Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

Pollack headed to Federal Highway Administration

Pollack headed to Federal Highway Administration

Tesler to serve as acting transportation secretary

THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION on Thursday tapped Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack as deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, creating a yawning void in the state’s transportation bureaucracy.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced that Jamey Tesler, who currently runs the Registry of Motor Vehicles, will serve as acting secretary once Pollack steps down on Tuesday.

The appointment of Pollack to the federal highway administrator’s job is another step in her evolution. She started out as a left-leaning, pro-tax, transit advocate working at the Conservation Law Foundation and Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy; moved on to be a fierce advocate for her Republican boss’s cautious, no-tax transportation policies; and now is headed to Washington to deal with highway issues.

Often described as the smartest person in whatever room she is in, Pollack demonstrated a strong command of just about every facet of state transportation. Where she struggled at times was trying to bridge the gap between the strong desire among transportation advocates and many on Beacon Hill to rapidly modernize the state’s transit system and her boss’s desire to do so on a much slower timetable.

James Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation himself who current serves on the TransitMatters board, called Pollack’s appointment in 2015 “a solid and stunning choice.” In an interview on Thursday, he said his high expectations back then came down to earth as he came to realize that Pollack viewed her job as working for and carrying out the policies of the governor. He said her approach was understandable, and helps explain why she held on to the secretary’s post for six years, longer than her three predecessors combined.

“She was very transparent from the get-go. She has been a highly effective lawyer/advocate for her client’s position,” he said, referring to Baker.

But Aloisi described her tenure as “a missed opportunity,” citing her inaction on some of the biggest transportation issues facing the state – the Allston I-90 interchange, a Red-to-Blue line connector on the subway system, and her failure to push for swift electrification of the commuter rail system.

Pollack is a tireless administrator, but the constant fighting between transportation advocates and the Baker administration over the last several years appeared to take its toll. “I have the sense that she hasn’t been happy in the job for awhile,” Aloisi said.

At a State House press conference, Baker praised Pollack, calling her “a terrific performer” who will be great asset to the Biden administration. “It’s a bummer for us, but we do now have somebody in Washington who really understands what we’re about,” suggesting that familiarity might help the state as it tries to secure federal funding.

Tesler brings vast experience to his new job, having served as chief operating officer, chief of staff, and assistant secretary for procurement for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. He has also held jobs at the MBTA, the state treasurer’s office, and in the legal office of former governor Jane Swift.

Pollack tapped Tesler as registrar of motor vehicles in 2019 when that agency was engulfed in controversy after a truck driver impaired by multiple drugs mowed down seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire. It was subsequently discovered that the driver should have had his license suspended by the Registry of Motor Vehicles after he had his driving privileges revoked in another state, but the agency failed to act on the notice it received about the earlier driving infraction.

Aloisi said Tesler was his top deputy when he was secretary of transportation under Deval Patrick. “He was the person I went to for advice three or four times a day,” Aloisi said. He called Tesler a terrific choice and said the secretary’s job is in good hands.

Tesler faces a huge decision over the next several months on the I-90 Allston interchange project. The city of Boston and most transportation advocates have urged Pollack to rebuild at grade level a crumbling elevated section of the Turnpike and other transportation infrastructure between Boston University and the Charles River, straighten the Turnpike in that area, and build a new commuter rail station to make way for a new neighborhood being built by Harvard University.

After years of research, Pollack has failed to make a decision on what construction approach to follow. In recent months, she has said money for the project is scarce and suggested she may end up patching the crumbling elevated section of the Turnpike and do none of the other elements of the project. Her new Washington job may give her the ability to free up some funding for the project.

Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, who has been the House’s point person on transportation issues, said the Allston I-90 interchange project appears to be at a virtual standstill. He said the departure of Pollack and a change at the bargaining table might be helpful in moving the project along.

“Whether she intended it or not, Stephanie Pollack has become something of a lightening rod,” he said.

