Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

T far more forgiving than DCR on rents

T far more forgiving than DCR on rents

MBTA gives 56 tenants a break; DCR only 3 so far

THE STATE’S TWO largest landowners – the MBTA and the Department of Conservation and Recreation – are both forgiving rent of some of their tenants during the coronavirus pandemic, but the T has been far more generous than DCR.

The MBTA so far has forgiven a total of $1.1 million in rent for 56 tenants, mostly merchants operating the concession stands in the stations. Whereas the T was proactive in granting rent relief to tenants, DCR was reactive. DCR offered to consider rent relief for tenants who were forced to shut down during the first surge in March, April, and May. Of 10 requests for rent relief, three were granted, two denied, and five are still under consideration. A total of $138,300 in rent relief was granted.

The group of T small business tenants that normally pays a flat monthly rent was released from paying all rent from April through December of this year.  But starting in January 2021, their rent will began to increase by one-third per month until their regular monthly rent is fully reinstated in March 2021.

T tenants that are franchises pay rent using a combination of base rent plus a percentage of sales.  The rent for this group was initially reduced, but not completely — they still are required to pay a portion of their rent (7 percent of gross sales) for a number of months.  The rent then progressively increases, and in March 2021, these tenants will resume paying their full rent.

The decision of the T to provide rent relief to its tenants was made administratively and not by a vote of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board.

DCR records indicate the agency has moved slowly on granting rent relief. One tenant, for example — the city of Somerville — had to write to DCR three times over a period of three months before it got a decision.

Of the $138,300 in rent relief granted by DCR, $128,750 went to Boston Duck Tours, which uses a DCR ramp in Cambridge to access the Charles River; $5,665 to Somerville, which operates the Blessing of the Bay Boathouse owned by DCR; and $4,900 to the Thoreau Society, which operates the Shop at Walden Pond on DCR property in Concord.

The annual rent of Boston Duck Tours this year would ordinarily have been $515,200; for the Somerville boathouse, $34,000; and for the Thoreau Society, $19,600.

DCR refused to grant any rent relief to LAZ Parking, which operates parking lots on DCR property located directly across the way from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.  The reason given was that the lot remained open during the emergency months.

LAZ has asked DCR for reconsideration, saying its business was “significantly impacted” by the governor’s stay-at-home order during the first surge.  DCR has asked for documentation from LAZ, whose regular annual rent this year is $1.2 million.

DCR also refused to grant any rent relief to Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, saying their skiing season was “minimally affected.”

The five small businesses still awaiting a decision by DCR are Paddle Boston, Pushcart Caterers, Perry’s Last Stand, Guest Services, and Lea’s Boat Rental.

“This season looks to be a disaster,” David Henchy of Lea’s Boat Rental wrote to DCR lawyer David Farrag back in April.   “We would like to ask for an accommodation from you if possible.  We are not asking for a reduction, just a deferment.  Please assist us in this matter.”

MBTA service cuts called unnecessary

MBTA service cuts called unnecessary

Advisory board says agency overestimating its budget deficit


THE MBTA OVERESTIMATED its budget deficit and could erase its argument for a controversial package of service cuts by using a less conservative outlook, according to an independent oversight panel representing cities and towns that help fund the transit system and are served by it.

Less than two weeks before T officials vote on whether to slash portions of bus, train, and ferry service to cope with a pandemic-fueled budget deficit, the MBTA Advisory Board concluded Thursday that the agency’s plan poses unwarranted long-lasting risks.

“The long-term impact of service cuts is dramatic for riders and communities alike,” the board wrote in a report. “The short-term budget benefit of making them must be weighed carefully, and the assumptions underpinning them deserve thorough investigation. The Advisory Board’s view is that risk of permanent loss of ridership, increased congestion, and other negative effects of service cuts to people and communities is too high a price to pay right now, just as a vaccine is on the horizon.”

Massachusetts is due to get 300,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine by the end of December, Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday, but it will take months for vaccines to reach the general population at large and the work-from-home trend sparked by the pandemic is expected to have lasting effects, which will affect MBTA ridership.

Many parts of the T’s proposal, such as pausing capital projects and reallocating federal funds, are viable and important, the board said in its report. But the Advisory Board found the T’s math to be unnecessarily cautious.

After doing its own analysis, the Advisory Board estimated the MBTA’s fiscal year 2022 deficit plus additional risks totals $528 million, roughly 20 percent smaller than the total worst-case scenario gap of $652 million that MBTA budget-writers estimate.

That $528 million gap, according to the Advisory Board, leaves “no budgetary justification to cut so much public transportation service at this time.”

Brian Kane, executive director of the Advisory Board, said in an interview that the difference in estimates could effectively cover all of the money the agency hoped to save next fiscal year by eliminating weekend commuter rail service, 25 bus routes and ferry service and reducing subway frequencies.

“To us, that negates the need to do service cuts,” Kane said. “We think they still should do the other pieces they’re talking about, the capital reallocations, and those are painful. That means stations in Lynn and Winchester and South Attleboro will not be done when they’re supposed to be, but we think that’s better than cutting off thousands of people that rely on these services.”

MBTA officials and the Baker administration have argued that cuts are necessary to help close a budget gap of $584 million to $652 million in fiscal year 2022 and responsible given that ridership has dropped to only about a quarter of pre-pandemic levels.

