Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

House, Senate finish by moving finish line

House, Senate finish by moving finish line

Transportation, economic development bills gain approval

WITH SOME LEGISLATIVE sleight of hand, the House and Senate extended their sessions from Tuesday night into Wednesday morning and succeeded in passing most of the major pieces of legislation still pending on Beacon Hill.

A trimmed down transportation bond bill, an economic development bill without sports betting, legislation dealing with college campus sexual violence, and a handful of other measures all made it to the finish line by moving the finish line from Tuesday at midnight, when the legislative session was scheduled to end, to the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

The maneuvering allowed the Legislature to pass all of its major deliverables, completing an unusual extended session in which major pieces of legislation dealing with police reform, health care, and climate change all made it to the governor’s desk. The governor has already signed police reform and has indicated he will sign health care. The other bills passed Wednesday morning will now go to the governor, whose actions cannot be overridden by the Legislature because it went out of existence Wednesday morning. A new Legislature will be sworn in on Wednesday.

The transportation bond bill was pared back from its original size of $18 billion to $16.5 billion, largely because of the House’s insistence that the state lacked the revenues needed to support the larger amount. “Just because they’re borrowing money doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay it back,” said Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the lead House negotiator on the conference committee, in a phone interview.

The House passed a revenue package to support transportation pre-COVID in early March, and by the time the Senate got around to the issue in July there was no appetite for raising taxes. Still, a  lone revenue measure did make it into the compromise bond bill — the establishment of new, higher fees on rideshares. The current fee is 20 cents a ride. The bill would hike the fee to 40 cents for shared rides, $1.20 for non-shared rides, and an extra $1 on top of that for using luxury vehicles.

The conference committee also tacked on an extra 20 cents per ride for trips that begin and end within 14 communities making up the core of the MBTA system. Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, the lead Senate negotiator on the conference committee, said the goal of the “public transit access fee” is to incentivize people who can take the subway to do so but not discourage trips linked to transit,  where people use the T to get near their destination and use Uber or Lyft for “the last mile.”

Boncore said the bill authorizes the development of low-income, or means-tested, fares, and directs that proceeds from the 20-cent fee be used to offset the cost of offering the low-income fares. He said the measure also decriminalizes fare evasion.

The bill also includes language pushed by Senate President Karen Spilka of Ashland protecting her west-of-Boston constituents from paying higher tolls to finance the I-90 Allston project, an estimated $1 billion initiative that would rebuild and straighten the Turnpike as it runs through Allston, making way for a new neighborhood being developed by Harvard University. Boncore said the bill includes $50 million in mitigation to offset traffic impacts caused by the project.

The transportation bond bill also would require all revenue gained from the Baker administration’s transportation climate initiative to flow into the Commonwealth’s Transportation Trust Fund, which is reserved for transportation spending. A Senate initiative allowing municipalities to band together to pass regional ballot initiatives supporting transportation projects did not make it into the final bill.

Boncore said in a brief speech on the Senate floor at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday that the bill creates a special commission on congestion pricing to explore future tolling options. In a phone interview after the speech, he said the bill was not a silver bullet addressing all of the state’s transportation problems and lawmakers would need to address transportation again in the future, including the need for additional revenues.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, House-Senate negotiators reached a deal on a $627 million economic development bill, which had been in a conference committee since July 30. 

The bill is particularly important now given the struggles many businesses and communities are facing due to COVID-19. But House-Senate negotiators – led by Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat – struggled to reach a final deal, only releasing the bill from a conference committee after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, after the House and Senate suspended their rules to let them meet past midnight.

In an interview, Lesser called it a “huge and historic bill” that offers money focused on COVID-19 relief and recovery. He said the bill includes programs to assist restaurants and cultural facilities and money to fund housing, community development, and small businesses, with a focus on racial, economic, and geographic equity.

The economic development bill included a version of a bill originally proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker to lower the voting threshold from two-thirds to a simple majority for certain zoning changes, including changes allowing “in-law” apartments or allowing multi-family homes near public transit. 

Baker has been lobbying for the passage of the bill for three years, arguing that the state desperately needs more housing stock in order for people to continue to live and work here. It had support from business, municipal ,and real estate development interests, but drew concerns from some suburban communities as well as from low-income individuals who said the bill did not do enough to help renters or encourage the development of affordable housing.

The bill includes a “bill of rights” for student loan borrowers, which would let the state for the first time regulate student loan servicers. The bill also includes a proposal made by the House to cap the fees and commissions that third-party delivery companies charge restaurants for delivering food during the COVID-19 pandemic. It creates a new tourism marketing program, seals no-fault eviction records, and expands a low-income housing tax credit.

Notably, the bill does not include legalization of sports betting, though it had been included in the House version. Sports betting companies DraftKings and FanDuel, along with powerful interests such as casino company MGM and the Boston Red Sox, had urged lawmakers to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts to raise revenue for the state while replacing the current illegal betting market. But the Senate never took its own vote on sports betting, and Senate leaders appeared reluctant to include it in the economic development bill. 

“We’d like to do sports betting, there will be opportunities to do sports betting soon,” Lesser said. “But the focus right now is on COVID support and recovery and getting aid to industries and organizations and families most impacted by the COVID recession.”

In a speech on the Senate floor, Lesser said the bill also establishes a commission to explore ways to address the crisis in local journalism and waives the requirement that hair braiders obtain a cosmetology license to braid hair. Lesser said the license is expensive and prevents people of color from practicing their profession.

