Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

T starting to get serious about fare evasion

T starting to get serious about fare evasion

New fine structure, fare verification team coming

AS IT MOVES toward a new way of boarding passengers on buses and the Green Line, the MBTA is starting to address the touchy subject of fare evasion.

Currently, passengers board at the front door of a bus or Green Line car (as it travels above ground) and pay their fares in front of the driver. But a new cashless fare collection system under development will allow passengers to board at any door and tap on at card readers. The approach is expected to speed up boarding and cut trip times by 10 percent, but it raises the question about what to do about people who hop on board and don’t pay.

“One of the challenges and one of the risks with all-door boarding is the potential for an increase in fare evasion,” said Lynsey Heffernan, the acting assistant general manager for policy and strategic development, at Monday’s meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board. 

The expectation is that the T will have to hire fare inspectors who will spot-check riders to make sure they have paid. That won’t be easy in the potentially crowded confines of a bus or Green Line car and it raises a host of issues about selective enforcement.

“This is not going to be an easy job,” said Joseph Aiello, the chair of the control board. 

The Legislature set the process in motion last month by passing a transportation bond bill that decriminalized fare evasion and authorized the T to hire a “civilian fare verification team” and issue regulations lowering fines to an appropriate level.  

Under prior law, only transit police could issue citations for fare evasion and the fines were $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense, and $600 for the third offense. T officials say relatively few citations have been issued in the past – about 2,000 to 4,000 a year.

The previous citation system was paper-based; the new system will be digitized and capable of tracking patterns of enforcement by race, location, and other factors. 

The T is planning to issue draft regulations shortly, solicit feedback from the control board, then take public comment on them. The T hopes to have new regulations in place by this summer and then begin hiring a fare verification team in time for when the new fare collection system is deployed two years from now.  

Heffernan said the regulations may have to be tweaked again when the system is deployed to take into account changes that take place during the rollout. The T is already installing card readers in some subway stations and buses for testing purposes only and to iron out technical kinks.

T control board takes on its critics

T control board takes on its critics

Aiello calls Globe editorial ‘uninformed’

THE MBTA’S oversight board on Monday pushed back against relentless criticism from a host of critics for refusing to undo service cuts and for failing to move beyond what a Sunday Boston Globe editorial called “the small-bore thinking of the past six years.”

Joseph Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said he couldn’t remain silent about the editorial, which he described as “uninformed” and full of representations that were “wrong” or “mischaracterized.”

The Globe editorial focused most of its ire on Gov. Charlie Baker, criticizing him for not restoring service cuts and for failing to embrace congestion road pricing, rail service between central and western Massachusetts, fee hikes on Uber and Lyft trips, and a broad transformation of the I-90 Allston interchange.

Relying heavily on the urgings of transportation advocates, the Globe editorial accused the governor of small-bore transportation thinking and failing to pursue transformational projects.

“The governor doesn’t need me to speak up for him, but I think this was inherently unfair,” said Aiello, ticking off a long list of policies ($1.7 billion in capital investments last year) and projects dealing with bus, commuter rail, subway, and fare collection – all of which the T describes as transformational.

“People may be dissatisfied with the pace at which we do this, and I get that, but there is a lot on the plate of the staff at the T. They work like the dickens and they need to be defended,” Aiello said.

During the public testimony portion of the hearing, transportation advocates criticized the T for not using $250 million in new federal funding to restore all of the services that were cut when ridership plummeted during the pandemic.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak used $17 million of the $250 million to restore service cuts, shifted $178 million to replenish the T’s capital spending budget, and set aside the balance of the money to deal with an expected shortfall in the fiscal year beginning in July.

Representatives from the Conservation Law Foundation, the business group A Better City, andTransitMatters all said the T should immediately use the new federal funding to eliminate all service cuts. One advocate said the T is leaving “essential workers out in the cold” waiting for buses that never come. Others said the service cuts may be difficult to restore quickly once ridership rebounds. Many have also complained that the T isn’t even saying how much savings the service cuts will yield.

“What started out as a real budget crisis looks more and more like political machinations every day,” said Jarred Johnson of TransitMatters.

But the members of the control board are sticking with the plan. Control bord members said their goal is to provide service levels needed to meet current ridership needs rather than running empty trains, buses, and commuter rail trains. They said they will take a look in March at possibly restoring more service if there are signs that riders are returning, but otherwise intend to hold off until it does.

Poftak said on Monday that ridership is not picking up at the T.  The budget situation is also fluid. The T is balancing its budget this year with the help of $605 million in federal CARES Act funds and using more than $400 million in federal capital funds to cover operating expenses. Poftak is using some of the new federal money to offset the drawdown of the federal capital funds and banking the remainder of the money to help restore service and curb deficits in the coming fiscal year.