Leaders at the transit agency say the cuts will not be permanent and that they will restore some portions once they have a stable funding source or if ridership returns in high volumes, but the timeline on those steps could stretch several years long.

The Advisory Board conceded that it would be unwise to run a full slate of vehicles on pre-COVID schedules in the current environment, but its members — who represent 176 cities and towns that direct tax dollars toward the T — said the agency is acting too drastically.

Kane said the T should not “use a global pandemic to do a service plan.”

“The T has existing management rights to do things like run less frequent service and run shorter train sets. They’re already doing that. They’ve truncated some bus lines and consolidated others,” Kane said. “Cut back, don’t cut off. If you have to run a smaller boat to Hull, go ahead. Don’t stop running boats to Hull. That’s the difference.”

Kane said the Advisory Board believes the T used excessively conservative estimates, did not factor in federal rebates the agency often receives, and planned for greater expenses on COVID-era cleaning than might be necessary.

Under its current plan, Kane said, the T will build its budget not only to close the budget gap but to surpass it and end the FY21-22 two-year period with a net surplus of $73 million.

“My folks just don’t feel like the T should be generating a surplus by eliminating public transportation,” Kane said. “It’s just not right.”

In response, T officials cautioned that the agency faces limits to federal reimbursement despite the Advisory Board’s suggestions. Even using the outside panel’s estimates, the T would face a budget gap of around half a billion dollars.

“The scenario planning utilized by MassDOT and the MBTA for the Forging Ahead Initiative includes multiple scenarios with COVID-19 abatement beginning in the second quarter of FY21 and no scenario predicts ridership returning to pre-COVID levels by 2022,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said in a statement. “The MBTA is planning for future service adjustments now as they require months of lead time to finalize and implement, and saving resources now while ridership has decreased by 75% will help the MBTA bring back service when it is needed after the pandemic has faded.”

Advisory Board members called for the MBTA to create a “Return to Service Commission” including riders, employers, business leaders, and municipalities to help guide the process of planning the agency’s operations amid COVID-era ridership fluctuations.

Poftak said the T “has no plans for a Return to Service Commission,” pointing instead to existing avenues for public feedback.

Despite widespread public opposition and many critical comments from lawmakers, legislative leaders have not intervened to alter the T’s plans beyond language in budget bills under consideration pushing the agency to restore cut service with any additional federal funding it might receive.

The House continues to back a package of transportation-related tax and fee increases it passed in March aimed at generating more funding for the MBTA and other agencies, while the Senate has shown little to no interest in approving the hikes during the pandemic and related recession.

Kane argued that the T’s current fiscal crisis points a spotlight at its underlying structural problems. Lawmakers might be hesitant to act again, he said, but the debt the T carries and its flawed funding structure create problems that cannot be addressed with increased operating funds.

“Just tacking more money onto the operating budget every year is not a solution to the fundamental, underlying illness the MBTA has in its financing structure, which I would argue is on the capital side,” Kane said. “The T is the only large transit system in America without a dedicated revenue source for its capital budget, so everything they get is borrowed money.”

“Until that is fixed, we’re going to keep finding ourselves here,” he said.

Poll shows little support for MBTA service cuts

Poll shows little support for MBTA service cuts

Ending weekend commuter rail service draws most opposition


A MAJORITY of Massachusetts residents believe that if the MBTA sharply cuts back on services to balance its budget next year those commuting options will not return after the state’s economy fully reopens, according to a new MassINC poll.

The MBTA has proposed a variety of service cuts as part of a plan to deal with a $579 million shortfall in a budget decimated by the decline in ridership during the pandemic. The Fiscal and Management Control Board plans to vote on the package soon, and has faced blowback from riders, legislators, and transit advocates.

The online survey of 1,340 Massachusetts residents found that 64 percent somewhat or strongly oppose the cuts in service proposed by the MBTA, including less frequent subway and commuter trains, the elimination of 25 bus routes, and the cancellation of ferry service.

If the MBTA were to move ahead with those cuts, 54 percent said they didn’t think the eliminated services would be restored after the COVID-19 pandemic abates and workplaces fully reopen.

“With the news about vaccines, there’s some light at the end of a long dark tunnel,” said Steve Koczela, president of The MassINC Polling Group, which conducted the poll on behalf of the Barr Foundation, which advocates for public transit. “How and whether people commute to work will depend on the options available to them, including the frequency and reliability of service on the MBTA.”

While the MBTA has painted a dire picture of ridership during the pandemic that makes it economically untenable to continue providing services that residents are not using, 66 percent of residents said they would support giving the MBTA additional money from the state budget to eliminate the need for service cuts.

The poll, however, did not asked respondents where that money should come from, such as whether residents would prefer to see the money diverted from another program or if they would support raising additional revenues through higher fares or other tax increases.

The elimination of commuter rail service on the weekend drew the most opposition, with 48 percent saying they strongly oppose the move, while the proposal to stop subway and bus service at midnight instead of 1 a.m. had the most support with 50 percent saying they somewhat or strongly support the idea.

Eighty-two percent of those polled said they had heard at least something about the MBTA’s proposed cuts.

