been growing, and $200 million from communities in the core service territory, a number that is also expected to grow.

The long-term fare revenue projections are surfacing at a time when key lawmakers on Beacon Hill are beginning to discuss transportation legislation. Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, the Senate chair of the Transportation Committee, has filed sweeping legislation called “A New Deal for Transportation,” which calls for the elimination of fares on T and regional transit authority buses, the adjustment of fares to reflect the income level of individual passengers, and the development of new revenue streams through higher fees on Uber and Lyft rides and three years of gas tax increases.

At a press briefing with reporters, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said he is not looking to the state for additional funding but will instead rely on transit aid contained in the next $1.1 trillion federal stimulus package to help balance future budgets. T officials say they don’t know what the agency would receive under the latest federal stimulus plan, which is expected to be voted on in the House Tuesday.

“The federal government is the appropriate place to look,” Poftak said, discounting pending initiatives in the Legislature. Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed a number of smaller revenue-raising measures for transportation at the end of the last legislative session, saying the impact of COVID on transportation needs to be studied further.

Joe Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, pressed T officials at a meeting Monday on what federal money might be forthcoming but they said exact amounts won’t be known until the package passes and federal guidance is issued. Aiello said the amount is important because it will likely determine when the T begins facing budget shortfalls. “After this next dollop of federal money, I don’t think we can expect future dollops of money,” he said.

Poftak said doing away with bus fares, as Boncore has suggested, would also have an impact on revenue from the T’s paratransit service, where fares are supposed to mimic those on the bus and subway system. He said the financial impact of doing away with bus fares, combined with the impact on paratransit, could range from the tens to the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Poftak said he would be very cautious about tinkering with the T’s fare revenue. “Fare revenue is an integral part of the MBTA’s revenue,” he said. “It is not something the T can do without.”

Boncore says the impact of fare free buses would range between $30 and $60 million and the impact on paratransit revenues is less than many are forecasting. Boncore said his bill is an attempt to both improve service and equity, noting bus riders tend to be people of color and low-income residents.

The MBTA laid out some broad five-year projections for budget planning. In the current fiscal year, fiscal 2021, the T plans to balance its budget with $605 million in federal aid and end the year with $365 million that can be used to help balance fiscal 2022. The $365 million includes $21 million in savings from service cuts, budget cuts, and additional federal aid and reimbursements.

With those revenues sources, T officials expect to offset fare revenue losses and balance the fiscal 2022 budget. In fiscal 2023 and beyond, however, the T is forecasting deficits of $423 million in fiscal 2023, $405 million in fiscal 2024, $458 million in fiscal 2025, and $495 million in fiscal 2026. All of those deficit projections are based on the lowest of the three fare projections and don’t include any revenue gained from the latest stimulus bill moving through Congress or potential fare increases. With higher fare projections, the deficits narrow but don’t disappear, reaching $430 million in fiscal 2026 using the mid-range fare revenue scenario and $329 million that same year using the most optimistic projection.

The T has not laid off any employees yet or taken other measures to reduce costs other than implementing service cuts. Poftak and Jamie Tesler, the acting secretary of transportation, said the T’s budgetary response has avoided steep cuts so far and is in line if not more moderate than what other transit systems are experiencing.

Sneak peak of this year’s transportation debate

Sneak peak of this year’s transportation debate

Boncore, Straus debate merits of free bus fares

THE HOUSE AND SENATE chairs of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee engaged in a back-and-forth debate about legislative priorities on transportation this year, with Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop calling for a dramatic paradigm shift and Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett questioning whether that shift has too big of a price tag.

The two lawmakers appeared on The Codcast, where they offered a sneak peak of the legislative deliberations that will likely take place this year as the Transportation Committee sets policy for the coming year. Both officials indicated they thought driving would return quickly to pre-pandemic levels, although it may not follow traditional rush hour patterns. They said transit ridership would probably take longer to bounce back.