Just before 1 a.m. on Wednesday, the Legislature sent the governor a bill aimed at giving students on college campuses more rights and resources in dealing with sexual assault. The Senate, which had passed versions of the bill in prior sessions, passed the bill mid-December. The House first passed it Tuesday.

The bill would require campuses to provide free access to sexual assault crisis services and to have to have a confidential “resource provider.” It requires colleges to publicly post sexual misconduct policies; to develop memorandums of understanding with local police departments; to conduct regular surveys on campus sexual misconduct; train students and staff on sexual assault prevention; and provide a way for anonymous incident reporting.

John Gabrieli, founder and co-chair of the Every Voice Coalition, a group of students and advocates fighting sexual violence on campus who pushed for the bill, said, “While no one bill can hope to end the campus sexual violence epidemic, these new protections represent a major step forward for our state and a model for others across the country.” Gabrieli said the bill was written with the help of students and survivors “and now, it will change the lives of students and survivors on campus for generations to come.”

Several bills that were first discussed and voted on months earlier were suddenly brought back in the session’s final hours to be sent back and forth between the branches – a bill establishing a commission to examine racial disparities in maternal mental health, and “Laura’s Law,” a bill to ensure proper signage and lighting so patients can safely find the emergency room.

The Legislature also passed legislation creating a commission to come up with a new state seal and motto.

We cannot be passive actors in COVID recovery

We cannot be passive actors in COVID recovery

Three pathways to restoring transit and rail

WELCOME TO 2021, the post-pandemic year, the year of recovery and restoration and of reclamation, when we take back the routines so abruptly removed from our lives. Welcome to a season of hope, more hopeful than perhaps it ought to be, a time when patience and persistence will count more than impetuousness and reckless abandon.

The pundits and prognosticators have had their opportunities to opine on the future. Will cities survive? Will we ever return to working in office settings? Will restaurants remain viable? Will riders return to public transportation?

On and on, the questions come and the experts (or those who claim expertise) weigh in, laying out visions for the future that make our hearts race, sometimes with excitement (we can reclaim the urban streetscape for sustainable mobility), or more often dread (driving will replace commuter rail and everyone will keep getting everything delivered to their homes).

It’s a stunning range of options we have to choose from, but since we are mere mortals without the power of clairvoyance, I would not take any expert prediction to the bank.

The inherent unreliability of predictions does not mean we should find ourselves adrift and at the mercy of the fates. We are human beings. We (or, more accurately, most of us) have the power of agency. To quote Robert Kennedy, the future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control.

The choice before us is unambiguous: we can be passive actors in the process of COVID-19 recovery, or we can be active participants engaged in “building back better.” Passive actors let others make the choices for them or rely on the “marketplace” to collectively choose what recovery looks like. Thus, here in metro Boston, waiting for riders to return before ramping up transit and rail service turns passivity into policy. I suppose that a passive policy makes sense if you believe that transit exists to respond to momentary or temporary fluctuations in ridership, but no one knowledgeable about the true impact of a highly functioning transit system – its agglomeration effects supporting a vibrant economy, its ability to help people transcend obstacles to gain access to opportunities, and the associated reductions in auto mobility (and hence reductions of vehicular emissions) – would believe that.

Just a mere two years following the Baker administration’s report on the future of transportation, a report that wisely asserted the critical importance of “moving more people and fewer vehicles” a mere few years following Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to set a statewide goal of zero emissions by 2050, a mere year or so after a Massachusetts Highway Department report acknowledging the heavy financial, economic, and air quality costs of growing chronic traffic congestion – after all that promise, we enter 2021 without a clear and comprehensive plan to direct metro Boston  mobility toward a more sustainable, equitable platform, one that could shape the area’s recovery in a generationally responsible way.

The Legislature has failed to address the urgent transportation revenue needs of the moment, retreating behind the predictable shibboleth that “this is not the right time” to raise new revenue. Not the right time? A time when gas prices are at all-time lows, when more people are driving because they are still working, when it’s critical to redesign transit and rail service delivery models and redesign urban streetscapes to enable urban density without crowding. It’s  not the right time? For too many at the State House, it’s never the right time. That is the problem.

The governor, to his credit, has advanced the Transportation Climate Initiative, or TCI, a regionally collaborative approach to reducing transportation sector emissions by imposing “cap and invest” pricing at the wholesale point-of-sale of gasoline. Similar programs elsewhere, particularly California, have reaped significant benefits measured both in emissions reductions and targeted investments in sustainable mobility and equity. Revenue generated by TCI may be substantial, but it won’t be realized until 2022, and the exact uses to which it will be put have not been decided.

In the meantime, pandemic recovery won’t wait. If we allow our urban streets to be fully reclaimed by auto mobility, we are doing a grave disservice to public health and to the small business economy. If anything is clear following the experiences of 2020, it is that urban vitality will return when people are able to walk and cycle more safely; when restaurants are able to spill out into pleasantly redesigned streets and sidewalks; when bus transit is frequent, speedy and reliable thanks in part to enforced dedicated bus lanes. All of this depends upon large-scale redesign of the urban streetscape, one that requires ample funding and a commitment on the part of the MBTA and inner core municipalities to take the work that has already been undertaken in Everett and is about to happen in Boston and elsewhere and scale it rapidly.