With Pfizer’s vaccine expected to begin arriving in Massachusetts within a couple weeks for at-risk populations and vaccines expected to be available to the general public by the spring, 34 percent said they would like to work from home every day even after the economy fully reopens, and another 28 percent said they’ like to work from home at least a few days a week.

Of those polled by MassINC, the percentage of workers who said they would use public transit every day to get to work dropped from 12 percent pre-pandemic to 9 percent after a vaccine becomes widely available.

The percent of workers who expressed a desire to keep up their work-from-home routines in the statewide MassINC poll was higher than that found by A Better City in a survey of workers in the metro Boston area released last week.

The survey done by A Better City found that only 20 percent wanted to continue to telework after their workplaces fully reopened. That same survey reported that 38 percent of workers would drive alone after the pandemic, compared to 23 percent pre-COVID.

Free or reduced-price MBTA passes were listed as the having the most potential to change a solo driver’s commuting habits. The share of metro Boston workers using the commuter rail would drop from 20.9 percent to 12.3 percent post-pandemic, according to A Better City, while the popularity of the subway as a daily commuting option wold fall from 29.2 percent to 16.4 percent.

Mass. should follow California’s lead on contractors

Mass. should follow California’s lead on contractors

Prop. 22 is a roadmap for Bay State to follow

WITH THE 2020 Massachusetts election behind us, state lawmakers have returned to Beacon Hill to finish one unprecedented session, while also preparing to begin the next. Health care, policing, and climate change are commanding lawmakers attention for the rest of 2020, but debates around transportation and economic development also remain to be settled, and both issues could extend well into the new legislative session following a major Election Day vote in California.

The overwhelming passage of California’s Prop 22, which exempted drivers who work for companies such as Uber and Lyft from standard employee benefits, protects the freedom of app-based delivery and rideshare workers to choose to work as independent contractors while offering them important new protections and benefits, and sets the stage for a new discussion in Massachusetts in the coming months.

TechNet supports comprehensive legislation that creates a framework for portable, flexible benefits for the independent workforce across diverse platforms, and preserves the flexibility that these independent workers need and want.

The gig economy is still new and imperfect, but it has already had a profound impact on Massachusetts. It allows for flexible, part-time earning opportunities for thousands of residents, regardless of race, background, education level, or language. It has created jobs across countless industries, not just for drivers, but for dog-walkers, musicians, painters, handymen, writers, coders, designers, artists and more. And it helps boost the finances of individuals managing children’s hectic schedules, adults caring for aging parents, students, retirees, and others who are looking to supplement their income.

Additionally, since the beginning of the pandemic, gig services like dog walking or food delivery have aided our most at-risk neighbors and helped restaurants and other small businesses stay open. They have also helped essential workers get where they need to go, while providing a vital opportunity for those who’ve lost their traditional job to still supplement their income.

These jobs have also helped boost economies and communities outside of downtown Boston by increasing mobility and equity. For example, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which oversees transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft, millions of rides in 2019 began and ended in cities such as Worcester, Springfield, Brockton, Lowell, New Bedford, and Lynn, as well as Boston neighborhoods such as Dorchester and Mattapan — areas that previously had limited or no taxi service and relied on public buses with limited schedules.

On Cape Cod, app-based services are attempting to help address a nursing shortage, and in many communities on the North Shore and elsewhere, the flexibility of the gig economy helped fill employment gaps for workers even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

This flexibility is made possible because gig workers are independent contractors, rather than employees of any of the various app-based companies – and that’s the way these workers want it. Survey after survey across the country has shown that gig workers prefer this independence by a up to a six to one margin. The flexibility to work when they want, for as long as they want, where they want, for whichever company they want (or often more than one company) is precisely what draws them to this work.

At the same time, there is broad agreement that workers in this new flexible economy need new, flexible benefits. Stronger benefits and protections for independent workers will make the gig economy better and ensure that flexible work thrives in Massachusetts – that’s where our legislative leaders come in. A law that adds flexible benefits for gig economy workers while ensuring their independence can set a new standard and better prepare us for the future.

The time is right for the Legislature to act, especially as it considers transportation and economic development issues amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, people need access to flexible work, and people need the benefits the gig economy provides. The Massachusetts unemployment rate of 9.6 percent remains among the highest in the US, and the flexible economy is providing critical income to tens of thousands of Massachusetts families across the Commonwealth.

The Massachusetts Legislature long ago recognized the potential and value of the flexible economy and has always approached this issue with thoughtfulness and forward thinking. House and Senate leaders now have a chance to build on that legacy by delivering new benefits and protections for gig workers while maintaining the flexibility they overwhelmingly prefer.

Christopher Gilrein is the executive director, Massachusetts & Northeast, of TechNet, a national, bipartisan network of technology CEOs and senior executives that promotes the growth of the innovation economy. Uber and Lyft are members of TechNet.

Some ferry service must be maintained

Some ferry service must be maintained

We need a foundation to grow once COVID passes

THE MOST WELL-ESTABLISHED ferry services in Boston Harbor are on the chopping block — deemed “non-essential” by the MBTA and proposed for elimination as a cost saving measure to the MBTA’s Fiscal Management Control Board (FMCB). Due to modest ridership that has yet to bounce back from the 14-week ferry shutdown, the services from Hull and Hingham that have operated since the 1970s and the Charlestown service that restarted in the 1980s could be closed again with no plans to reopen.