Baker appointee ‘mourns’ transportation vetoes

Baker appointee ‘mourns’ transportation vetoes

Tibbits-Nutt calls governor’s actions ‘heart-breaking’

ONE OF GOV. CHARLIE BAKER’S top transportation appointees took to Twitter on Tuesday to mourn four ”heart-breaking vetoes” the governor made last week to the transportation bond bill.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, who serves on the boards of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board,  said in a long series of tweets that the $16.5 billion bond bill that became law last week contained much to like. But she said the governor’s vetoes of a congestion pricing commission, higher fees on Uber and Lyft rides, means-tested fares, and a grant program for transportation management associations were disappointing.

“Many of the vetoes represent missed opportunities for building a more equitable transportation system for all residents of the Commonwealth,” she said.

In his veto message, Baker said much more needs to be understood about the nature of work post-COVID before launching a congestion pricing commission. Tibbitts-Nutt, however, said the commission was a chance to gather real data about ways of addressing congestion problems.

“The ‘new normal’ WILL include congestion,” she tweeted. “We have the same antiquated street systems, the same housing crisis, the same inequitable distribution of alternative transportation options. Increased telework is not going to alleviate all of the factors driving our congestion.”

Tibbits-Nutt also lamented the governor’s veto of a new fee structure for Uber and Lyft rides, which Baker rejected as too complicated and premature. Tibbits-Nutt disagreed, saying the new fees would bring in at least $56 million a year and incentivize Massachusetts residents to share rides or use public transit.

“We are continuing to prioritize private companies creating SOV [single occupancy vehicle] trips over higher-occupancy, publicly-funded modes,” she tweeted.

Means-tested fares were a high priority for Tibbits-Nutt, who has championed their study and development at the MBTA. The provision in the bond bill would have required the T to move forward with reduced fares for low-income people and also set the stage for regional transit authorities to follow suit. Baker vetoed the measure because of uncertainties about the cost of foregoing fare revenue.

“Without an actual commitment to action, we will just continue debating & studying. Meanwhile, we are missing an essential opportunity to make our transit system genuinely more equitable,” Tibbits-Nutt tweeted. “I agree that we need more revenue, but that need for revenue should not come on the backs of riders, and citing revenue loss as the reason for further delays feels particularly frustrating when the new [Uber and Lyft] fee structure was also vetoed.”

Tibbits-Nutt also raised concerns about the governor’s veto of a program providing grants to transportation management associations, private organizations that typically provide last-mile services to commuters. Tibbits-Nutt is the executive director of one such association – the 128 Business Council.

Baker vetoes key policy initiatives in transportation bond bill

Baker vetoes key policy initiatives in transportation bond bill

New Uber, Lyft fees and Spilka toll restriction scrapped

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER signed the Legislature’s transportation bond bill into law on Friday, but used his line-item veto to remove proposals raising fees on Uber and Lyft rides, establishing means-tested fares on public transit, and an initiative pushed by Senate President Karen Spilka that would prohibit increases in Turnpike tolls to help pay for the Allston I-90 interchange project.

The $16 billion bond bill authorizes the state to borrow money to finance all sorts of ongoing transportation projects, including bridge repairs, road improvements, and public transit initiatives such as the Green Line extension and South Coast Rail. The bill passed by the Legislature in the wee hours of January 6 also contained a number of new policy initiatives that Baker decided to scrap. Because the Legislature that passed the bill is no longer in session, the governor’s vetoes cannot be overridden.

One key policy initiative in the bill called for replacing the current 20-cent fee on Uber and Lyft rides with a 40-cent fee on shared rides and a $1.20 fee on non-shared rides. The proposal also added a $1 fee on rides in luxury vehicles and a special 20-cent transit fee on all rides originating and ending in 14 communities in the Greater Boston area. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimated the fees would raise upwards of $56 million at current traffic levels.

