Tracking Transportation

Tracking Transportation

Keeping track of transportation

Baker defends fare hike amid commuting chaos

Even with increase, governor says T price would be reasonable

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

AMIDST ANOTHER DAY OF CHAOTIC COMMUTES for public transit riders, Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday delivered a forceful defense of proposed MBTA fare hikes as he tried to empathize with the frustration of the riders struggling to navigate through cancelled commuter trains and overcrowded T cars.

Amtrak, which operates the rails that serve commuter train lines in and out of Boston’s South Station, early Thursday lost electronic control of signals and switches that allow trains to enter and exit the transit hub.

Delays and cancellations persisted into the late afternoon and evening as state officials urged riders to use the MBTA to access inner city destinations or make their way to commuter rail stations away from South Station. Amtrak could not guarantee that the problems would be fixed by Friday morning’s commute, according to state offcials.

“Yeah, I’ve been ready to strangle somebody all day. I’m just waiting for somebody who looks like they deserve to be strangled,” Baker said during an afternoon WGBH radio appearance, saying, “Believe me I feel the frustration that people feel with respect to the way the T was disrupted this morning.”

The congestion caused by commuter rail problems was exacerbated by a disabled Red Line train, another in a string of issues with faulty signals and broken-down trains that has further eroded public confidence in the MBTA.

Asked how he could justify raising fares on riders who frequently find MBTA service unreliable, Baker said, “That’s exactly why we should.”

MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board officials are weighing fare hikes of roughly 6 percent to 10 percent, which could increase the cost of a single ride to $2.25 and of a monthly pass to $84.

“You compare this to the New York, Philadelphia, Chicago systems, we will still be far less expensive to the riders than all three of those systems,” Baker said. “We can talk all day about what the right level is with respect to this, but we still are going to be a great deal relative to what people pay to ride other major transit systems in the U.S.”

Baker said the MBTA has suffered from a lack “strategic investment in the core system” for years, but noted how the metropolitan Boston rail system functioned well during the recent cold snap that he said could have been as problematic for an aging transit system as a major snow storm. He called the Amtrak signal problems “just another shot from left field.”

After the morning commute, the T bolstered its off-peak service between the morning and evening rush hours by adding two 6-car trains on both the Red and Orange Lines to meet increased rider demand, according to a T spokesman.

After Amtrak notified the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that the South Station signal tower would not be fixed in time for the evening commute, the MBTA rushed to post new schedules for trains that would depart from alternative stations, including JFK/UMass, Back Bay, Forest Hills, Quincy Center and Braintree.

The only trains leaving South Station on Thursday evening were those servicing the Providence/Attleboro and Stoughton lines, forcing potentially thousands of commuter rail riders to join T riders on the Red and Orange lines.

Amtrak also informed MassDOT that it was unable to determine whether the switching issues would be resolved by Friday morning’s commute, prompting state officials to urge riders to check MBTA.com for schedule updates.

US Rep. James McGovern, who was scheduled to ride the commuter rail from Worcester to South Station on Friday to highlight a permanent increase in the commuter tax benefit for mass transit riders, had to postpone his events in light of the rail issues.

Baker, during his radio appearance, also defended the MBTA’s impending move to end the late-night service pilot program in March even as Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has signaled steps he plans to take to make the city less of an early-to-bed town.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg has also urged caution as the MBTA considers ending late-night service, pointing to the importance of better serving those who work late or overnight shifts and millennials looking for a more vibrant night-life. Late-night service extends the hours of operation on the T by 90 minutes on Friday and Saturday nights.

“It has very, very low ridership and it’s hugely expensive to operate,” Baker said. “That model is not the answer to whatever late night service we should provide should like. That is not it.”

Baker said he has his own ideas about a new late-night model, but wants to hear other suggestions as well. “We’ll share them with you at some point,” Baker told the Boston Public Radio hosts.

Keolis loses $29.3m in first year

Keolis loses $29.3m in first year

French parent company is covering commuter rail losses

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

The international firm that runs commuter rail trains in and out of Boston racked up $29.3 million in losses over the first year of its long-term contract, requiring its French parent company to subsidize its Massachusetts operations.