The House, led by Straus, passed just before COVID hit last March a major transportation funding bill featuring higher taxes on gasoline, corporations, and rental cars. The Senate did not act on the House’s bill last year, but the two branches did pass a bond bill with some revenue measures, including higher fees on Uber and Lyft rides. Those measures were vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

 This year is starting differently. Boncore has filed legislation he is calling the New Deal for Transportation. It resuscitates the measures Baker vetoed along with a 4-cent increase in the gas tax for three years in a row and a 6.25 percent surcharge on commercial parking rates. The bill also includes a host of new policy measures, including free fares on all MBTA and regional transit authority buses, fares adjusted to reflect passenger income levels on other transit modes, and a roadway pricing task force to make recommendations on congestion pricing and toll equity.

 “It really is a broad set of values the Senate believes we need to make our system a more equitable system,” Boncore said. “The Transportation New Deal, as we’re calling it, represents the policies that I think we must undertake to modernize our transportation system and to ensure that we are beginning to look at public transit as a public good.”

 Straus said he is all for treating transportation as a public good, but he is worried about the cost of Boncore’s approach, which he pegged at $1 billion. “It’s important to focus on the goals. It’s equally important to focus on how you get there, and that’s probably going to be the kind of legislative discussions we’re going to have. I’m optimistic, although clearly we’re going to have some disagreements in getting there,” he said.

 Boncore said making buses free would dramatically improve equity in the transit system because bus riders tend to be people of color and lower-income individuals. He said fare-free buses would also attract more riders, curb traffic, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

 Straus said the push for free fares has gained momentum over the last few years, but using the gas tax to pay for them means many poor people who drive vehicles will bear much of the burden. “The system has a certain cost and you can’t, in the name of equity, inequitably visit the costs on only one part of the traveling public, and that’s part of the dynamic I see here,” the representative said.

 Straus said one option would be to remove fares on certain buses in certain areas rather than systemwide.

 Boncore prefers a statewide approach. “Of course, there’s a cost to that, but there’s a cost that for too long our constituents and riders in this CommonWealth have borne, and that’s the cost of doing nothing,” he said. “We need to build out of this pandemic. We need to make our transportation system a more equitable one. We’re going to have to absorb the cost. My understanding is the cost of fare free buses is about $60 million to $90 million. That would make free the buses on the MBTA system and on the RTA system, so I’m concerned about others thinking it could be a billion-dollar cost because I just don’t see it that way.”

 Boncore said bold action is needed. “It’s time in public transit and in our transportation system to change the paradigm on how we think about these things. Something has got to change because the product we’re putting out as a Commonwealth is not good enough and the people of this Commonwealth deserve more. What’s the cost associated, I have to ask, with our roads? Those are fare free. No one is paying user fees on our roads.”

 Straus pointed out to his Senate colleague that there is an excise tax on the roads – the gas tax. He also said MBTA documents indicate bus revenue totaled $97 million in 2019. He said doing away with bus fares could also trigger the loss of income from the T’s paratransit service, since the fare for paratransit rides is tied to the price of corresponding bus and subway fares.

 Boncore said paratransit fares don’t have to mirror those of buses and subways if the paratransit ride doesn’t follow a bus or subway route.

 Even as Boncore is pushing to do away with fares on buses, the MBTA is developing a new system for collecting fares. Boncore indicated the T is moving in the wrong direction. “The only billion-dollar proposal on the table right now is $1 billion to collect fares,” he said, citing the rough cost of the project.

 While the tone of their discussion suggested strong differences, both lawmakers wrapped up the podcast by saying they agree on a lot, starting with many of the initiatives that Baker vetoed in last year’s transportation bond bill. 

“I’m excited this bill has prompted these conversations,” Boncore said. “It’s generating some buzz, that’s the intent.” 

Poll shows support for both EVs, public transit

Poll shows support for both EVs, public transit

It’s not an either/or choice for most voters

THE FUTURE of transportation in Massachusetts is at a crossroads. As the debate between Gov. Charlie Baker and state lawmakers over the climate bill continues, one key issue is whether the best way to lower emissions is to invest in public transit or convert more cars on the road to electric vehicles, or EVs.

The Baker administration recently released a decarbonization roadmap that seems to favor EVs. This was questioned by some lawmakers and advocates who argue instead that a substantial investment in public transit is crucial to reducing emissions and relieving congestion.

