Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

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.

Hull may get a break from T cuts

Hull may get a break from T cuts

Community faced loss of all MBTA service

WHEN THE MBTA announced a series of proposed service cuts in October, Hull found itself in an unusual situation.

The South Shore municipality quickly learned the proposed cuts called for the elimination of all ferry service, which would have ended the community’s most direct link to Boston. Another proposed service reduction hit even closer to home – the elimination of the 714 bus that runs the length of the Hull peninsula and connects the community to Hingham, and from there to Quincy and the rest of the T system.

In one fell swoop, the transit authority’s proposed cost-saving measure, threatened to eliminate all MBTA service to Hull. Municipal officials grumbled that the community pays a $250,000 annual assessment to the MBTA and would get nothing for it.

“We were pretty stunned,” said Rep. Joan Meschino of Hull.

The proposed ferry service cut spawned a public outcry, not just in Hull but also in Hingham and Cohasset, where residents were also affected. The bus cut, because it impacted far fewer people, received a lot less attention and required more hands-on lobbying by Meschino and other local officials.

On Monday, at a meeting of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, the lobbying effort appeared to pay off. MBTA officials said they were going to revise their list of service cuts and they indicated Hull’s bus service would be retained and ferry service would not be eliminated entirely. The final proposal is expected to be unveiled and voted on this coming Monday.

How could the T propose eliminating all of Hull’s MBTA service?

“Honestly, I think they missed it,” Meschino said. She said the T system is very large, complex, and interconnected. “Our bus route is a small piece of the system, but it’s a big deal to us.”

The 714 bus, run by a private company on behalf of the T, had averaged 158 riders on weekdays pre-COVID and was down to 87 this fall, according to a T spokesman.

Hull Town Manager Philip Lemnios said he thinks T officials got carried away crunching the numbers and failed to take into consideration the people using the service.

“I think they became hostage to the numbers and not what the numbers represent,” he said. “It’s a very mechanical view of the world.”

Meschino said the key to the successful lobbying effort was reminding T officials who would be affected. “We really put a face on the ridership,” Meschino said. “They definitely heard what we were saying. We gave them a lot of volume.”

When the proposed service cuts were first unveiled, T officials said ferry riders could just drive to a commuter rail line and come into Boston that way. Lemnios said the 714 bus served a very different clientele, people who used it to get to local shops and jobs.

T officials at the meeting on Monday said the feedback they received from the public centered on the elimination of service – either entirely (ferry, some bus routes, and some commuter rail stops) or partially (late-night bus and subway service and weekend and weeknight commuter rail service).

As a result, the T announced a number of new priorities in making service cuts – preserve bus routes whose elimination would result in passengers being stranded more than a half-mile from other service and “municipalities losing all MBTA modal options.”

Both new priorities appeared to benefit Hull.

11 T workers suspended for not wearing masks

11 T workers suspended for not wearing masks

An additional 52 employees received written warnings

THE MBTA said it has suspended 11 employees without pay for violating the transit authority’s policy on wearing face masks. Another 52 workers have received written warnings and 90 verbal warnings.

An MBTA spokesman said the suspensions have ranged from one to five days, depending on the employee’s past disciplinary record. The written warnings must be signed by the employee, who acknowledges another violation could result in a suspension.

The T employs approximately 6,370 employees, so the face mask violations represent only a tiny fraction of the transit authority’s workforce.

The T reported on Thursday that 75 employees had active cases of COVID-19 – up from 63 as of Monday.

MBTA Deputy Manager Jeff Gonneville said on Monday that for every employee infected with the coronavirus two others face lost work time as they await test results or go into quarantine. To free up employees to fill in for the absent workers, Gonneville said the T is slightly increasing the intervals between subway trains during peak travel periods to reduce the number of workers needed to operate them.

63 MBTA employees infected with COVID-19

63 MBTA employees infected with COVID-19

Subway headways expanded to free up workers

MBTA GENERAL MANAGER Steve Poftak said on Monday that 63 of the agency’s employees currently have COVID-19, up from 50 last Wednesday.

Poftak said for every worker with COVID-19 there are usually two others affected, mostly because they came in contact with the infected individual and have to quarantine while they await the results of a test. “This begins to have workforce impact,” he said.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the deputy general manager of the T, said the last time the T had 63 infections was during the first COVID-19 surge in April. The peak number then was about 108.

To deal with the vacancies caused by the disease, Gonneville said the agency is slightly adjusting travel times on the T’s subway lines to free up employees who can be used to substitute for workers out because of COVID-19.

Gonneville said the time between train arrivals at stations during peak weekday periods will rise between 20 and 30 seconds on the Red, Orange, and Green subway lines – but not on the Blue Line. He said the added “headway” time will result in fewer workers needed over the course of a day. The Red Line delay, for example, will free up eight workers who can substitute for workers out because of COVID-19.