Baker said the proposal was premature. “This proposal would create a complicated fee structure that is based on pre-pandemic assumptions,” he said in a letter to the Legislature. “Before instituting fees that are aimed at incentivizing certain travel behaviors, we need to understand what ridership and congestion patterns are going to look like after the pandemic.”

In similar fashion, Baker deleted a proposal authorizing the MBTA and possibly regional transit authorities to implement means-tested fares – fares based on the income level of the rider. Even though the governor’s MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board is pushing for means-tested fares, Baker said the legislative provision was also premature.

“More study is needed to understand how transit authorities can implement fare systems that depend on gathering information about riders’ incomes and to understand what the revenue loss would be and how that revenue would be replaced,” Baker said. “No means-tested fares can be implemented until the MBTA and RTAs have a financially sustainable plan in place to replace the lost revenue.”

The Spilka provision, which would bar toll increases to pay for the roughly $1 billion Allston project, was tacked on to a much larger section directing how mitigation for the disruptive project should be handled. In his letter, Baker did not address the toll issue but said the section of the bill he was excising contained conditions that could not be met. He said he would work with the Legislature to address concerns raised by the section.

Baker also vetoed a provision directing that all revenue from the governor’s transportation climate initiative, which places a price on the carbon contained in vehicle fuels, should go into the state’s Commonwealth Transportation Fund. Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House’s point person on transportation, inserted the provision to clarify where the revenues should go.

Straus has said he believes the state constitution requires the revenues to go into the transportation fund. Baker, who has said half of the money would go to public transit, disagreed. “I believe it is more appropriate for a significant portion of this funding to be available for more flexible emissions reduction and equity investments,” he said.

Baker also vetoed a provision establishing a congestion pricing commission, saying much more needs to be understood about the future of work before congestion pricing can be considered.

Straus and his Senate counterpart, Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Transportation advocates panned the governor’s vetoes, particularly his veto.of new Uber and Lyft fees and his dismantling of the proposal for means-tested fares. “Many of the governor’s vetoes are counter to his own proposals and are inconsistent with recommendations from the 2018 Commission on the Future of Transportation,” said Rick Dimino, president and CEO of the business group A Better City.

Transit Is Essential, a coalition of 60 organizations, lamented the vetoes, singling out the rejection of means-tested fares. The group urged legislative leaders to react to the transportation bond bill vetoes the same way they did to the veto of the climate change bill. “We urge the Massachusetts Legislature to act swiftly to pass these provisions again and to take action on stable, recurring revenue dedicated to transit statewide,” the group said in a statement.

Proposed Uber, Lyft fees could raise up to $112m

Proposed Uber, Lyft fees could raise up to $112m

Assessments included in bill on governor’s desk

NEW FEES on Uber and Lyft rides contained in the transportation bond bill sitting on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk could raise somewhere between $56 million and $112 million, according to an analysis by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

The state currently assesses a 20-cent fee on all Uber and Lyft rides. The proposal in the bond bill would replace the current fee with a 40-cent fee on shared rides, a $1.20 fee on non-shared rides, an extra $1 fee on rides in luxury cars, and an extra 20-cent transit fee on rides starting and ending in an area encompassing Boston, Cambridge, and 12 other contiguous  communities.

Eric Bourassa, director of transportation at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said the council hopes and expects the governor to sign the legislation. “We wanted to highlight how this is a nice, modest increase in funds for transportation,” he said of the revenue analysis.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimated potential revenues using two potential scenarios – one using the actual ride data from 2019 (91.1 million trips in all) and the other cutting the number of trips in half to reflect current pandemic ridership levels based on financial statements issued by Lyft.

The analysis indicates total revenues would range from $56.2 million to $112.4 million, with 84 percent of the money coming from shared and solo rides. The 20-cent transit fee would raise between $6.6 million and $13.2 million. The luxury car fee would raise between $2.3 million and $4.6 million.

The revenue from shared and solo rides is split with 25 percent going to the municipalities where rides originate, 50 percent to the Commonwealth Transportation Fund, and 25 percent to a Transit Authority Fund with the money split evenly between the MBTA and regional transit authorities.