Metro Boston’s economy won’t continue to thrive as we have known it without strong support from the public transportation system. In its 2018 report The Transportation Dividend, the business group A Better City explored the reasons why the metro Boston economy has historically been so strong and resilient. Here is a summary of their heavily researched findings:

“Our region’s positive growth outlook is tied directly to its productivity – Metropolitan Boston produces six times as much gross domestic product per square mile as the national metropolitan average. Our driving industries – finance, medicine, education, technology, research – are transaction-based sectors that benefit from the availability of skilled labor, frequent and relatively inexpensive transportation, specialized technical and professional services, and a large client base. These factors – which economists call ‘agglomeration effects’ – diminish the cost of transactions, enabling firms to operate in higher cost locations. The highly-clustered, knowledge-based structure of our metropolitan economy – a structure geared to transit – is key to the region’s outsized performance.”

The region’s economic productivity depends on a highly and fully functioning transit and rail network. This was true before the pandemic and it will continue to be true after the pandemic. In a limited number of professional business sectors, typically the privileged who have a large measure of control over their work hours and conditions, work from home will continue, but there are reasons to doubt its long-term durability. As one forecaster recently put it, the first time a business loses a deal because its competitor decided to meet in person rather than virtually is the last time that will happen. Productivity might have increased in some sectors, but not the learning that happens when colleagues meet and share experiences or information, not the office cohesion that supports colleagues taking time to mentor or support one another, not the networking that enables upward mobility or that opens doors to new opportunities, friendships, ideas. These are the experiences that cannot be replicated by conference calls and Zoom sessions.

Many of those who have been able to work from home have had the benefit of gaining the time otherwise spent on commuting, but at what personal and social costs? Has that “found time” been used for personal growth, more family time, or more work? Technology has enabled many of us to work rather seamlessly without the resources and camaraderie of the workplace setting, but there are significant, often hidden downsides. Technology has no conscience, and comes with its own limitations, constraints, and inequities.

A wholesale shift to technology for work and entertainment comes with massive implications that relate both to human isolation and a deepening gulf between those who belong to a higher-wage privileged class (those who have reliable internet access and the financial means to participate in the internet economy, those whose jobs enable them to work remotely) and everyone else. Returning to the workplace, likely to happen gradually and in new, more flexible workday structures, is essential for the survival of urban small businesses, social cohesion, and workplace camaraderie and productivity.

We can’t build back better without transportation, land use, and housing policies that squarely meet the demands of an extraordinary time. My objective here is to address the transportation component of that triad. An overarching component of public transportation recovery will be the continuation of strict public health protocols for riders and transit employees, including bus retrofits to protect drivers, civilian-enforced mask wearing, and improved station and equipment cleaning and ventilation. Even after vaccinations take place, these basic protocols will ensure rider and employee safety and enhance confidence in use of the system.

These basics aside, there are three synergistic pathways that can help restore transit and rail, leveraging its strengths to support a healthier urban environment and stronger urban economy.

A public transportation system that provides more service with less crowding.

This means more capacity achieved by: (1) frequent all-day schedules that support two goals: responding to hospital shifts and a staggered, spread-out workday that responds to more flexible working habits that inevitably will mark the post-vaccination recovery period; (2) dedicated bus lanes and fare-free unlinked bus transit (helping support greater frequencies and reduced dwell times); and (3) protected cycling lanes (accommodating the established modal shift from transit to cycling and walking).

A regional rail system that responds to 21st Century needs.

This means an intercity rail network that runs with frequent clockface schedules all day long, providing people with reliable access to destinations across the metro region.  Massachusetts has a precious asset in its ownership of the regional rail right of way.  Current policies that essentially take a “let them all drive” attitude run contrary to the Baker administration’s stated emissions reduction goals, contrary to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s own report on traffic congestion, and contrary to the administration’s Commission on the Future of Transportation, which wisely counseled moving more people and fewer vehicles.

A system that reduces carbon and particulate emissions.

This means a deliberate transition to an all-electric bus and commuter rail fleet by 2035. The MBTA must commit in the short term to purchasing electrical multiple unit self-propelled train cars and electric buses (keeping its electric trolley bus fleet and, eventually, moving toward battery electric buses) with a forward-looking commitment to fleet replacement on a schedule: 30 percent by 2025, 75 percent by 2030, 100 percent by 2035. This requires equally prompt action on design and construction of bus maintenance and storage facilities. The Legislature must take steps to support this effort both by funding the transition and relaxing procurement requirements in order to streamline the process. Our federal congressional delegation might also be on alert to include federal funding support for this transition to cleaner energy as part of any 2021 stimulus bill.

In a speech given in 1966 in South Africa, Robert Kennedy said of different challenges in a different time, “It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny.”

Our destiny remains in our hands, and we can build a better post-pandemic metro Boston only by developing broad consensus and taking decisive action. That is what leadership is all about. Passivity is no answer. Retreating to the false comfort of the pre-COVID status quo is no answer. History, and future generations, will rightly judge us harshly if we fail to take up the task of rebuilding a better, more sustainable and equitable society following COVID-19. There is no time to waste.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.

'Santa Baby' with a transpo twist

‘Santa Baby’ with a transpo twist

Sing along with the TransitMatters holiday song

Listen to the TransitMatters singers by clicking below.

The lyrics, courtesy of Jim Aloisi (with apologies to Javits & Springer), can be also be found below.

 

 

 

 

Santa baby, just slip a Charlie Card under the tree for me

Been an awful year

Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.

 

Santa baby, whisper “better transit for you,”

Red/Blue Connector would be so cool
Santa baby, please hurry down the chimney tonight.