While ferries may seem an easy target in a time of budget challenges, these cuts will set ferry service back decades from a land use perspective and make the T’s most reliable transit service feel transient. We must rally to preserve the service.

In early March, reductions in ferry service were outside the realm of imagination. Ferries in Boston Harbor were having a resurgence. Not only was ridership continuing to increase on the MBTA’s three ferry routes, other water transportation services were popping up around the harbor. Over the past three years, the MBTA began operating two new custom-built vessels from Long Wharf, while the city of Salem won a federal grant to procure a second vessel. A partnership between the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and Seaport property owners launched new service from Lovejoy Wharf to Fan Pier, the town of Winthrop was providing ferry service to Boston and Quincy, and the Encore Casino began a water shuttle service between their Everett location, downtown Boston, and the Seaport.

Finally, enough people were living and working along the waterfront to once again have real demand for a new inner harbor connector as demonstrated by the 2019 business plan released by Boston Harbor Now in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Port Authority. In February of 2020, permits were filed to construct new ferry infrastructure at Lewis Mall in East Boston in preparation for anticipated services.

Each potential ferry service elimination tells a different story of the role that transit plays in our region. In Hull, residents of this mixed income community take the ferry to medical appointments, to jobs from teaching to fish processing, and for other business. The community isn’t large enough to break ridership records on an ordinary day, but that makes it no less essential to its residents who can’t drive or afford alternatives. This community is also at risk of losing bus service and having to depend on the infrequent Greenbush train line that will no longer have weekend service.

In Hingham, the development in the Shipyard at Hewitt’s Cove has been driven by the ferry. The transit-oriented development there includes housing as well as a commercial center that rely on the frequent ferry service that connects them with Boston. This relatively dense development offers a model for land use around other transit nodes that many communities can learn from and has allowed people to rely less on driving into Boston — they no longer contribute to congestion or have to search for a place to park.

Charlestown’s ferry service between the Navy Yard and Long Wharf has long served the tourists who walk the Freedom Trail to the USS Constitution, where visitation is down by 87 percent. However, the residents continue to depend on the ferry, and their reliance has persisted even in the pandemic. In fact, more people are opting for the boat as they avoid the harrowing experience of the temporary North Washington Street Bridge. Employees at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Mass General, and the other medical centers in the neighborhood are also using it with increasing frequency.

People have unbridled enthusiasm for ferries, even if they only ride a ferry a handful of times each year. In Baltimore and Seattle and Sydney, tourists love ferries and locals depend on them. They’ve made a comeback on the East River in New York and on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. They have demonstrated their resilience in emergencies and are more reliably on time than most other modes of transit. They are recognized for their ability to provide additional transportation capacity when roads and trains are congested or crowded. And when operating and capital costs are combined, they require a lower subsidy per passenger than any MBTA service except buses.

However, their economic systems are fragile. The operation of ferries requires highly specialized skills by private operators who provide contracted services, and often much of the vessel fleet, to large agencies. They seem almost like they’re too fun to be essential, but they are critical to some proportion of their riders and provide a joyous ride to everyone else, the kind of transit trip that is essential to our struggling urban core and tourism economy.

In order for ferry service to return successfully in the wake of the pandemic, it cannot be fully eliminated. Preserving at least the F2 route connecting Hull, Hingham, Long Wharf, and Logan as well as the Charlestown route, possibly with a modified schedule, will provide a foundation for re-growing and eventually expanding the ferry options so essential for the future of our region and our harbor.

Alice Brown is chief of planning and policy at Boston Harbor Now.

Regional rail can aid pandemic recovery

Regional rail can aid pandemic recovery

Commuter rail must shift to all-day, affordable, frequent service

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC is wreaking havoc on our economy. As of June, over 17 million Americans were out of workand Boston’s unemployment rate was roughly 18 percent. Many small businesses, the backbone of our Main Streets, have shut their doors forever. In the Gateway Cities,  unemployment hovers at 19.2 percent; Lawrence has a jaw-dropping unemployment rate of over 30 percent. The pandemic won’t last forever, but the damage to our cities – and especially the Gateway Cities, already suffering from long-standing economic stagnation and inequality – may take years to recover.

Transforming the current commuter rail system into an all-day, affordable, and frequent transit option – what we call regional rail – can aid the recovery. Regional rail would expand the networks and opportunities available to people across the Commonwealth. Specifically, regional rail can position Gateway Cities for recovery and growth by bringing workers to Gateway City jobs and expanding customers and investment in these hubs’ small businesses. The pandemic laid bare the problems of centralized supply chains, and Gateway Cities’ skilled labor, urban infrastructure, and affordable commercial space make them ideal for light manufacturing, as well as satellite offices for Boston-area firms. Better regional transit access can help them fulfill this purpose.

Local manufacturers are already shifting in this direction. In April, Lawrence-based 99 Degrees Custom retooled its sportswear manufacturing facility in just a few weeks to deliver 1 million Food and Drug Administration-compliant isolation gowns for doctors and nurses. Fall River’s Merrow Sewing Machine Company — founded in 1838 and still owned by the original family — also began making personal protective equipment, a change that required just 40 days instead of months that manufacturers normally require to design and deliver new products.