Based on the council’s calculations, municipalities would receive between $13 and $26 million, the Commonwealth Transportation Fund between $25.4 and 56.8 million, and MBTA and regional transit authorities sharing between $11.8 and $23.6 million.

The MBTA alone could pocket between $12.5 million and $25 million if all of the money from the 20-cent transit fee flows to the T as well.

Most T cuts will stand even with new fed money

Most T cuts will stand even with new fed money

Most of the aid will replenish capital spending

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE MBTA will receive at least $250 million in federal funding under the latest COVID-19 stimulus package, but agency officials plan to move forward with most of their planned service cuts and direct most of the new money toward the capital budget.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Monday that the T expects to get somewhere roughly between $250 million and $300 million in additional support, up to $17 million of which will go toward bumping service back up on high-ridership bus routes and maintaining evening commuter rail service.

Despite calls from activists and lawmakers to change course with the federal aid — plus a $52 million upgrade in the T’s state sales tax revenue outlook — the agency plans otherwise to “proceed with a majority of service changes” that the Fiscal and Management Control Board approved in December, Poftak said.

The T will use up to $178 million from the latest federal injection to replenish the MBTA’s capital budget, he said, after officials transferred out about $460 million to help cope with a massive projected deficit inflicted by the pandemic.

That money will mostly be allocated in the spring, and Poftak said officials have already decided to revive work on the Winchester Center Station, which had been designed but was paused in the cost-cutting efforts.

Any stimulus money left over will be saved until fiscal year 2022 and used to bring back service at that point “when we have the ridership and the demand, or at least the expectation of that demand,” Poftak said. “When we’re ready to serve those customers, we will have a source of funding to restore that service.”

Key details about the federal package and its impacts remain uncertain. Poftak said the T is waiting for additional guidance from federal agencies that will dictate exactly how much funding it gets this round, and officials have not yet determined which bus lines will get additional service as a result.

Officials have also offered little information about workforce impacts despite saying for months that layoffs are on the table. Asked during Monday’s board meeting about staffing levels, Poftak replied that he could not offer a definitive answer until the T finalizes the updated bus and transit schedules for the spring.

“We are still in the process of developing what the schedules look like,” he said. “The places with the biggest impact on staffing would be bus and rapid transit, so I don’t have anything declarative on that right now. We’re still determining what the game plan is in terms of as we plan service and as we control headcount.”

The T Board previously approved its service cut plans on a 3-2 vote. Baker administration officials have been hesitant to keep service running on full schedules while ridership is a fraction of pre-pandemic levels, and have said they would aim to keep additional federal aid as a reserve to help boost service once greater demand emerges.

In a December statement shortly after Congress approved the relief package, the Transit is Essential coalition called for the MBTA to undo the planned elimination of 20 bus routes, service frequency cuts on the subway, and the shuttering of weekend commuter rail service.

“People across the region continue to rely on transit to make essential trips,” the coalition said. “Reduced service means less access to frontline jobs, health care appointments, grocery stores, and other destinations that people must visit in the midst of this pandemic, as well as increased risk of dangerous crowding on those trips.”

The first cuts aimed at ferries and commuter rail, including elimination of weekend service on seven commuter rail lines, will hit later this month. Changes impacting buses and rapid transit are slated to start in March, just before state government plans to broadly open up access to the COVID-19 vaccine in April.

T officials announced the scope of the commuter rail changes last week and outlined the ferry plans on Monday. Under the new schedule that takes effect January 23, the MBTA will shutter the Charlestown and Hingham ferries. The Hingham/Hull ferry will run only during weekdays on a reduced schedule.

Edit averts fight over Allston project

Edit averts fight over Allston project

Pollack, Aiello clash over funding resolution

THE MASSACHUSETTS Department of Transportation board avoided a potentially divisive fight on Monday between several of the state’s top transportation officials by watering down a resolution on how to fund the Allston I-90 interchange project.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack pushed a resolution that stirred unusually strong pushback from Joseph Aiello, the chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board. Instead of developing the ideal project and then pursuing the money to fund it, the resolution appeared to call for the creation of a financing plan that could ultimately determine what kind of project is built.