 

Think of all the trips I’ve missed
Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed
(I’m pissed)
Next year, it could be even worse
If you cut back on service that would be so perverse –

 

Santa honey, I want to ride a Better Bus – don’t fuss

And maybe BRT

Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.

 

Santa sweetie, how about some Regional Rail – don’t fail

To get this moving right along

Santa baby, I hope you get the point of this song.

Santa baby, please send me some better news –

You can choose to help me shake the blues

Santa baby, it’s time to reimagine the T.

It could be the mode of choice
It could be better than a big Rolls Royce
Next year we could all be getting back
We’ve got to keep the transit system on the right track –

Santa baby, one other little thing my trip needs – Some speed, and better frequencies Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.

 

Reduced commuter rail schedule extended until Jan. 8

Reduced commuter rail schedule extended until Jan. 8

12 of 58 Keolis dispatchers out due to COVID-19

KEOLIS COMMUTER Services said on Wednesday that it plans to continue providing roughly half of its regular weekday service until January 8 because of staff absences caused by COVID-19.

Keolis originally planned to offer the lower service levels from December 14 until December 27, but announced on Wednesday that it is pushing back the date for resumption of regular service until January 8 because of continued absences due to COVID-19. Keolis officials said 12 of the system’s 58 dispatchers, who control the movement of trains across the system, were out as of December 17 and that number has held steady since.

Commuter rail is now running on a severe storm schedule on weekdays, with 246 instead of 541 daily trains. Weekend service is not affected. Ridership on the commuter rail system has been about 13 percent of pre-COVID levels.

The MBTA has about 80 active COVID-19 cases among its 6,375 employees. T officials estimate two employees need to take time off to quarantine or get tested for every one with the virus. The T has responded to the absences by slightly increasing the time between subway trains to free up staff to fill for employees out due to COVID-19.

Mass., Conn., RI, DC sign transportation climate pact

Mass., Conn., RI, DC sign transportation climate pact

Theoharides: Protections included to rein in gas price hikes

MASSACHUSETTS, CONNECTICUT, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia signed on to a pact Monday to put a price on the carbon contained in vehicle fuels sold within their borders and leverage the revenues gained and the resulting higher price of gasoline to cut transportation emissions 26 percent by 2032.

The group of initial participants is far smaller than Gov. Charlie Baker had been hoping for, but officials said other states in New England and down the East Coast have committed to staying at the table and possibly joining the so-called Transportation Climate Initiative in the future.

The emission reduction goal released Monday is higher than states had been talking about a year ago, but the forecasted impact on gas prices is expected to be smaller. A year ago the Transportation Climate Initiative looked at carbon dioxide cap reductions ranging from 20 to 25 percent by 2032, with gas prices rising 5 to 17 cents a gallon in 2022 depending on the size of the cap reduction. Now officials are calling for a 30 percent cap reduction (which translates into a 26 percent reduction in actual pollution) but saying gasoline prices will rise only 5 cents a gallon – 9 cents at the most – in 2022.

Katie Theoharides, the Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said there are price protections built into the current proposal that didn’t exist with the earlier versions.

Theoharides said Massachusetts needs a program like the transportation climate initiative if it is going to have a chance of reaching its goal of net zero emissions in the state by 2050. “We can’t get there without a program like this,” she said.

The nuts and bolts of the program are still being worked out, but it would require fuel wholesalers to purchase at auctions allowances permitting them to sell gasoline in Massachusetts and the other participating states. Under the memorandum of understanding issued Monday, wholesalers would begin a walk-through of the process in 2022 and begin paying for the allowances in 2023.

Massachusetts will start with a base for carbon dioxide transportation emissions of nearly 24.5 million metric tons in 2023 and that level will be ratcheted back steadily until the level is cut 30 percent by 2032. Georgetown University, which modeled the impact of the Transportation Climate Initiative, is projecting allowance prices of $6.60 per metric ton of carbon dioxide in 2023, rising to $12.50 in 2032. If auction prices fall below $6.50 per metric ton, the cap could be tightened by 10 percent to take advantage of the opportunity to reduce emissions at a lower-than-expected cost. If allowance prices rise above $12 per metric ton, additional allowances could be issued equal to 10 percent of the cap to mitigate higher-than-expected prices.

The price protection helps lower the political risk of the climate initiative for Baker. He has opposed any increase in the state gasoline tax, yet many Massachusetts lawmakers, including Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House chair of the Transportation Committee, view the impact of the climate initiative as similar to a gas tax increase because it results in higher gasoline prices.

At a State House press conference, Baker said the advantage of the transportation climate initiative is its regional approach and the revenues the initiative will generate that can be plowed back into programs further reducing emissions.

Baker and his aides said the three southern New England states account for 73 percent of total emissions in New England, 76 percent of vehicles, and 70 to 80 percent of the region’s gross domestic product.

The initiative is expected to bring $130 million a year into the state’s coffers. Of that total, Baker has indicated about half would go to public transit. The memorandum signed on Monday by the three states and the District of Columbia said a minimum of 35 percent of the funds would go to projects in communities underserved by the transportation system and overburdened by pollution.

Straus said his reading of the state constitution suggests all of the money has to go into the state’s transportation trust fund. He indicated on Monday he might support legislation requiring that if the administration acts as if the money can be spent at its own discretion.

“If legislation would help focus the administration focus back to the constitution, I guess that is an option,” he said.