MBTA budget officials on Monday reported a net revenue gain of $3.5 million in December, which was transferred to a deficiency fund that is expected to grow to $314 million by the end of the fiscal year in July. That money is being held in reserve to help balance this year’s budget and next year’s. The budget presentation made it sound as if the money is surplus, but members of the control board said the funds are being set aside to deal with financial shortfalls ahead.

“The last thing we want our customers to think is we’re holding back money and cutting their service,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the control board.

Baker takes more conciliatory tone on climate change bill

Baker takes more conciliatory tone on climate change bill

Sends it back with amendments, drops objection on offshore wind

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER sent the Legislature’s twice-passed climate change bill back on Sunday with new, compromise language that strikes a more conciliatory tone and dials back some of his earlier objections.

When the Legislature first passed the bill in early January at the end of the last legislative session, the governor could only approve or reject it. He rejected it, raising concerns about its costly emissions target for 2030, its separate emission targets for six industry subsectors, its offshore wind procurements, its support for community energy codes that could deter the production of affordable housing, and the narrowness of its environmental justice provisions.

Lawmakers, irked by the administration’s attitude, responded by passing the same bill again and sending it back to Baker. But administration officials and legislative leaders over the last three weeks also began talking, trying to sort out their differences. “We did try to find areas of common ground,” said Kathleen Theoharides, the governor’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs.

Baker on Sunday returned the bill to the Legislature with an accompanying letter that was much less strident in tone than his earlier veto message. In the letter, Baker withdrew some of his earlier objections and proposed amendments that compromised on others.

The initial reception from legislative leaders was cautious optimism. They indicated they would likely not agree with the governor on everything, but would accept some of his amendments.

Rep. Thomas Golden of Lowell, the House’s point person on the legislation, said the governor’s amendments will get a fair shot. Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington, the Senate’s point person on the legislation, seemed receptive. He said a number of Baker’s technical amendments improved the bill and welcomed the fact that the critical tone of last session’s veto letter was missing from Sunday’s letter outlining proposed amendments.

“There will be disagreements there, but I liked the new theme,” Barrett said.

The Legislature has now passed its climate change bill twice by veto-proof majorities. It can approve the governor’s amendments or reject them and the governor could then attempt to veto those provisions the Legislature refuses to endorse. Again, the  Legislature could override his veto by a two-thirds vote.

Here is a breakdown of the bill in some key areas:

2030 emissions goal – Baker took strong exception in his earlier veto message to the Legislature’s proposal to set an emissions target of 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 rather than the administration’s target of 45 percent. The governor claimed the 50 percent goal would cost Massachusetts residents an extra $6 billion in higher costs for such things as electric vehicles and other replacement fuels.

In the amendment letter on Sunday, Baker proposed a compromise goal of 45 to 50 percent for 2030 with the final decision left to the administration.  “This new climate bill should give the Commonwealth the ability to make responsive, data-based decisions and pivot when new information becomes available,” the governor said in his letter. “This flexibility will also help the Commonwealth avoid the costs that are expected to result from imposing a higher limit, particularly on those who can least afford it.”

Golden said the governor’s suggested change would have to be studied carefully. Barrett said the administration’s own climate plan indicates it would yield a reduction between 45 and 48 percent, yet the administration is proposing a range of 45 to 50 percent. Barrett said he worried that the temptation will be strong to go with the lowest, most easily attainable number. “That’s not where the Legislature is today,” he said.

Industry emissions targets – In addition to statewide emissions targets, the Legislature’s bill also sets binding targets for emissions in six key subsectors, including transportation, electric power, and commercial and industrial heating and cooling. Baker’s amendment would make the targets “planning tools rather than independent legal requirements, providing we achieve our overall statewide emissions reductions.”

Offshore wind — Baker’s initial veto letter dismissed the Legislature’s call for significant new procurements of offshore wind, saying the state should not be selecting “clean energy winners and losers” by signing contracts through utilities directly with offshore wind developers. Instead, Baker favored a regional approach to clean energy procurements that would put them on more equal footing in regional wholesale energy markets and make suppliers compete for contracts by supplying energy at the lowest possible price.

In his amendment letter, Baker dropped his earlier objection entirely and said he now supports the procurement of an additional 4,000 megawatts of offshore wind by the state. He put off until later the regional clean energy procurement effort. Golden said the House, a big promoter of offshore wind, appreciated the governor’s change of heart. Regarding the regional procurement effort, Golden said: “That’s something that needs a little more time.”