The Allston I-90 interchange project would replace a crumbling elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston University and the Charles River; 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 neighborhood by Harvard University.

Pollack has spent more than four years trying to find a consensus on how to build the project and rarely has talked about how to fund it. But her resolution on Monday sharply elevated the funding issue, stating that, if the board is unable to come up with a finance plan, the state would move ahead with a so-called no-build option that would repair or replace only the crumbling elevated section of the Turnpike and leave everything else as is.

Elected officials and transportation advocates uniformly panned the idea. Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, said the no-build option would be a big mistake. Staci Rubin, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said the finance plan should not dictate what gets built. Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu said the project will shape the future of Boston for generations and the goal of everyone involved should be to find the money needed to do the project right.

In unveiling the resolution, Scott Bosworth, the Department of Transportation’s undersecretary and chief strategy officer, called the Allston I-90 interchange a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

But he then said the state has many projects that share similar goals. “We need to be fair on how we allocate available funding,” he said. “We cannot drain the system for one particular project.”

The language of the resolution says the “finance plan must include multiple funding sources and represent a fair, stable, and equitable sharing of program costs by all users and beneficiaries of the program, including substantial value-sharing contributions from municipal, private, and education partners. And further, it is the sense of the board that unless a finance plan is created and approved by all relevant parties, the ‘No Build’ or ‘Build in Place’ option will be the preferred option that the department recommends and proceeds with.”

Value-sharing was not defined in the resolution, but it appeared to mimic the funding provided by Somerville and Cambridge to support the Green Line extension project. The Green Line project was budgeted at $2.3 billion and the two municipalities, who are expected to see tax revenues go up because of it, provided $75 million, or 3.2 percent, of the funding.

Pollack said she wasn’t sure why people were so surprised at the need for a finance plan. She said a finance plan is required if the project is going to secure state and federal funding and if a contractor is going to be hired to oversee the project. She said she did not believe “all or even most” of the project’s funding would come from value share. She also noted language in the transportation bond bill approved by the Legislature last week barred increasing Turnpike tolls to pay for the project and said existing law bars the state from borrowing money using toll revenue as collateral.

“So far, no one has stepped up to pay for the project that everyone wants,” Pollack said, without mentioning that she and the Baker administration have not pushed for funding of the project and have resisted calls for increasing transportation funding.

Betsy Taylor, the head of the MassDOT board’s finance committee, was dismissive of those raising concerns about the resolution. She noted the project cannot move forward without a finance plan.

“This isn’t just a federal requirement. It’s common sense,” Taylor said. “How do we make a project real if we don’t know how to pay for it?”

She said she learned that lesson the hard way with the Green Line extension project into Somerville and Medford. She also disputed the contention that the resolution carries a bias toward the no-build option.

“It is not deciding what we are building,” she said. “Having said that, we actually know that tolls can be used to finance the repair of the viaduct.” Tolls cannot be used to pay for many of the project’s other features.

Aiello was blunt in his response. “The language here is unacceptable,” he said, referring to the resolution.

He said the Green Line extension was not a failure because it lacked a finance plan but because the initial project management team couldn’t control costs. The cost overruns forced a painful re-sizing of the project, which is now moving forward.

He also said value capture doesn’t work everywhere. He said it played a small role in financing the Green Line extension but wasn’t used at all in financing the $1 billion South Coast Rail project to New Bedford and Fall River. He said he was wary of its role with the Allston I-90 interchange, in part because residents of East Boston might be required to help foot the bill for a roadway they would never use.

Aiello said it is premature to pass a resolution stating what the finance plan must include even before basic facts about costs are known. “The ‘musts’ that are in here are really disturbing to me. I think they’re really premature,” he said.