The states continuing to participate in deliberations on the Transportation Climate Initiative but on the sidelines for now are Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Vermont, and North Carolina. (Officials said New York was mistakenly omitted from the list earlier Monday but was added later.) Maine and New Hampshire appear to have severed ties with the initiative.

Theoharides downplayed the relatively low initial participation rate, saying it is not uncommon for environmental initiatives to start small and grow support over time. “These things build on the momentum they create,” she said.

Baker adopted a similar message. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “The price of doing nothing is very big.”

T board members clarify fare, service votes

T board members clarify fare, service votes

One proposal grew out of frustration with Legislature

SOME MEMBERS of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Wednesday sought to clarify a couple of controversial votes on fares and short-term service levels that they took at the end of a lengthy meeting earlier this week.

Both votes were on amendments to a sweeping proposal to reduce service levels at the T – but at a much-reduced level compared to what the transit authority originally recommended in November.

The first amendment, filed by Brian Lang and approved on a 3-2 vote, barred any fare increases for subway and bus riders until passenger levels and service hours return to pre-COVID levels.

The second amendment, filed by Monica Tibbits-Nutt and approved 5-0, said the board will decide by March 15 whether additional service is needed before July 1 and allocate the resources for that service, if feasible.

The Lang amendment grew out of his frustration with lawmakers who continually press the board not to raise fares or cut service but then do nothing to provide the MBTA with additional resources.

“If that’s really your opinion, why are you telling us?” Lang asked on Monday, noting that the control board only manages the funds it is given. “Why don’t you urge your colleagues on Beacon Hill to do something about this and come up with a sustainable fiscal plan so we don’t have to make cuts or raise fares?”

Lang said he personally supports lowering fares or doing away with them entirely. It’s unclear whether Lang’s amendment has real clout or whether it’s largely symbolic because it attempts to restrict the actions of whatever board is appointed to succeed the Fiscal and Management Control Board when it sunsets in July.

Tibbits-Nutt and Joe Aiello, the vice chair and chair of the control board, respectively, supported Lang’s amendment and Chrystal Kornegay and Tim Sullivan opposed it.

Aiello said on Wednesday that the amendment, while focused on the issue of fares, raised a longer-term issue of concern for the MBTA. As COVID-19 recedes, he said, there could very well be a shift in ridership, as people of lesser means continue to take the T while those with higher incomes work from home or drive their cars to work. In that type of environment, he said, a T fare hike becomes very regressive.

“Brian was thinking very ahead of everyone else on the board, well certainly way ahead of me. He was thinking about environmental justice. He may not have used the right forum – a vote on service levels – but his mind and his heart were absolutely in the right place,” Aiello said.

In debate over a second Lang amendment, which was eventually withdrawn, Kornegay indicated she might be supportive of Lang’s approach of using amendments to send a message to Beacon Hill if his end goal was creating fares tied to income levels.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack didn’t take a stand on the Lang amendment, but pointed out that the T receives enormous resources from the state — $2 in taxpayer funds for every $1 in fares in normal times and $10 in taxpayer funds for every $1 in fares during the pandemic, which has caused ridership to plummet.

Gov. Charlie Baker was asked about the vote at a Wednesday press conference at the State House and he chose to answer by listing pieces of legislation that he would like to see enacted before the end of the session.

The Tibbits-Nutt amendment set a March 15 date for the board to review the adequacy of service levels and determine whether they need to be adjusted at that time. The amendment ran into resistance from Pollack, who noted March would probably be too late to make any significant change in service levels before June given the long lead times for doing so at the T.

But other T members said that was the point of the amendment, to signal to T staff that they need to work with unions and vendors to create as much flexibility as possible to respond to changes in service demand as quickly as possible. One possibility would be to offer unions greater job security in return for more flexibility in work assignments.

The final vote on the T’s new overall service levels was 3-2. Tibbits-Nut, in a lengthy post on Twitter, said the 3-2 vote reflected opposition to the Lang amendment, which was included as part of the service package. She said all five members of the control board supported the package of new service levels.

T board scales back service cuts, takes swipe at Beacon Hill

T board scales back service cuts, takes swipe at Beacon Hill

Rare 3-2 split on board over Legislature's failure to provide more revenues

THE MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a series of scaled-back service cuts on Monday and then, in an apparent swipe at Beacon Hill, voted not to raise fares on bus and subway riders until service hours and ridership on those transportation modes return to pre-COVID levels.

Brian Lang, a member of the control board, proposed the fare amendment after expressing frustration about lawmakers who tell him and his colleagues not to cut service but then do nothing to provide the revenues needed to maintain service.

“Taxes have turned into a dirty word,” Lang said. “The Legislature is afraid of it.”

The vote on the amendment was 3-2 on a board that has shown remarkably little division over the years. Voting in favor were board chair Joe Aiello, board vice chair Monica Tibbits-Nutt, and Lang. Voting against were Chrystal Kornegay and newcomer Tim Sullivan.

All of the members are appointees of Gov. Charlie Baker, who has opposed raising taxes to provide more funding for the MBTA. None of the board members mentioned Baker in their remarks.

Kornegay said the amendment was “too big for me to vote on at this moment.” Sullivan said locking in the current board and its successor to no fare hikes for what could be several years was unwise when the board is having difficulty predicting what’s going to happen with ridership levels over the next three months.

Tibbits-Nutt said she shared Lang’s frustration. She said there seems to be a disconnect with the Legislature on the funding issue. “Every time we do this it falls on the back of riders,” she said.