Housing – Baker initially balked at the Legislature’s proposal on the development of stretch energy codes that could be used by municipalities to force developers to change the way they construct buildings to reduce energy consumption. Even though Baker favored a similar approach, he quoted business and union leaders in his letter as saying the Legislature’s language was too vague and could result in a housing construction slowdown or a halt in many municipalities.

In his amendment letter, Baker filed amendments seeking to clarify how the process would work. Theoharides said the Department of Energy Resources would draft a stretch energy code that could be adopted voluntarily by municipalities starting in 2022 and become mandatory in 2028. Barrett said he wanted more time to study the governor’s proposal, but pointed out that the Legislature purposefully gave a lot of discretion to the administration in developing the stretch energy code.

Environmental justice – The House took the lead on the climate change bill’s environmental justice proposals but failed to address the issue of cumulative pollution in an environmental justice community when considering a permit for a development project. Theoharides said the governor’s proposal on Sunday would allow the Department of Environmental Protection, when considering a permit, to consider not only the impact of the specific project before it but the cumulative impact of pollution in the community.

“Environmental justice populations have historically borne more than their fair share of pollution, particularly air pollution,” Baker said in his letter. “Recognition of those facts should not be limited to environmental review and instead should be incorporated into permitting decisions directly.”

Golden said he was encouraged the administration was seeking to strengthen the environmental justice provisions in the bill.

MBTA offers 2 employees ‘sign-on bonuses’

MBTA offers 2 employees ‘sign-on bonuses’

Another 5 receive performance bonuses

A correction has been added to this story concerning the information regarding Angel Pena.

THE MBTA has begun offering so-called “sign-on bonuses” to attract some employees to join the transit authority.

According to T officials, two employees received the bonuses last year — Vikram Dogra, deputy chief of capital programs, who received a $20,000 bonus on a salary of $219,000, and Chief Financial Officer Mary Ann O’Hara, who received a $10,000 bonus on a salary of $227,000.

Five employees received performance bonuses in 2020 based on pre-established goals.  As previously reported, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak received a performance bonus of $20,800 on a salary of $324,000.

But Poftak did not get the highest performance bonus at the T.  That distinction went to Angel Pena, chief of Green Line transformation.  He received a $39,375 bonus for work in 2019 on a salary of $218,000. Pena has been at the T for 2½ years, coming from the transit authority in Washington, DC.

The three other recipients of the performance bonuses were Raymond Wise, senior director of procurement operations ($28,435); Danny Levy, chief customer experience officer ($27,675); and Benjamin Schutzman, chief of paratransit services ($15,750). 

Jeffrey Gonneville, the MBTA deputy general manager, did not receive a bonus although his contract allows for one.  “Gonneville neither requested nor received a bonus last year or this year,” said Joe Pesaturo, the T’s spokesman.

For many years the T has had difficulty attracting high-quality employees and retaining them once they take their jobs. In fiscal year 2019, the T managed to hire more workers than it lost for the first time in five years. In fiscal year 2020, according to a presentation to the Fiscal and Management Control Board last year, the T was expected to hire 1,047 employees and lose 500 through retirements and voluntary separations.

Schutzman, who received a bonus as the head of paratransit services, was one of three MBTA employees profiled by CommonWealth in 2018 who were hired to help change the culture of the agency. Shutzman is the only one still working at the authority.

The MBTA workforce has slowly been growing – in fiscal 2017 it had 6,547 workers and as of last February it had 6,301. The average salary of a T worker is now $79,355, up 12 percent from $70,788 when Gov. Charlie Baker came into office in 2015.

Pesaturo noted a report issued by the Fiscal and Management Control Board said the transit authority typically pays below the market rate for key leadership and non-union executive positions. “This leads to good internal people leaving and undermines the authority’s capacity to attract, hire and retain next-generation leaders,” the report states.

Jim Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board, said he knows many of the people who received bonuses and they deserve them based on their performance.

 “I have no objection to compensating people appropriately,” he said. “But the glaring inconsistency of issuing bonuses while cutting service points to a serious credibility problem that can’t easily be overlooked.”

T control board’s annual report calls for new revenues

T control board’s annual report calls for new revenues

Raises alarm on pension, debt costs, backs means-test fares

THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board sent a 10-page annual report to the Legislature on Monday that is fact-based and largely straightforward with its updates on major initiatives and its appeals for more revenue, continued transparency, and means-tested fares.

Brian Lang, a member of the control board, said he liked the report, the sixth issued since the board was created in 2015. “It’s taken us six tries to get one concise enough that people will actually read it,” he said.

There aren’t a lot of editorial comments in the report, but it nevertheless takes issue with a number of stances taken by Gov. Charlie Baker, who appointed all of the control board’s members.