Pollack responded: “Mr. chairman, you and I usually agree on most things, but I respectfully disagree. Now is the time.”

The transportation secretary said no state or federal money is on the table currently and Harvard stands to receive immense value from a repositioning of the Turnpike to make way for the development of the new neighborhood.

Robert Moylan, a member of the MassDOT board, said he shared Aiello’s concerns and suggested the word “must” in the resolution be replaced with “shall.” Aiello said he would prefer replacing “must include” with “must examine.” He also suggested adding to the possible funding options public-private partnerships.

With those changes made, the MassDOT board voted 9-1 in favor of the resolution, with Chrystal Kornegay, the executive director of Mass Housing, voting against. No other members of the MassDOT board spoke on the issue.

Aiello at that point apologized because the highway project technically is a MassDOT – not an MBTA – issue. The two boards were holding a joint meeting. “I realize I stepped out of line,” Aiello said, but Pollack insisted that was not the case.

Finances take center stage on Allston project

Finances take center stage on Allston project

If funding falls short, MassDOT eyes barebones approach

AFTER YEARS of trying to reach consensus on what to build at the Allston I-90 interchange, state transportation officials now appear to be shifting gears and planning to let finances dictate what gets constructed there.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has been struggling for most of four years to reach agreement on how to rebuild a crumbling elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston University and the Charles River and straighten the highway to make way for a new neighborhood proposed by Harvard University.

But just as consensus seemed to be within reach, Pollack is moving in a different direction. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation board is preparing to take up a resolution at its Monday meeting requiring that a finance plan for the estimated $1.3 billion project be developed as soon as possible and, if one fails to gain traction, the  state should abandon plans for a sweeping makeover of the area and settle for simply repairing the crumbling elevated section of the Turnpike. A repair job would cost  an estimated $445 million.

“That finance plan must include multiple funding sources and represent a fair, stable, and equitable sharing of program costs by all users and beneficiaries of the program, including substantial value-sharing contributions from municipal, private, and educational partners,” the proposed resolution says. “And further it is the sense of the board that unless such a finance plan is created and approved by all relevant parties, the ‘No Build’ or ‘Build in Place’ option will be the preferred option that the department recommends and proceeds with.”

Pollack acknowledged in November that she had relatively few sources of funds to build the project — $400 to $500 million combined in Turnpike and state funding.

The resolution is vague on where the money for the project would come from, but it clearly indicates major financial contributions are expected from Harvard and Boston, and possibly other municipalities to the west of Boston whose residents would benefit from a makeover of the transportation infrastructure in the area.

Richard Dimino, president and CEO of the business group A Better City and a major proponent along with the city of Boston of building an all at-grade project along with a new MBTA station and other amenities, said there are many ways to raise the money. He mentioned borrowing against toll revenues and tapping money from a potential federal infrastructure bill.

He said he was frustrated that Pollack is taking her stand on a financing plan just as consensus has nearly been achieved on the at-grade approach. ”It seems like Stephanie Pollack and MassDOT are playing a game of moving the touchdown line,” he said.

Jim Aloisi, a member of the TransitMatters board and a former secretary of transportation himself, said the debate over the Allston I-90 interchange should be on the agenda of both the Department of Transportation board and the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board.

“Keeping it away from the Fiscal and Management Control Board is a way to diminish the transit and rail elements of the overall project,” Aloisi said in an email. “Second, this is a prelude to the secretary moving away from doing anything except a repair and patch up job, thus kicking the can for another decade or more. Third, it’s a way to turn ‘pay to play’ into official policy.”

Politics may become a key part of the debate going forward. Senate President Karen Spilka put language in the transportation bond bill, which is sitting on the governor’s desk, that would bar higher tolls on the Turnpike to help pay for the project.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration backs an at-grade option, but with his decision to go to Washington and work in a Biden administration it’s unclear whether his replacement will adopt a similar stance, especially if the city is asked to pony up a lot of money.