Stephanie Pollack, Baker’s transportation secretary, tried to dissuade the control board from voting on the amendment, suggesting a more appropriate venue for making its displeasure known would be its annual report, which is due by January 1. She also noted that taxpayers are already paying a heavy burden to support the T. Pre-COVID, she said, taxpayers provided $2 for every dollar provided by riders. Now, with ridership way down, she said, the ratio is $10 of taxpayer money for every dollar of fares.

But Lang pushed back at Pollack, saying taxpayers fund roads and rarely ask drivers for any money to help pay for them. He said that approach subsidizes drivers at the expense of transit riders. “It is not sustainable,” he said.

Another Lang amendment dealing with restoring service levels to 100 percent of their pre-COVID levels was withdrawn after concerns were raised by Kornegay, who said she would favor some sort of action dealing with means-tested fares.

The control board then took up the T’s revised service reductions.  Sullivan raised the possibility of challenging Lang’s amendment again, but Lang objected on procedural grounds, and Sullivan decided to drop it. The T’s new service change proposal was then approved by a 3-2 vote, with Sullivan and Kornegay voting no because the overall package included Lang’s original amendment. The vote was also conditional on approval of still-to-be-done equity and environmental analyses of the proposal and a possible change down the road to address weeknight riders on commuter rail. Board members also said they would decide in mid-March whether additional service is needed over the next three months and provide the funding to implement that service, if feasible.

The narrow votes were a surprise ending to a four-hour meeting that for the most part focused on how to match service to reduced ridership levels and save money to deal with a budget shortfall coming in fiscal 2022, which begins on July 1. The control board approved a T plan that reduced the frequency of services on all of the T’s modes while scaling back many of the more drastic service cuts the transit authority proposed last month.

The T abandoned plans to shut down bus and subway service after midnight and eliminate all ferry service and weekend commuter rail service. Starting in January, ferry service will now be restricted to limited weekday runs between Hull, Hingham, and Boston and weekend commuter rail service will be available on five of the 12 lines – Providence, Worcester, Middleborough, Newburyport-Rockport, and Fairmount.

A proposal to shut down commuter rail service after 9 p.m. on weekdays starting in March was not changed, although members of the control board said they wanted to explore some options over the next few months to address riders who use the system at that time. Lang raised the possibility of restoring commuter rail service after 9 p.m., but Pollack said the need wasn’t there, pointing out that weekday service after 9 p.m. costs $7 million to provide and serves less than 1,000 passengers.

“It’s a lot of service for very few people,” said Pollack. “We need to save money on commuter rail.”

T officials said they received thousands of comments from the public that convinced them it was wrong to eliminate service entirely on any mode and to eliminate access at various times of day, and the new proposal generally addresses those concerns.

Aiello, the chair of the control board, said he was glad to hear T staff admit they don’t have all the answers and wanted to hear from users on where changes in the original proposal were needed.

“It’s rare that an organization as big as the T can say we need your help and listen,” he said.

The reduced service levels are part of an effort to match ridership levels and service and deal with a steep loss in fare revenue caused by COVID-19. Federal stimulus funds of nearly $1 billion allowed the T to balance its budget last year and this year, but the transit authority is currently projecting a large shortfall in fiscal 2022, which begins July 1.

Although many transit advocates have pressured the MBTA to not cut service at all during the pandemic, T officials decided to squeeze savings out of the budget now to help reduce the financial impact next year.

“We should be saving money now while the demand is not there to justify full restitution of pre-COVID service levels,” Pollack said.

The revised service cutback proposal differs from mode to mode but in each case is less severe than was originally proposed this fall. T officials were not able to provide an estimate of savings under the new plan. T officials said layoffs were possible under the latest plan, but provided no estimates of how many jobs could be lost.

The bus proposal changed minimally. It still calls for a 5 percent reduction in service on what the T classifies as essential routes and 20 percent on nonessential routes. Service will now continue after midnight and on five routes (43, 131, 136, 714, and 716) that had been slated for suspension. The 230 bus will also continue to operate between Braintree and Quincy Center. Most of the bus changes will start taking effect in March.

With the subway system, the T decided to reverse its earlier decision to shut down service after midnight, but it will still reduce service levels 20 percent on the Green, Orange and Red Lines and 5 percent on the Blue Line. The T also abandoned a plan to halt service at Brigham Circle on the Green Line’s E branch and continue service to the end at Heath Street. The subway service changes would start in March.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said the service level reduction on the Red Line would be fairly moderate, increasing the interval between trains from 4 ½ minutes to nearly 5 ½ minutes.

For commuter rail, the T is retaining weekend service on the five lines, which officials said account for two-thirds of weekend ridership. The T also plans to shut down five commuter rail stops instead of the six in its original plan. The one now exempted is Cedar Park on the Haverhill Line.

Ferry service, which had been slated to be eliminated, will now be retained at reduced levels on the Hingham-Hull-Boston route. Direct service between Boston and Hingham and Boston and Charlestown is being eliminated.

The T’s paratransit service, called The Ride, does not change much in the new proposal. The original proposal called for expanding the scheduling window from 30 to 40 minutes, which is being retained in the current proposal.