The report bluntly states that the current funding structure of the MBTA needs to be adjusted to deal with soaring pension and debt service costs.

The T’s contribution to employee pensions was $71 million in fiscal 2017, a number that rose to $128 million during the current fiscal year and is projected to hit $175 million in fiscal 2025. “This is unsustainable and requires a fix through renegotiation of the pension agreement, legislation, or both,” the report states.

The control board also confirmed what many budget analysts are saying — that the MBTA’s capital spending program is threatened by rising debt service costs, which are paid out of the T’s operating budget. In other words, the interest the T is paying on the money it has borrowed is eating up a larger and larger share of the transit authority’s operating budget, forcing the agency to choose between sought-after capital projects for the future or keeping trains running now.

Interest costs currently represent 23 percent of the T’s operating budget, a percentage the board says is likely to rise as federal and state funding sources dry up.

“We recommend that new state, federal, and other sources of dedicated revenue be found for capital improvements which will mitigate the MBTA’s debt service burden. This will allow the MBTA to continue and accelerate our aggressive capital program which is key to modernizing the MBTA, supports the Commonwealth reaching our climate goals, and allows the MBTA to offer increasingly better service at affordable fares,” the report said.

The segment of the report dealing with means-tested fares was interesting as much for what it didn’t say as what it said. The report said the control board was pleased the Legislature acknowledged in its transportation bond bill the need for means-tested fares (fares tied to the income level of riders) and a funding source to pay for them.

The report did not mention that Baker vetoed the means-tested fare provision in the transportation bond bill and that he also vetoed a potential funding source – new fees on Uber and Lyft rides capable of raising upwards of $55 million. The control board’s annual report pegged the cost for means-tested fares at $40 to $55 million, plus additional money for operating costs.

The control board, which is set to expire in June, also recommended that state lawmakers pass legislation establishing a new standalone MBTA oversight board by May 15 with the secretary of transportation as a member. The annual report said the governor should continue to select all the board members and the board, not the secretary of transportation, should select the general manager of the T.

The report also recommended setting the number of required meetings at 18 per year rather than the current 36. Last year, the board recommended holding a minimum of 15 meetings each year.

“We also believe that full transparency with the public is the best long-term safeguard against a relapse of pre-2015 conditions. Transparency has associated costs, but in the long term it is undoubtedly less expensive,” the report said

T notes: Seeking transformation amid constraints

T notes: Seeking transformation amid constraints

Transit plays minor role in Baker climate plan

THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board heard a series of presentations on Monday about capital projects to transform the bus, subway, and commuter rail lines and the big takeaways were that the costs would be incredibly high and more managers are needed to oversee them.

MBTA officials detailed “transformation” projects for bus, commuter rail, and the Red, Orange, Green, and Blue subway lines. Many of the projects have already received significant investments, but all of them required what appeared to be billions more in the future.

Some talked about the need for new money, including $4.5 billion for new bus maintenance facilities, while others warned of shortfalls ahead. A presentation by Alistair Sawers, who oversees commuter rail transformation, warned of “potential cliffs” in 2030 for aging locomotives and 2035 for stations.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, a former member of the control board, said when he hears these types of presentations he wants to say yes to all of them. “That’s not the world we live in,” he said. “We’re going to think hard about how we fit all these things in and how we sequence and prioritize them. There’s going to be some constraints.”

In November, Andrew Bagley of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, made a presentation to the control board in which he said capital funding sources are likely to fall off a cliff in fiscal 2025. “There’s a capital cliff coming and without additional resources you’re going to face some extremely difficult challenges in the near future,” Bagley said.

Monday’s presentations also illustrated how some of the transformation projects are lacking leaders, a recurring problem at the T. Sawers is the only T official working on the commuter rail transformation. The bus transformation initiative, while it shares many people from across the T, has no single person in charge.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, vice chair of the control board, said the bus transformation requires someone at the helm. “It’s a little perplexing that wer don’t have the head of this team,” she said. Poftak said he was in agreement, and would hire a new bus lead as soon as possible.

The exchange was similar to one last month between Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, and Mike O’Dowd, the Department of Transportation project manager for the I-90 Allston interchange project. Aiello asked O’Dowd whether the $1.3 billion Allston project was the only one he was working on. O’Dowd said it was just one of many.

Transit plays minor role in Baker climate change plan

One of the Baker administration’s top climate change experts said public transit doesn’t figure prominently in the state’s roadmap for getting to net zero emissions by 2050.

David Ismay, the undersecretary for climate change in the Baker administration, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that the administration’s modeling indicates shifting people from cars to public transit and reducing vehicle miles traveled do not yield significant emissions reductions.