Massachusetts can build on these successes sustainably if we attract more skilled workers to our Gateway Cities without clogging the roads.

Regional rail will help Gateway City businesses tap into skilled labor from Boston and other municipalities across the Commonwealth. A regional rail system will also make housing in walkable urban areas more accessible to more residents. Similarly, regional rail supports efforts in Gateway Cities to provide additional housing stock for workers in Boston, developing more naturally affordable, subsidized affordable, and market-rate housing in mixed-use developments. This creates a virtuous cycle which expands municipal tax revenues, creates construction jobs, improves high-quality precision manufacturing and office space, and activates streets, providing business for local businesses and allowing local economies to recover.

In its 2018 report, The Transportation Dividend, the business advocacy group A Better City pointed to the economic opportunities arising from vibrant transit and rail nodes – what the report termed transit growth clusters. Creating more jobs and housing ecosystems tied to regional rail can be a game changer in the way we think about regionally and socially equitable mobility in the Commonwealth.

Although fewer people are currently commuting to Boston, they still need to connect to vital services near home. Only 15 percent of travel is for work commutes; the “9-to-5” model underlying the “commuter rail” service model is ancient history.  Communities need 15- to 30-minute headways all day between regional cities like Lawrence and Haverhill or Brockton and Quincy. This frequent all-day service model is long overdue: it responds to the ways people actually live and work in the 21st Century.

Investing in regional rail and connecting bus/shuttle service will liberate Regional Transit Authority (RTA) resources spent for shuttling Boston commuters to instead connecting local workers and residents to activity centers within their communities (something the MBTA might ask its commuter rail operator to pilot, given its experience in this area). Regional rail would reduce car dependency, alleviate traffic jams, and ease traffic fears from new development by providing modal alternatives for getting around conveniently and reliably outside of Boston.

Regional rail also allays the traffic fears  which stall much-needed development. Many Gateway City station areas and downtowns have the makings for walkable, 15-minute communities with naturally affordable, subsidized, and market rate housing in mixed-use neighborhoods. More housing can expand and diversify municipal revenue streams, create jobs, expand available manufacturing sites and office space. It will also activate streets and direct much-needed foot traffic to struggling restaurants and merchants.

Metro Boston’s post-pandemic future can be one where opportunity is shared across regions, where we strategically exploit the unique and synergistic qualities of our Gateway Cities to expand opportunity, build wealth in a socially equitable way. With the better regional connectivity that regional rail provides, our Gateway Cities can put the Commonwealth on the road to recovery. But to make it a reality, the Commonwealth needs to make the investments.

Despite the recession’s impact, some sectors of the economy are still enjoying aggressive growth and Massachusetts remains one of the wealthiest states in the country. With low interest rates, innovative solutions, and available workers, now is the time to invest in our future. In the next legislative session, the MBTA and the Legislature must commit to mitigating bottlenecks in Salem, Dorchester and Quincy, and Ballardvale. It is also crucial to ensure that electrification is fully funded for the Providence/Stoughton, Fairmount, and Newburyport/Rockport lines. This is the only way to advance an initiative that is crucial now more than ever.

Metro Boston can build back better – and equitably – from this historic and disruptive pandemic. We won’t be able to do that with a mid-20th Century inter-city rail system that fails to respond to today’s needs.  Regional rail ought to be one of the ways we build a better future, bringing regional equity to the fore and linking more people to more opportunities.

Tracy Corley is transit oriented development fellow at MassINC and a board member of TransitMatters, Ethan Finlan is the TransitMatters regional rail lead, and Matt Robare is TransitMatters media coordinator and a freelance writer.

Carbon tax backers didn’t fare well in election

Carbon tax backers didn’t fare well in election

Could the political defeats explain Baker’s hesitancy on TCI?

ONE OF THE MOST overlooked stories on Election Day was the defeat of pro-carbon tax politicians across the nation and here in New England.

The most notable carbon tax proponent to seek office in New England was Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House who was challenging moderate incumbent Republican US Sen. Susan Collins. As speaker, Gideon in 2019 supported the imposition of a carbon tax that’s end effect on fuel prices bore a striking similarity to the Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI, a regional effort to place a price on the carbon in vehicle fuels. The carbon tax proposal went nowhere in Maine and Gideon did not embrace it during her run for US Senate.

Collins, however, continually highlighted Gideon’s previous support for the carbon tax proposal with TV and digital ads describing it as a 40 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which would add an “extra $10 for every fill up.” The ads closed by saying “higher fuel taxes hurt Maine workers, our farmers, and our families.” While most pundits felt Gideon was favored to prevail, Collins beat her 51-42, winning 14 of the 16 counties in Maine.

In Vermont, Republican challenger Mike Morgan defeated House speaker Mitzi Johnson and his uncle, Leland Morgan, won the district’s other seat. The Morgans made carbon taxes, including TCI, the signature issue of their campaign.

In another district, Republican challenger Sally Achey knocked out Robin Chesnut-Tangerman. First elected in 2014, Chestnut-Tangerman had been a strong progressive voice and chaired the House Progressive Caucus. TCI was a central issue in the campaign. A third victory came when Art Peterson, a Republican challenger, knocked out 14-year Democrat incumbent Dave Potter. Tom Bruditt, a Republican incumbent in the same district, won re-election. Peterson and Bruditt both ran ads in their local papers against TCI.