Same old plan won’t work at the MBTA

Same old plan won’t work at the MBTA

If agency cuts service, it takes years to recover

IN EARLY NOVEMBER, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board and T General Manager Steve Poftak released a new plan, called Forging Ahead, to deal with the catastrophic drop in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At last Monday’s meeting of the control board, T officials indicated they were considering not going ahead with that plan. No one is discounting the seriousness of the situation, but what is concerning is the MBTA management’s initial response – cut service and lay off workers.

The control board used federal CARES Act money to balance the T’s budget through fiscal year 2021 (ending June 30, 2021), but is projecting a deficit of $577 million to $652 million in the next fiscal year.

There are numerous ways to deal with this fiscal downfall. As the Boston Globe has urged, the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker could approve a modest increase in the gas tax. The Biden administration could push for additional stimulus funding to cover part, or all, of the deficit. But instead the MBTA is pushing a plan that calls for cutting service, initiating layoffs, and, if past experience is any guide, privatizing more of the authority.

In a normal world, low ridership would be a sign to cut service, but these are not normal times. Our doctors and nurses need access to public transportation now more than ever; we need them to be able to show up for work to care for our most vulnerable during the largest health crisis of our time.

Furthermore, the MBTA is spending ludicrous amounts of money on projects that have little, or nothing, to show for them. Exhibit A is an automated fare collection project that has cost $900 million to date, with nothing to show for it. The results are so bad the T is expecting to spend an additional $100-$150 million to update the existing system while continuing to work out the kinks in the new one. Is now really a time to drop close to $1 billion on upgrading a fare system when we cannot even afford to get our health workers to work?

Another solution we have all heard before – privatizing bus routes – was suggested by officials from the conservative Pioneer Institute in an op-ed in CommonWealth.

Privatization is not the answer. Just ask any commuter who has had to deal with Keolis, which operates the T’s commuter rail service. Or how about the maintenance facilities, contracted out to MANCON to manage MBTA supplies for in-house rolling stock and parts? The State’s Office of the Inspector General had choice words in a scathing audi, posted May 2020. Have you ever tried getting travel information from the outsourced Call Center? Their responses are usually along the lines of, “I don’t know what to tell you.” Even The Ride, which serves the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable population, has been boasting the use of Uber and Lyft, yet has been running in the red since the new program was instituted.

Throughout the pandemic, workers at the MBTA have risked their health and lives to make sure they provide on-time, safe, and reliable service to the people of Massachusetts. Even in these dangerous times, they have gone above and beyond to protect the riders that need this service. Unlike private companies, whose concern is to make a profit, the MBTA worker’s main purpose is to keep the service moving safely.

The Pioneer Institute’s push for about out-sourcing bus operations uses incorrect information and does not take into consideration the institutional knowledge of the workforce. The data referenced by the Pioneer Institiute was from 2015 and does not reflect accurate information. The MBTA Innovation Proposal set a cost goal for private companies of $27 per revenue hour, which includes expenses for maintenance and manpower prorated for each hour a bus is operational. The workers at the T did better in December 2017 with $25.23 per revenue hour. In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board reported in 2015 that MBTA mileage between bus breakdowns was the highest in the country at 11,496 miles compared to the next closest authority at 5,419 miles. Today, the T is averaging 29,595 mean miles between breakdowns, which is still the highest in the country.

These times at the MBTA should reflect the new normal, not the same old knee-hjerk reaction. What’s required are new realistic strategies that deal with a modern transportation system. Both the Legislature and the control board need to step up and do their jobs. It is time for the Legislature to increase the gas tax to fund new transportation spending. In addition, the control board needs to realistically manage the huge contracts the MBTA has solicited. The MBTA can no longer try to solve problems with the same old solutions.

Remember, when the MBTA cuts services in the past, it has taken years, if not longer, to reestablish those services. The riders and the communities the MBTA serve deserve better, especially during a world-wide pandemic.

Timothy W. Lasker is the president and business manager of OPEIU Local 453, which represents more than 400 middle-level administrative and professional MBTA employees.

Privatized MBTA transit ambassadors deserve better

Privatized MBTA transit ambassadors deserve better

Low wages, dangerous working conditions, stabbing prompt union organizing

THE NEWS THAT ONE of the MBTA’s transit ambassadors was stabbed the other day while at work in Copley Station on the Green Line is troubling but not surprising.

These workers were part of a privatization effort at the T back in 2016 and currently work for a company called Block by Block. While talking to these employees, we’ve noticed many unsafe working conditions — being alone in stations at night, not having adequate personal protection equipment available, not having sanitizing wipes for their workstations — the list goes on. It’s a big part of why these workers are now organizing a union with Machinists Local Lodge 264.

If you ride the MBTA, there’s a good chance you’ve been helped by an MBTA transit ambassador at some point.

Perhaps they helped you when a CharlieCard machine or a gate wasn’t working properly, directed you to the correct platform, or helped you feel safer because you didn’t have to be alone at the station catching that last train or bus after working a long shift.

These are essential functions provided by essential workers within an essential system – and you may have taken for granted that the workers providing these services can provide for their families and feel safe at work themselves.

The sad reality is that’s just not the case.

Several recent incidents have underscored just how dangerous this job can be. To be blunt, a key reason that transit ambassadors are deployed to stations with higher crime incidents is so riders don’t have to be unsafe or alone when they are perhaps otherwise the only person on the train platform or waiting for the bus.

More than 200 transit ambassadors work throughout train stations across the MBTA map. When their jobs were privatized a few years back, MBTA executives promised the workers would be well-compensated and treated well by whatever outside vendor assumed control over the services.