“We didn’t find a lot of bulk benefit there,” Ismay said, in part because the time between now and 2050 is short and such initiatives would not yield enough bang for the buck.

Ismay outlined the Baker administration’s roadmap in broad brush strokes, but offered little guidance on when and how the T should decarbonize its operations.

Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, said the T has set some broad decarbonization goals for 2040 and 2050 but no interim targets. He said he is worried about when to start the process, which will be very expensive. “We don’t turn on a dime like buying an electric vehicle,” he said.

Ismay said he didn’t have any advice. “I don’t know exactly,” he said.

Pollack says goodbye to control board

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said goodbye to the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday and insisted it’s not odd that a long-time transit advocate would be taking the No. 2 job at the Federal Highway Administration.

“It can be an agency that supports people rather than a singular mode of transportation,” she said.

Members of T staff and the control board praised Pollack, but a recurring theme in their remarks was their hope that Massachusetts could benefit from her new-found clout in Washington.

“It’s very comforting to know we will have a friend in Washington,” said T General Manager Steve Poftak.

“It’s nice to know we will have an ally,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, vice chair of the board.

Harvard raises concerns on ‘no-build’ Allston option

Harvard raises concerns on ‘no-build’ Allston option

Official points out university’s already-significant investment

A TOP OFFICIAL at Harvard University sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack last week raising concerns about the state’s growing interest in just patching the crumbling elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston University and the Charles River and putting off action on the broader I-90 Allston interchange project.

The letter, written by Harvard’s executive vice president Katherine Lapp, was mailed last Tuesday, eight days after Pollack and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board approved a resolution suggesting the broader project may not go forward unless Harvard and the city of Boston make a “substantial” in the broader $1 billion-plus initiative.

The broader project would replace the crumbling elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike between BU and the Charles; rebuild other road and rail transportation infrastructure in the area; build a new MBTA West Station; add new access roads and pedestrian and bicycle paths; and straighten the Turnpike as it moves through the area to make room for the development of a new research-oriented neighborhood by Harvard.

Lapp said Harvard continues to view the project as a public-private partnership, but she said the resolution debated by the MassDOT board failed to take into account the significant investments Harvard has already made in the project.

She noted Harvard paid $227 million to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in 2000 and 2003 for two key parcels of land in Allston. She noted Harvard was the Turnpike’s only bidder on the land, and the money was used to complete the Central Artery project.

She also noted Harvard acquired the CSX Transportation railyard in the area and purchased another rail spur, both of which allowed the Worcester commuter rail line to begin operating with two tracks. She said Harvard also has committed $58 million to the construction of West Station and provided three acres of parkland to the state for the Paul Dudley White bicycle path.

“The project represents a multi-generational, transformational opportunity to create a western transportation gateway into Boston that will benefit the entire region,” Lapp said in her letter. “Before the project can unlock any development opportunities, however, Harvard will need to make additional significant investment in terms of infrastructure and utilities, including decking and the Cambridge Street Bypass for air rights development over the highway and rail yard. All told, it will be over 30 years from Harvard’s initial investment to purchase the land from the Commonwealth before development potential in the area may be realized.”

Lapp dismissed the debate among state transportation officials on whether to build the broader project, using one of three options, or pursue what is being called a “no-build” approach, which would entail patching the crumbling elevated section of the Turnpike and leaving the rest of the project for later. Resurrecting quotes from past studies done by the state, Lapp said the no-build option would not meet the safety and transportation priorities set out by the state.

“Moreover, the no-build option is neither a ‘no disruption,’ nor a ‘no-cost’ option,” she said. “The disruption to Turnpike drivers and commuter rail riders during the construction period for repairing the viaduct is likely to be extensive. The no-build approach would leave Allston divided in two, rather than rejoining neighborhoods. And the no-build option will cost hundreds of millions of dollars for a temporary fix without addressing the real need to improve the major emergency egress route for the city of Boston, as well as to create a needed western transportation gateway into the city.”

Lapp said a public consensus has emerged in support of replacing the elevated section of the Turnpike and other transportation infrastructure in the area with an all at-grade approach, which would unlock major regional and local economic benefits.

Given all that, Lapp said, “we are troubled that the no-build option continues to be considered as an alternative, and worse, presented as a viable fallback option.”

Pollack, who is leaving Tuesday to take the No. 2 job at the Federal Highway Administration, has said the state currently lacks the funds to do a $1 billion project. Lapp, even before Pollack’s new appointment was announced, urged the transportation secretary to use Harvard’s “significant contributions” as a platform to leverage federal funding for the project.