But while both sides battle it out on Beacon Hill, residents resist such a stark choice and favor both the expansion of public transit and conversion to EVs, according to a new poll from the MassINC Polling Group.

The statewide survey was sponsored by the Barr Foundation with input from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (topline, crosstabs). The results suggest that residents don’t see public transit and EVs at odds with each other, but instead working in tandem to meet the daily realities of their lives.

Chief among the policy options polled, 83 percent of residents support improving existing public transit systems, including over half (52 percent) who “strongly” support such improvements. Another 77 percent of residents support expanding public transit to places that do not have it now.

Among those who most strongly support these public transit initiatives are high-mileage drivers. Using their pre-COVID average driving distances, those who drove 40-plus miles a day are more likely to support improving existing public transportation systems (93 percent vs. 83 percent of those who drove less than 40 miles/day). They are also more likely to support expanding public transportation to places that do not have it now (88 percent vs. 75 percent). The question is whether those drivers would switch to transit, or whether they hope that it would take other cars off the road and make their long commutes a little easier.

Current transit users would benefit from an efficient and expansive public transit system. In previous polling conducted by the MassINC Polling Group about potential uses of funds generated by the Transportation and Climate Initiative favored by the Baker administration, transit riders were particularly enthusiastic about improving the existing system and expanding transit to places that do not have it right now. But all Massachusetts residents – indeed all residents in every state in the region — ranked public transit uses of TCI funds over EV uses like rebates and charging stations.

Investing in transit may be the most popular policy, but residents also want investment and incentives to move toward electric vehicles. To quell EV range anxiety, 79 percent of residents support expanding the network of charging stations in the state. In focus groups conducted as part of this research, participants were even open to charging station fees, much in the same way that the gas tax currently subsidizes road and highway maintenance.

In terms of the actual purchase of electric vehicles, roughly three-quarters each support income-based cash incentives (75 percent) and extra incentives for high-mileage drivers (74 percent) to buy hybrid or electric vehicles. Such incentives would have to be clear and well-publicized. In focus groups, participants were unsure of what incentives already existed at both the state and federal level and confused government-backed rebates with deals from manufacturers.

Income-based incentives address an important equity issue when it comes to transit choices. While hybrid and electric vehicles may save drivers money over the long-run, they do tend to be more expensive up-front, creating a barrier to entry. Part of Baker’s roadmap would mandate that all new cars sold in Massachusetts be electric by 2035. Income-based incentives would be a “carrot” toward that end.

In focus groups, participants were also asked about a potential “stick” – that is, a fee attached to the sale of new gas-powered cars. The proposed fee found little support in the group. Participants called it “regressive,” positing that lower-income people who may only be able to afford a gas car would be unfairly penalized.

Further, driving may be the only option for some of these residents, many of whom live outside public transit service areas. Another MPG poll conducted late last year among residents of Gateway Cities found that most were not transit riders even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Majorities said driving was cheaper, more convenient, and more reliable. Those who did take public transit were younger, more diverse, and with lower levels of income and education, illustrating the equity issues at play.

On this point, at least, the public, the Baker administration, and the Legislature seem to be on the same page. Both Baker’s decarbonization roadmap and the climate bill address equity issues. The roadmap includes the considerations of environmental justice communities. The climate bill goes a step farther, codifying the definition of these communities and how they should be engaged in future projects. Our Gateway Cities poll found 81 percent support for low-income fare discounts, and 58 percent support for making all public transit free.

Whether the administration chooses to build new rail lines or more electric charging stations, the fundamental question remains: if we build it, will they use it? The pandemic has added another layer of uncertainty about how many trips will return to the Commonwealth’s roads and rails. Increased reliance on telework, telemedicine, and online deliveries will help cut traffic and emissions, but they introduce new issues. If the most well-off workers opt not to commute, what sort of transportation will be left for those who do not have the privilege to stay home?

Planning transportation to solve the climate crisis in the midst of a health crisis is no easy task. But while the governor and Legislature iron out the final details of the climate bill, the public is clear on the big picture: residents want a “both, and” approach to transportation rather than an “either/or” choice. If that approach can also reduce emissions, that is a happy byproduct of making their daily lives easier.

Maeve Duggan is a research director at the MassINC Polling Group.