Perhaps Vermont’s most notable carbon tax candidate to lose was Lt. Governor David Zuckerman. Zuckerman is a long-hair organic farmer, who once worked for Bernie Sanders and supported a carbon tax. He lost to Republican Gov. Phil Scot, who opposes carbon taxes and carbon-pricing schemes like TCI. Carbon taxes even proved to be a drag in Vermont’s Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, as Senate President Tim Ashe, the lead proponent for TCI in the legislature, lost. Several of Vermont’s biggest TCI’s supporters were defeated on election night.

One of the biggest political shifts within the TCI boundary came in New Hampshire. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu won his reelection with 65 percent of the vote and the GOP flipped both legislative chambers from Democrat to Republican. New Hampshire Republicans saw an increase of 60 legislative seats. Before the election, Democrats proposed legislation that would undercut Gov. Sununu’s withdrawal from TCI. No other state within the TCI compact had a governor so forcefully reject TCI and no other state saw such significant political changes as New Hampshire. Sununu deserves a lot of credit for seeing the policy as flawed and reading his voters so well on the issue.

The last stop in New England was in Massachusetts. Before the election, Gov. Charlie Baker was seen as the biggest proponent of TCI. Since the election, Baker’s tune has shifted, saying COVID-19 has altered many of the assumptions underlying TCI.  In the Massachusetts Legislature, one of the biggest critics of TCI is Republican state Rep. David DeCoste of Norwell. DeCoste is the primary sponsor of a bi-partisan bill that would force the governor to seek legislative approval before entering the state into TCI. He faced an opponent who self-financed his race, while special interest groups spent thousands of dollars to defeat him. DeCoste won reelection in a deep blue state.

In Pennsylvania, which is one of the few if only states within the proposed TCI region that produces energy, the Democratic minority leader lost to a Republican challenger. Frank Dermody, a Democrat who held office for 30 years, lost to Republican challenger Carrie delRosso by a vote of 49-51. The number one issue in Pennsylvania was energy, and it didn’t help Dermody that House Democrats were seen as against an effort in the legislature to reign in the governor’s authority to enter into a similar TCI carbon tax scheme called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Twelve states, including all of New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia, are considering joining TCI. Last December, when TCI released its first and only memo of understanding, New Hampshire withdrew, leaving just 11 states and DC. The losses of such high-profile carbon tax proponents in Vermont, Maine, and Pennsylvania are sure to give those states even further pause before continuing to consider joining TCI in the midst of a pandemic.

Perhaps some left-wing political insiders were right to question the merits of TCI early on. In Vermont, some of the state’s largest union bosses came out against TCI due to its regressive nature and elitist goals. October saw left-wing environmental groups in New Jersey announce their opposition to TCI, with a director of the Climate Justice Alliance noting that, “TCI is just taxing poor people so we can subsidize rich people’s electric cars.”

While it’s unlikely TCI will have enough defectors in the professional environmental lobby, it certainly lost some credibility among the voters this past November. Polls consistently show the environment is a concern shared by many, but voters can support the environment and be against TCI and carbon taxes, as we saw voters consistently demonstrate this past November. While TCI breathes its last breaths, it’s more obvious than ever that these taxes are bad policy and worse politics.

Paul Diego Craney is the spokesperson and board member of Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, and an opponent of the Transportation Climate Initiative.

T buys hybrid buses after assurances on Chelsea

T buys hybrid buses after assurances on Chelsea

Officials say vehicles will go electric through community

THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday unanimously approved an $89 million contract for 45 new Silver Line buses after receiving assurances from staff members that the diesel hybrid vehicles would be able to operate on electric power as they navigate through the environmental justice community of Chelsea.

The 60-foot New Flyer buses, called enhanced electric hybrids, use a diesel generator to both propel the bus forward and to charge a battery that can be tapped to operate the bus in an all-electric mode. The new vehicles, slated to arrive by summer 2022, would replace a fleet of over-the-hill buses purchased between 2004 and 2006.

Several transportation advocates, including one of the T’s own bus drivers, told the control board that it should be buying all-electric buses. Ari Ofsevit, who argued against procuring the new enhanced electric hybrids in a CommonWealth op-ed, said the T shouldn’t be buying a diesel-power bus that he described as “an insidious example of ‘greenwashing.’”

Silver Line buses run routes between South Station and Logan International Airport, Chelsea, and parts of the Seaport. The buses leave South Station via a tunnel that lacks the ventilation needed for a diesel-power bus.

The existing Silver Line buses draw power from overhead wires in the tunnel and then shift to diesel power once they come above ground. The new buses aren’t designed to use the overhead wires, so they will operate in all-electric mode in the tunnel and then shift to their diesel engines when they come above ground. Transit advocates say the new buses will need to operate on diesel power in East Boston and Chelsea, increasing greenhouse gas emissions in those communities.

Bill Wolfgang, the T’s director of vehicle engineering, disagreed. He told the control board that the new buses would need to shift to diesel after emerging from the tunnel but could quickly recharge their batteries and be able to run on all-electric mode for 2 to 2.5 miles through Chelsea before needing to shift to diesel and recharge again. He said the bus would probably need to operate on diesel power on the way to the airport and at the airport to recharge the battery.