Weekend commuter rail ending on most, but not all, lines

Weekend commuter rail ending on most, but not all, lines

Five lines spared cutbacks coming Jan. 23

STATE HOUAE NEWS SERVICE

COMMUTER RAIL riders will feel the pinch of reduced weekend schedules later this month.

In the first salvo of MBTA service cuts approved in December, trains starting January 23 will no longer run on weekends on the commuter rail’s Fitchburg, Franklin, Greenbush, Haverhill, Kingston/Plymouth, Lowell and Needham Lines.

Five lines — the Newburyport/Rockport, Framingham/Worcester, Fairmount, Providence and Middleborough Lines — will continue to run some weekend service at lower frequencies.

In a press release announcing the start date, the MBTA pitched the schedule changes as a boon for riders, noting that Jan. 23 will also bring slight increases to the number of trains running on weekdays and will offer more than half as much weekday service as last year even though ridership is less than 10 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Commuter rail operator Keolis cut service by more than half in December as a short-term step to cope with significant staff shortages amid a COVID-19 outbreak. That reduction will remain in place through Jan. 22, officials said Thursday, and will be replaced by the new schedule a day later.

Other service cuts the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board approved will not take effect until later in 2021. Officials punted decisions about how long they will last until the T starts its fiscal year 2022 budget process in February and March.

A closer look at the sausage-making

A closer look at the sausage-making

Opaque conference committees tackle complicated issues

THE AVALANCHE of bills that came out of the Legislature during the nearly 17-hour session spanning Tuesday and Wednesday was a classic case in which lawmakers would argue that the ends justify the means.

 Beacon Hill legislators tackled a host of bills, close to 200 by some estimates. Most of them were minor in nature, but some of them were of great importance. The lawmakers won passage of the bills by suspending their own rules constantly and in some cases making up the rules as they went along.

 Two conference committee bills – one focused on economic development and the other on transportation bonds – are drawing applause from advocates and stakeholders. But the two bills also showcase what it sometimes takes to push major pieces of legislation across the finish line.

 Conference committees are one of the most opaque features of Beacon Hill. The committees are set up to resolve differences between House and Senate bills that can’t be reconciled through the standard legislative process. In these situations, the House appoints three members, two from the majority party and one from the minority party, and the Senate does the same. 

 The six lawmakers are charged with merging the two bills into one on behalf of the entire 200-person Legislature. The power is immense because once the conference committee releases its compromise bill, it can’t be amended. Lawmakers can only vote yes or no. 

 The Legislature’s rules say conference committee meetings are open to the public, but the six participants uniformly vote to close them. Conference committee members generally refuse to talk about what goes on behind closed doors, but the general impression is that the lead negotiators from the House and Senate make most of the decisions in consultation with leaders in their respective branches.

 House and Senate rules say no bill put out by a conference committee can be considered by the full Legislature until a day after it is released to the public, to give lawmakers a chance to review it. The standard practice is that a bill released by 8 p.m. can be taken up for a vote the following day any time after 1 p.m.

 The climate change conference bill followed the rules, emerging from its conference committee on Sunday and winning approval in the House and Senate on Monday. But the economic development and transportation bond conference bills were reported out of their conference committees in the wee hours of Wednesday morning and voted on hours later. The end result was that lawmakers voted on bills they didn’t know anything about. The vote on the transportation bill was 146-0 in the House and 39-1 in the Senate; on economic development, the vote was 143-4 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate.

 A conference committee is supposed to resolve differences between two bills, but what that means can vary. With a budget appropriation, it’s relatively straight-forward. The Senate might appropriate $600,000 for an agency and the House $200,000. The conference committee can choose the high number, the low number, or pick a different number.

 With the economic development legislation, the House passed a $459 million bill that included sports betting while the Senate approved a $455 million measure that did not include sports betting. The tab for the conference committee bill came to $626 million, and did not include sports betting because the lead Senate negotiator, Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, was wary of imposing a gambling initiative on his colleagues without them ever having voted on it.