“The project has credible private partners and, in our view, fits perfectly into the multi-modal, public-private partnership, innovative transit-oriented development themes that federal financing programs favor,” Lapp wrote.

We can’t follow on transportation; we must lead

We can’t follow on transportation; we must lead

Baker policies misaligned with sustainability goals

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, and that particularly includes time serving in public office.  For some, longevity in office can be a rare opportunity to make impactful change; for others, it can become a drag on creativity and effectiveness.  In Massachusetts, we are about to see a change at the top of the state’s transportation secretariat as the Biden administration has selected Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack to become deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.

The new secretary of transportation, Jamey Tesler, is someone I know well. He’s a top-notch appointment, a first-rate person with a first-rank intellect. I do not say this lightly: when I was transportation secretary, I appointed him to be my chief deputy despite push back from the governor’s office because Jamey had been an advisor to officials in prior Republican administrations.

I knew Jamey well enough to know that he was professional to the core, neither a partisan nor an ideologue. He was, instead, a talented lawyer, the kind of lawyer who counsels.  Counselling is an old-fashioned way to describe the lawyer’s role, but it is exactly the quality you want in a legal advisor – or in a public official.  It means someone who is thoughtful, measured, persuasive. Jamey’s more than a lawyer, of course. During our time working together in various capacities over the years, I appreciated Jamey’s intellectual curiosity, his inclination to embrace problem-solving and collaboration, and his essential decency as a human being.  For all these reasons and more I have confidence he will be a good secretary.

He has his work cut out for him.  Much remains incomplete, delayed, or undone. He is inheriting Massachusetts transportation policies that are misaligned with the needs of our time, profoundly inconsistent with state climate policy, and destined to set back efforts to improve the metro Boston economy and public health as we slowly but surely transition to the post-COVID era.

Of course, these are not the policies of the soon-to-be former secretary; they are, most decidedly, the policies of the Baker administration.  And therein lies the great challenge, and the likely frustration ahead, because cabinet secretaries do not set state policy and they too often do not even set transportation policy. Despite protestations to the contrary, governors (and their executive staff) tend to micromanage all aspects of the government they were elected to lead.

For a time, it appeared that Massachusetts was about to enter into a new phase in its transportation history, one that made sustainability, equity, and access priorities.  The governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation set the right tone as it cautioned that chronic traffic congestion, inequitable and inadequate modal alternatives to driving, and the importance of addressing air quality in metro Boston converged on one, simple but powerful principle: Massachusetts needs to move more people in fewer vehicles.

Massachusetts needs to move more people in fewer vehicles.  That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic; it remains true today. There is no absence of clarity here: the pandemic won’t last forever (nothing ever does), and there is persuasive evidence (more than mere hope or conjecture) that the worst of it will be out of our lives before the end of 2021, thanks largely to efficacious vaccines and the adoption of behaviors (mask wearing in certain public settings; better hygiene) that help improve public health in a variety of ways.

COVID-19 is a massive pattern break, an event that permanently changes how people live. A different pattern break, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, permanently changed how we fly, how we gain access to public and private buildings, and altered the public realm with features designed to protect certain high-value public and private sector buildings from attack.  These changes were made largely as a matter of security necessity and common sense.  What changes will COVID-19 make to our lives that will be adopted on a large-scale basis?

The answer to that question is not immediately evident, despite many articles from pundits, prognosticators, and futurists who apparently have been imbued with clairvoyant wisdom. As Yogi Berra, said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”  The real answer lies not in guesswork but in action, in the deliberate enactment of policies that respond to the pandemic in ways that are targeted to improve people’s lives.

In the transportation sector, improving lives means providing more modal alternatives and better access, attracting transit and rail riders to new service delivery models that respond to 21st century work and lifestyles, and altering streetscapes and the urban public realm to encourage more, safer cycling and walking.

Transportation policies that follow these guidelines will also improve public health by reducing particulates, improve economies (especially small business economies) by supporting foot traffic and agglomeration effects, improve social cohesion by providing an integrated egalitarian transport network. And it means doing all this equitably, addressing the access needs of people across regions and being mindful of the importance of affordable transit and rail service.

The Baker administration has embarked on a deliberate policy of following rather than leading.  It has embraced an auto mobility future by explicitly calling on commuter rail riders to drive and by focusing its transport sector emissions reduction policies primarily on the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. This commitment to an auto mobility future is enshrined in the Environmental Secretary’s Interim Clean Energy and Climate Plan, which promotes an electric vehicle-only approach to transport emissions reduction, with no action plan to encourage mode shift. This policy is enabled by Secretary Pollack’s decision, amplified by the governor, to take a passive “let’s wait and see” attitude about transit ridership return. This policy was rightly characterized in a New York Times editorial last week as “small-minded and short-sighted”.