Wolfgang said the T purchased one of the buses as part of a previous procurement and has tested it extensively to see how long it can operate in the all-electric mode before needing to recharge. He said the vehicles can run in the all-electric mode 60 percent of the time.

After hearing transit and health advocates question the wisdom of purchasing buses that run on diesel engines, members of the control board peppered T officials about why they weren’t purchasing buses that can operate on electric batteries.

“Battery electric buses that we have tested to date are not able to provide the service that we demand of these Silver Line buses. And so the battery capacity is simply not there,” said Eric Stoothoff, the MBTA’s chief engineer.

Joe Aiello, the chairman of the control board, urged T officials to come up with ways to extend the all-electric mode of the buses, perhaps by locating charging stations at Logan Airport. “It’s not a perfect bus, but it’s much, much better than we have today,” Aiello said of the procurement. “This is a good investment for us.”

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack took a similar approach, saying T staffers should explore additional ways to enhance use of the buses in the all-electric mode. She said the T has little choice but to purchase the new buses now because of the age of the buses being replaced,.

“We need to buy it now. We don’t have a choice. The Silver Line is in terrible shape,” she said.

climate change

Baker vows TCI decision by end of year

Gov says underlying assumptions in flux due to COVID

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER said the underlying assumptions about a proposal to assess a price on the carbon contained in automobile fuels are in flux, but he still intends to make a decision on whether to push ahead with the high-profile regional initiative by the end of the year.

At a State House press conference on Monday, Baker said the emission reductions expected from the regional transportation initiative were based on forecasts about traffic and congestion, most of which no longer apply because of COVID-19. Baker said a re-examination of those forecasts is warranted given the current transportation reality.

“If you pursue a price on carbon associated with transportation, what do you get for that price on carbon in a world that looks a lot different now, and potentially will stay a lot different for the next several years, relative to the one we thought we were living in a couple years ago?” he said.

The so-called transportation climate initiative, or TCI, has been a high priority of Baker’s, both as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to raise funds for investments in transit. As envisioned, 12 northeast and mid-Atlantic states plus the District of Columbia would set a cap on transportation emissions within the region – a cap that would decline over time. To sell gas and diesel fuel in the region, wholesale distributors would have to purchase special allowances auctioned off in amounts equal to the size of the cap. Most analysts assume the cost of the special allowances will be incorporated into the price of gasoline at the pump.

The proceeds of the auction sales would be funneled back to the participating states for use in combatting climate change. Baker in the past has said half of the money would go for transit, specifically electric buses and trains. Baker’s push for TCI has weakened support on Beacon Hill for raising taxes to support transit.

The state’s new transportation reality during COVID was the focus of several presentations on Monday before the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board and the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said statewide traffic volumes, which had been slowly rebounding from the start of COVID in March, have trended downward over the past few weeks. She said all of the state’s highway districts are now below 2019 levels.

The Baker administration released a congestion report in August 2019 that said the state was at a tipping point, where small problems such as crashes or bad weather could quickly mushroom into major traffic tie-ups. Staff members on Monday provided an update on their efforts to deal with congestion, but a lot of the urgency is missing now because traffic volumes are way down.

From October 12 to October 18, the staffers said, daily traffic volumes statewide were down 9 to 21 percent depending on the day. They also said vehicle miles traveled on weekends were higher than vehicle miles traveled on weekdays.

Similarly, transit ridership is trending downward. Pollack said the number of subway passengers fell from an average of 140,000 a day in September and October to 120,000 in November. She said bus passenger levels also declined, dropping from 180,000 in September and October to 160,000 in November.

Those declining transit numbers are creating more headaches for the T as it tries to save money during the current fiscal year to offset a projected $584 million deficit looming in fiscal 2022, which begins July 1.  The T is taking a number of steps to close the size of the deficit, including a series of service cuts that would begin taking effect next year.

Greenwashing the MBTA’s hybrid buses

Greenwashing the MBTA’s hybrid buses

New vehicles will shift pollution burden to Chelsea, East Boston

“At Silver Line Way, you will hear the bus’s engine shut down for just a moment, as it converts to diesel power for the rest of the trip to Logan Airport.”

These words have been repeated on every Silver Line trip since 2004, as buses have transported millions of passengers between South Station, Logan Airport, and, more recently, Chelsea. The builder of these buses, Neoplan, went out of business shortly after the buses were delivered, and the buses are beyond their useful lifespan. The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board plans to vote next week on a proposal to replace these “dual-mode” diesel-electric buses with something cryptically referred to as “enhanced, electric hybrid” buses, often referred to as EEH buses.

This EEH moniker is a particularly insidious example of “greenwashing.” The proposed model is a New Flyer XDE60 model. “X” refers to the model (Xcelsior) and “60” refers to the length of the bus. “DE” describes the drivetrain: diesel-electric hybrid. EEH conveniently leaves out the fossil-fuel origin of all of the power for the bus. In fact, except for some compressed natural gas buses, all but the oldest members of the MBTA’s bus fleet are “hybrid” buses.