 With transportation, House and Senate lawmakers differed on whether the state had enough tax revenue to support an $18 billion bond bill. The House, when it passed its version of the bond bill pre-COVID in March, had separately passed a revenue measure hiking the gas tax, raising the minimum corporate tax, and boosting state fees on rides taken with Uber and Lyft. The Senate’s version, which passed during the pandemic in July, contained no new revenues.

 The transportation conference committee reached consensus by improvising, lowering the size of the bond bill to $16.5 billion and including new fees on Uber and Lyft riders even though those fees had not appeared in either bill in conference. Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the lead House negotiator, saw it as a creative solution. “You get to edit, modify, and get creative,” he said of a conference committee’s role.

 What that means, however, is that six lawmakers can effectively draft their own bill and make sweeping decisions on behalf of the entire Legislature, all out of the public eye.

Legislature proposes new Uber, Lyft fees

Legislature proposes new Uber, Lyft fees

Bill calls for added 20-cent fee in 14 Boston-area communities

THE LEGISLATURE  approved new fees on Uber and Lyft rides Wednesday morning and required the companies to provide much more detailed information on rideshare drivers and their work activities.

The current state fee per ride is 20 cents, but the legislation increases that amount to 40 cents for shared rides, $1.20 for non-shared rides, and $1 extra on rides in luxury vehicles. The legislation also creates a new 20-cent public transit access fee on Uber and Lyft rides that begin and end in an area encompassing 14 Greater Boston communities.

Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, the lead Senate negotiator on the transportation bond bill, said the public transit access fee is intended to incentivize people who can use readily available public transit to do so but not penalize people who use transit to get near their destination and then use ride-hailing apps to go the last mile to their destination.

Alix Anfang, a spokesperson for Uber, issued a statement  that did not criticize the new fees but suggested the late-night negotiations caused lawmakers to fail to include a provision they had agreed to and garbled another.

“While we appreciate the months of productive conversations with the Legislature, we believe that last minute drafting resulted in unintended consequences for drivers,” Anfang said. “Frontline rideshare drivers will continue to be barred from earning more money during busy times and hundreds of livery drivers will be at risk of losing work.”

Uber, based on oncversations with government officials, had expected a provision to be added allowing the Department of Public Utilities to allow surge pricing during public emergencies if the agency felt it was warranted. The legislation also defined luxury vehicles as livery vehicles, which means hundreds of livery vehicle drivers who serve both luxury and regular customers  may be cut off from the market of regular customers.

Ride-hailing apps provided 91.1 million rides in 2019, according to a state report, and the existing 20-cent fee on rideshares raised $18.2 million.

The 14 communities where the public transit access fee will apply, according to a reference in the legislation, to Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Milton, Newton, Revere, Somerville, and Watertown. Quincy and Braintree are not included even though the Red Line runs through them.

The 2019 state report on ride-hailing said the 14 communities include cities and towns where the apps are most heavily used. The top four are Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline, according to the report. Newton, Medford, Everett, Malden, Revere, Chelsea, and Watertown are in the top 20.

Boncore said all of the money raised by the public transit access fee will go to the MBTA and can be used to offset the cost of implementing a means-tested fare structure — lower fares for riders with low incomes. A means-tested fare structure is authorized in the legislation.

The transportation bond bill also requires Uber and Lyft to provide a lot more information to the state on the rides they are providing, including miles driven by drivers while waiting for a customer, miles driven to pick up a customer, and extensive detail on pickups and dropoffs. Lawmakers say the information is needed to track whether ride-hailing apps are contributing to congestion.

The legislation splits the revenue from the new fee structure three ways – 25 percent to the city or town in which the ride originated, 50 percent to the Commonwealth Transportation Fund, and 25 percent to the Transit Authority Fund. The legislation also requires that $6 million a year from the funds going to the Commonwealth Transportation Fund be used to supported directed e taxi and livery businesses.

The Legislature’s transportation bond bill now goes to the governor and will not become law until he signs it.