Poftak said Keolis Commuter Services, the operator of the commuter rail system, is also struggling with infections among its workforce. Poftak told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that roughly 34 Keolis employees had been infected as of the end of November. He said an updated number was not available.

MBTA to back off some of its service cuts

MBTA to back off some of its service cuts

Few details, but theme is cut service, not eliminate it

MBTA OFFICIALS indicated on Monday that they are preparing to back off some of their proposed service cuts because of feedback from the public and changing budget conditions.

No specifics were provided, but the officials indicated they may withdraw proposals to eliminate certain types of service entirely or at specific times. For example, the T’s original proposal called for eliminating all ferry service; now the T appears to be considering offering some form of limited ferry service. Decisions to eliminate some bus routes, late-night bus service, late-night rapid transit service, weekday commuter rail service after 9 p.m., and weekend commuter rail service could also be revisited.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the feedback the T received at a series of public meetings over the last month indicate riders are willing to adapt to less service but not willing to do without service entirely. She characterized the public’s attitude as: “Please give us some service and then bring it back when you can.”

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said Hull was dramatically affected by the T’s initial service cut proposal, which would have eliminated ferry service to the community as well as the 714 bus.

“The idea of being completely cut off is really terrifying,” said Tibbits-Nutt.

Pollack said the feedback the agency received also indicated the public was skeptical that service eliminated during the pandemic would ever be restored even though the MBTA has said repeatedly that service would be restored as the economy and ridership improve. “We have a credibility problem with our riders,” Pollack said.

Kat Benesh, chief of operations strategy, policy, and oversight, said she plans to present a new service cut proposal to the Fiscal and Management Control Board next Monday that will restore some services that had been on the chopping block and also lay out a plan to prioritize restoration of services if the T’s financial situation improves next year.

In her presentation to the control board, Benesh said the new service cut proposal would attempt to address the elimination of bus routes that strand higher numbers of current riders, municipalities that stand to lose all MBTA service (T officials said only Hull falls in that category), and second and third shift medical workers with no way to get to and from work.

The T’s budget situation is very fluid right now. The agency is covering its losses this year with $605 million in federal stimulus aid, but the T is currently projecting a budget gap of $577 million to $652 million in fiscal 2022, which begins July 1. A month ago the T was projecting a budget gap of $579 million.

The T is currently planning to cover the budget gap by taking five steps: moving employees working on capital projects on to the capital budget and paying them with federal funds or borrowed money; diverting federal funds set aside for capital projects to shorter-term maintenance initiatives that would typically be paid for out of the operating budget; implementing internal revenue initiatives; approving service cuts; and squirreling away money this year to plug holes in next year’s budget.

The budget numbers have been a moving target over the last month. A month ago service cuts were projected to save $128 million to $142 million, but now the T is saying cuts of $94 million to $98 million are needed. The T is also building contingencies into its budget planning for next year that might free up millions of dollars more to reduce the level of service cuts. Several members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board said they would favor that.

Other variables could also have an impact on the T’s discussion. Congress is weighing another stimulus plan that could benefit transit agencies and COVID-19 vaccines will start to be rolled out next week. “There is room for a little more optimism,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak.

T officials and members of the control board are clearly feeling the heat from the public and other elected officials.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh started off the day with a press conference where he warned the control board not to ignore the public outcry. “They need to listen. They better listen,” Walsh said. “These cuts are simply wrong. They will hurt workers. They will discourage ridership. They would hurt our recovery.”

Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu was even more strident. “The push to dismantle public transportation should be remembered as one of the biggest failures of the Baker administration,” she said in a statement.

Gov. Charlie Baker, at a State House press conference, shrugged off calls for more state revenue to prevent transit cuts. “Raising taxes to run more empty buses and trains is a bad idea,” he said.

Jim Rooney, the president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter to Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, urging the panel to delay any service cuts until the T’s budget picture becomes more clear. He said a federal stimulus package and the imminent arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine suggest a lot could change over the next six to nine months.

Rooney also said the Chamber of Commerce supports additional revenue for transportation and the MBTA, including temporary transfers from the state’s general fund and money raised from higher fees on rideshares and higher taxes on gasoline.

Rooney also drew a contrast between spending by the state (the state budget sitting on Baker’s desk calls for a 6.5 percent increase in spending) and spending by the T. “Strikingly, we are halfway through fiscal 2021 with virtually no major reductions in state general fund spending compared to fiscal 2020,” he wrote. “It is important that the FMCB not prematurely send a message that public transportation is among the lowest priorities for the state next year without engaging in a discussion with the Legislature.”