You might have assumed the MBTA would work with a local firm that would feel accountable to the community and have a strong understanding of these workers’ needs and of the system.

Instead, they awarded the management of these hardworking public service employees to a company called Block by Block, headquartered in Kentucky, which is owned by another company called SMS Holdings, which is headquartered in Tennessee.

Many of these workers spend their entire shift underground and several have told our organization that they either struggle to make ends meet or have to rely on publicly subsidized health insurance because they can’t afford what Block by Block offers them for coverage. Many workers have reported that they are earning the state-mandated minimum hourly wage of $12 or just above it.

Essentially, MBTA transit ambassadors have been forgotten by the transit officials who promised that the privatization of these jobs would not lead to poor treatment of employees. Unsurprisingly, that promise has been broken — and many workers and families are suffering badly because of it. It’s a source of shame for the system.

The question now is whether the system will take action to ensure the safety and dignity of these employees at work — which they deserve whether or not they have a union.

For its part, Block by Block claims on its company website that it is committed to doing “Whatever It Takes” to exceed customer expectations. It’s time for MBTA officials to let Block by Block know that public transit riders in Massachusetts expect workers to be treated with dignity and respect. They deserve livable wages and good benefits. Additionally, Block by Block needs to acknowledge the risks these individuals take with every shift to help the ridership.

We hope Block by Block and MBTA management will allow these workers a free and fair union election process, and will not waste taxpayer money trying to discourage them from exercising their fundamental right to form a union.

Regardless of whether these workers succeed in unionizing, it is indisputable that they deserve better than what they’re receiving right now from Block by Block and from MBTA management.

Mike Vartabedian is a former MBTA bus mechanic and is currently serving as assistant directing business representative for the International Association of Machinists District 15 representing Local Lodge 264.

Time to complete more Complete Streets

Time to complete more Complete Streets

Lawmakers need to act on $50m, but more needed

THE PANDEMIC has upended many things, including how many of us get around. One difference is a big increase in walking and bicycling. In every community, people are getting outdoors more often, which is good for our health and a change for the better.

But many of our roads and sidewalks were designed primarily with cars in mind. Retrofitting streets to be more welcoming and safer for people on bikes and foot has become more urgent.

Massachusetts can do something this month to encourage biking and walking. As legislators continue to wrangle over what to include in the final version of the transportation bond bill, they should absolutely increase funding for Complete Streets. Both the House and the Senate propose $50 million in funding for this popular and effective program.

Based on the need, a higher amount is justifiable; but that is unlikely in this environment and without more funding for transportation in general. $50 million will continue a successful program at current levels.

It is also important to set aside a portion of Complete Streets funding to ensure equity, such that at least one-third is targeted to communities with incomes below the average for the Commonwealth.

What are Complete Streets? Technically, they are roads that are designed according to contemporary guidelines to promote safety and accessibility for users of all modes.

In practice, Complete Streets are true public spaces that work for everybody who uses them. Whether you are walking, cycling, using transit, driving, shopping, or enjoying the outdoors. And whether you are 8 or 80, and regardless of your ability, a Complete Street is one that will welcome you.

Complete Streets have been shown to improve the value of property, business activity, health of people, and our communities. Massachusetts has endorsed Complete Streets in how it designs and builds state roads, and has encouraged local governments to do the same. In fact, more than half of all our cities and towns have an approved Complete Streets policy.

More recently, MassDOT has stepped up Complete Streets during the COVID-19 crisis. The “Shared Streets and Spaces” grant program, introduced last spring, funded projects that could be designed and implemented in just weeks or months. The recently announced Winter Streets and Spaces grants will do the same, with a requirement that projects are constructed by May 31. These grant programs fast-track ideas to make our outdoor spaces safer for walking, biking, and dining.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation awarded just over $10 million in 123 Shared Streets and Spaces grants to 103 cities and towns around the state. But underscoring the need and interest, this is just under one-third of the $34 million that was requested from 279 municipalities.

Complete Streets is now the standard for how roads are designed in Massachusetts, and the appeal of these tactical programs shows how much things have changed in just a few years. MassDOT has demonstrated that they can get this money out the door quickly, while cities and towns are stepping up and constructing popular projects.

But we should be implementing this vision at a much faster pace.

A case in point: the $570,000 awarded to Springfield in Complete Streets grants over the last several years is not meeting the need.

Starting in 2014, Springfield residents working with City officials developed a Complete Streets policy and prioritization plan.  The aim was to indicate that Springfield is a friendly place for riding bicycles with miles of new bicycle lanes and ready bicycle parking at libraries and parks. The team prioritized walkability improvements, including adding enhanced crosswalks. With MassDOT Complete Streets funding, Springfield has achieved nearly all of the projects included in its original five-year plan and is currently developing the list of next priorities. But these won’t be able to be implemented until there is additional MassDOT Complete Streets funding.

So while the Complete Streets program is a success on paper, in reality it is now at risk, because the money for this valuable program has run out. The final bond bill is being negotiated by a six-member conference committee before both branches vote it up or down, and the bill is sent to the governor for his signature.

Where both branches have settled on the same amount of funding, a higher amount than $50 million is unlikely, even though the program is stretched to meet demand. For the Complete Streets program to continue, it is critical for the Legislature to finish their negotiations and include this funding, and to ensure that a portion is set aside for lower income cities and towns.

Betsy Johnson works at WalkBike Springfield and Josh Ostroff is partnerships director at Transportation for Massachusetts.