As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, specifically the winding down that will inevitably come with widespread vaccinations before the fall of 2021, the MBTA will find itself utterly unprepared to meet demand.  By definition, you cannot meet demand if your policy is to wait for riders to return before providing frequent and reliable service.  If the service is not ready when the riders are, the riders will turn to driving as a substitute. Rather than devote time to rethinking how to deliver transit service, a service model that adopts all day frequencies that accommodate flexible work hours and reduce crowding, the MBTA is cutting service, confusing riders, and playing “wait and see.”

The administration’s policies are outright antagonistic to transit, an attitude reflected in the governor’s veto of legislation increasing ride-hailing fees, his veto of means-tested fares, and his veto of a road pricing commission.  “We need to understand the future of work,” his veto message states, “and its impact on when, where, and how congestion will return.”  This statement embodies the flawed thinking that informs the administration’s policies: it assumes that government should be passive rather than proactive, and it assumes that road pricing is only something to be considered as a way to manage traffic congestion, rather than as a way to reduce public sector subsidy of auto mobility.

The administration’s policy towards the reconstruction of the Turnpike in Allston similarly reflects this antagonism toward sustainable mobility. This project is a prime example of a rare opportunity to provide better access and mobility while correcting the design and construction mistakes of mid-20th Century planning. An elevated highway that separates communities from the Charles River, that is by definition more expensive to maintain, with an unsafe, functionally deficient design featuring a badly curved alignment with severe reverse curves, ought to be replaced by an at-grade highway that opens up opportunities for critically important sustainable mobility features. These features include the Allston buffer park and Agganis Way connector, pedestrian and bike connections associated with the Grand Junction bridge over the Charles River, maintenance of two-track rail service on the Worcester commuter rail line throughout the construction period of the project to prioritize an early build West Station, and increased frequency of service on the Worcester-Framingham line, provisions for level boarding at Worcester Branch stations, and the addition of a third “passing track” in Wellesley, Natick, and Framingham.

These initiatives would reduce emissions along the I-90 corridor, provide better access to residents from Worcester to Boston, and support sustainable mobility in the Allston/Cambridge inner core communities.  The administration’s current inclination to abandon these important initiatives in favor of a “patch and repair” job that doubles down on auto mobility and kicks the can for another decade or more is emblematic of its auto-centric, unsustainable approach to building a better metro Boston following the pandemic.

These policies will inevitably increase auto mobility and regional and urban vehicle miles traveled. The consequence of increasing urban and suburban auto mobility has massive implications for metro Boston and statewide climate goals.  It also has significant impacts on the continuation and possible worsening of particulate matter emissions in inner core communities. A number of recent studies have demonstrated the severely negative public health implications of transportation sector emissions.  These issues are inextricably linked to social equity in inner core communities lsuch as Chelsea, Revere, and East Boston. It is not hyperbole to observe that these policies are rooted in old 20th Century, structurally racist and directionally elitist, thinking.

What’s worse, the Baker administration’s decarbonization plan for the transport sector is profoundly inconsistent, an inconsistency so glaring that (unless it is the result of pure cynicism) raises questions regarding the internal coordination of administration policy. As laid out in the interim climate plan forf2030, the state’s approach to reducing transportation sector emissions is an electric vehicle-only approach, one that is dismissive of mode shift or other policies that will also reduce emissions.

If the Commonwealth is committed to an electric vehicle only (or primarily) approach to decarbonization, the governor’s veto of a road pricing commission makes no sense.  By definition, a migration to electric vehicles means the end of the gas tax as the primary transportation funding source, and it means the end of any revenue anticipated from the Transportation Climate Initiative.  What revenue source will replace these?  The answer must be fair, transparent road pricing.  Failure to acknowledge this head-on is remarkable.

As the Baker administration finds itself calling for fairly rapid transition to an electric vehicle-only auto mobility paradigm, it continues to oppose or drag its feet on electrification of its regional rail network. The Commonwealth cannot lead from behind on this critical issue. If it is truly committed to a large-scale transition to electric vehicles, it must show leadership by committing to and advancing electrification of all commuter rail lines by 2035.

It must also commit to keep in place all current trolley electric bus systems and installing infrastructure necessary to begin the transition to battery electric buses. That will require new funding and include new garage and charging facilities as well as in-route charging infrastructure allowing the bus to top up its batteries at chargers located at selected stops along its route, extending its operating range throughout the day without requiring it to return to home base. These are not trivial investments, but they are essential if the Commonwealth means what it says, and desires to reduce transportation sector emissions primarily through an electrification initiative.