Hybrids use a diesel generator to charge a battery and operate an electric drivetrain from the battery, allowing the diesel engine to operate more evenly and to shut down when the bus is stopped or coasting and the batteries are already charged. Such hybrid buses are more expensive to buy than straight-diesel buses, but quieter, cleaner, and cheaper to operate.

But, given that the T has bought 715 diesel-electric hybrids in the past decade, there’s little new or exciting about them, other than the price.  In 2016, the T bought 44 XDE60 buses for $50 million. The contract for the “enhanced” XDE60s is for 45 buses, with a price tag of $89 million. Adjusted for inflation, the EEH buses are 175 percent more expensive, and will be by far the most expensive buses in the fleet, more expensive than even the 60-foot, all-battery buses the T recently tested.

Despite nearly double the cost, the other “enhancement” of an EEH bus is simply a larger battery, allowing the bus to operate for a longer distance in “all-electric” mode. Yet all of the power used to move the bus will still be generated by an on-board diesel generator, and any reduction in fuel use and emissions will be minimal compared with an existing hybrid. The extended all-electric mode will be used in the Silver Line tunnel, which does not have the ventilation needed to run diesel buses. While the current fleet is powered, in part, by overhead electric wires, the new fleet will be run entirely by diesel engines. This means that, to charge the batteries, the buses will have to run the diesel engine outside of the tunnel, not just to provide propulsion for the bus, but also to charge the batteries for the in-tunnel travel.

Charging the batteries while providing propulsion will lead to higher transit emissions in these areas than a non-enhanced hybrid bus. There will be no change to emissions in the Silver Line tunnel itself, but there will be increased emissions in East Boston and Chelsea, areas which already have some of the worst air pollution—and COVID-19 vulnerability—in the region. Averaged across the three Silver Line routes which use the Seaport tunnel, generating power for use in the tunnel will increase the use of the diesel engines elsewhere by approximately 65 percent. This shifts pollution from the Seaport, one of the whitest communities in the region, to East Boston and Chelsea, where most residents are people of color. It is analogous to siting a new, fossil fuel power plant in Chelsea to serve the electricity needs in the Seaport.

This is hardly an equitable, or acceptable, solution. The burden of pollution for these transit vehicles will fall upon some of the most disadvantaged areas in the Commonwealth. While the proposed EEH buses may be cleaner than the current 2004-era diesel buses (now the oldest buses in the MBTA fleet), there are far better alternatives, ones which can use the existing electrification infrastructure in South Boston to provide zero-emissions transit in East Boston and Chelsea.

Rather than burdening East Boston and Chelsea with generating power for service in the Seaport, buses with batteries on-board could charge off the overhead wire in the Seaport Tunnel and then operate the rest of the route emission-free. (The “burden” of power generation will fall on the MBTA’s engineering and infrastructure department to maintain overhead wire, which it has done since the first horsecars were electrified 132 years ago.) This power is generated off-site, and as the regional power system uses more wind, solar, hydro, and other zero-emissions power, these buses will become even greener. With the wires already in place, there will be no need for the T to invest millions of dollars in new charging infrastructure. Most importantly, it will not saddle East Boston and Chelsea with increased emissions.

These buses are already widely available. Dayton, Ohio, which has an extensive trolleybus network and an aging fleet, faced a similar decision in 2013. It tested two versions of a “next-generation” trolleybus. One, like the MBTA’s current Silver Line fleet, had a diesel engine for off-wire travel. The other had a battery. After three years of extensive testing, the agency chose the battery version for its next-generation trolleybus fleet. The bus charges while operating under the wires, and has a range of 15 miles on battery power off-wire. (This battery is just 10 percent the size of a fully battery-electric bus.)

This is nearly twice the off-wire distance of the longest Silver Line Route—the SL3 to Chelsea—meaning that a fleet of these “in-motion charging” buses could serve the SL1, SL2, SL3 and eventual extensions, using the existing overhead wire to charge. Rather than increasing emissions from these buses in Chelsea and East Boston, it would reduce them—to zero. These buses cost Dayton $1.2 million each for 40-foot buses; 60-foot buses are typically 50 percent more expensive. This would put the cost of a battery-trolleybus hybrid fleet, adjusted to 2020 costs, at $87 million, allowing the T to run zero-emission buses for less than the cost of the EEH fleet.

The MBTA’s engineering department appears not to have considered this option. It should. Instead, it denigrates overhead wire as “burdensome” to maintain and operate. Most of its complaints regard issues operating buses when there are problems with the power system, yet this is easily solved since every trolleybus used today has off-wire capability. Larger trolleybus fleets in San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver have smaller batteries than the Dayton fleet, but can still operate several miles off of the overhead wire.

The overhead wire in the Silver Line tunnel (and a separate system in Cambridge, Watertown, and Belmont) should be viewed by the MBTA as an asset, not a burden. It provides the T an opportunity to run zero-emission buses in the near future using existing infrastructure, since all-battery buses require expensive charging infrastructure and, as recent experience showed, are not a fully-mature product. Rather than burdening environmental justice communities with additional pollution, the T should shift this burden to its engineering and maintenance departments, and the Fiscal and Management Control Board should instruct the T’s engineering department to replace the Silver Line fleet with a true zero-emission bus, not a greenwashed bus which locks us into fossil fuels for decades to come.

Ari Ofsevit is Boston program senior associate at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and a board member of TransitMatters.