We are fast approaching an inflection point that will determine whether Massachusetts, and especially metro Boston, will build back better from the pandemic.  If we fail to transform transit service delivery to provide frequent all-day service; if we fail to remake urban streetscapes to provide dedicated bus lanes, safe protected cycling lanes, and complete streets; if we fail to encourage mode shift at a meaningful scale and on a regional basis, we will find ourselves returning to the deeply unsatisfactory pre-COVID status quo.  That would be generationally irresponsible.

There’s still time to get this right, but the sands are quickly flowing through the hourglass.  The new transportation secretary has a lot on his plate. The administration’s policies remain misaligned with its own stated sustainability goals. These are the realities we must deal with as we work together to build a better future for everyone in metro Boston.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a board member of TransitMatters.

Baker faces same choice Sargent did in 1972

Baker faces same choice Sargent did in 1972

Don’t elevate a highway above an urban community

IN 1972, Republican Gov. Francis W. Sargent confronted the question of whether to perpetuate a decades-old plan to run the I-95 highway through Boston neighborhoods, or to adopt a forward-looking, community-inspired plan that swept away outdated ideas. It took courage for the governor to abandon the obsolete notion of building an elevated interstate through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain and instead to invest in environmentally sensitive infrastructure that would encourage economic development along the Southwest Corridor.

Sargent and his secretary of transportation, Alan Altshuler, found a way to pay for that plan and rebuild failing roads and rail facilities in those neighborhoods with federal and state public funds.

Today’s pending reconstruction of I-90 now looming over Boston’s Allston neighborhood presents an uncanny opportunity to do the same good. Our governor faces the equivalent question of whether to perpetuate a decades-old idea – a highway viaduct built above an urban community – or to seize, as Sargent did, the exciting alternative put forward by private citizens. The Allston project would open the door to a similar 50-year economic development plan and new parkland, forever reclaiming a critical part of Boston for the benefit of the region.

In both cases, major universities benefit from a new public-oriented plan, and so they should – along with every other citizen of Boston. Northeastern University in the Southwest Corridor in the 1970s, and Harvard and Boston University today in Allston, have long served their different communities as cornerstone educational institutions. They have expended their own funds to reclaim fallow, post-industrial lands and hold them for more productive public-oriented purposes.

Harvard’s cost in acquiring railroad freight yards and related industrial rights in Allston was substantial and will be increased by its $58 million commitment to help the Commonwealth pay for the new West Station. To expect Harvard to also bear the cost of rebuilding I-90 or more of the passenger railroad that serves the public at-large is to overstate the obligations of any private university and to ask it to do the work of a public agency.

At the beginning of 2021, as our new president proposes major investment in national infrastructure, it is unthinkable that the Commonwealth would repeat highway design mistakes made in the 1960s, or even suggest rebuilding an elevated highway adjacent to the Charles River and above one of the last major undeveloped parcels in Boston.

Belief in a common public good was at the heart of Sargent’s transformative decision. The Commonwealth’s responsibility for that good should not be disregarded by calling it the obligation of a university land owner. The history of the Southwest Corridor Project surely shows that the creation of public good is the duty of government.

Anthony Pangaro, who retired as head of Millennium Partners-Boston, was the director of the Southwest Corridor Project from 1973 to 1980.  Kenneth Kruckemeyer is a partner at Strategies for Cities and was assistant director/director of the Southwest Corridor Project from 1973 to 1982.

T general manager receives $20,800 bonus

T general manager receives $20,800 bonus

Poftak’s 6.4% payout was for work in 2019

MBTA GENERAL MANAGER Steve Poftak, who receives a base salary of $324,800 a year, recently received a bonus of $20,800 for 2019.

Based on pre-established performance goals, Poftak was eligible for a bonus equal to 10 percent of his salary in 2019, the first year of his three-year contract. Instead, he received a 6.4 percent bonus, which was granted in November 2020.

Poftak is eligible for a bonus of up to 15 percent for 2020 and up to 20 percent for 2021, according to his contract. Poftak and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, who is leaving her post next week to take a job at the Federal Highway Administration, agreed that a decision on any bonus for 2020 will be deferred for the time being, said Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation.

Besides being eligible for bonuses, Poftak is guaranteed a 1.5 percent salary bump every year.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, is eligible for bonuses as well, but he has not gotten any.  “Gonneville neither requested nor received a bonus last year or this year,” said MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesatoro.  Gonneville’s current annual salary is $258,000.

The performance goals by which Poftak is evaluated for earning his bonuses are fiscal discipline and financial management, human capital, customer experience, and system condition and performance.

Poftak is among many state employees who make more than Gov. Charlie Baker, who earns $185,000 a year.