According to state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, Keolis Commuter Services likely failed to fully account for the cost of providing service to the region. “My understanding is the primary reason is that Keolis failed to understand the full extent of the costs associated with meeting their contractual obligations,” Pollack said. “My sense is that it has been a more costly endeavor than Keolis assumed going into it.”

Keolis won the contract in January 2014 with a bid that would pay the company $2.69 billion for the first eight years with an option to extend an additional four years for a total cost not to exceed $4.26 billion. The company beat out the incumbent commuter rail operator, which proposed a contract $184 million more expensive for the first eight years and potentially $254 million pricier over 12 years.

The former system operator, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, claimed the T, under the oversight of Gov. Deval Patrick at the time, prized price above all else while MBCR would have provided the best value.

The general manager of Keolis Commuter Services, a joint venture of Keolis Rail Services America and the French national railway known as SNCF, declined to say what steps Keolis might take to start making a profit on the contract that began July 2014.

“I’m not here to talk about the financial statement,” General Manager Gerald Francis said at a recent hearing on MBTA fare hikes and commuter rail schedule changes in Lynn. Francis, who took over as general manager months after Keolis won the contract, said, “We’re here to operate and maintain the system.”

The commuter rail offers diesel rail service to more than 130 stations on more than 664 miles of track, providing 33.5 million trips in the first year of the Keolis contract, according to MBTA data.

As Keolis has racked up losses, its financial backers have stepped in to fill the void, according to Pollack.

“The parent company has been willing to infuse resources into Keolis Commuter Services to ensure that they’re meeting their contractual requirements in Boston and improving their on-time performance,” Pollack said.

Pollack said she believes SNCF is assisting Keolis with covering its contract losses to date. Francis declined to answer whether the riders of the French national railway are aware of the subsidy for commuter rail in Boston.

The parent company of Keolis North America is a transportation giant in its own right, boasting more than 3 billion passengers in 2014 and about 60,000 employees, the majority of them in France.

The company’s venture moving commuters around eastern Massachusetts represents its biggest railroad business in the United States.

“I don’t believe that in the long-term Keolis wants to lose money on this contract, but they have made it clear that it is important for them to succeed in their first North American operating contract in order to expand on the continent,” Pollack said.

In a statement, Keolis spokesman Mac Daniel said “fixing the system’s problems has taken longer and proved far more costly than anyone could have predicted.” He added that the company is “exploring a range of strategies and approaches that will enable us to operate more efficiently, while continuing to provide our passengers with an outstanding commuter rail experience over the life of the contract.

“SNCF is our largest shareholder and is providing financial resources that are enabling us to make the investments and improvements that will bring the contract to profitability over time,” Daniel said.

The MBTA has worked with Keolis, reinvesting fines for subpar service into cleaning trains and collecting fares. Fare collection is the responsibility of Keolis though fare revenues go into MBTA coffers.

Asked whether the T’s “fixed-cost” contract with Keolis would be adjusted to make it more favorable for the private vendor, Pollack said any contract changes would need to improve service.

“For the MBTA and for [the Department of Transportation], the first issue is making sure Keolis is performing for our customers, and if there’s going to be a conversation about changing the contractual relationship, that conversation needs to start from a position of Keolis doing what we need them to do in terms of performance,” Pollack said. “My general sense is a lot of things have been working better but not everything is fixed and we will probably need another performance improvement plan to bring us to the end of Keolis’s second year under the contract to be completely sure that they’re performing up to the contractual obligations.”

The second year of the contract ends this June.

Jim O’Leary, the chairman of the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, said the contract essentially mandated a 4 percent profit for the vendor and he faulted Keolis for its assessment of the cost of running the trains in Boston.

“I think any bidders, particularly on a contract as large as this, have an obligation to do their own due diligence,” O’Leary said. “The French national railroad, I guess, as long as they want to continue to subsidize the commuter rail service in Boston, they’ll continue through the term of the contract.”

Asserting that the vendors were “supposed to be able to stand on your own two feet,” and questioning how long Keolis’s parent company would be willing to shore up its losses, O’Leary said the hypothetical adjusting of the contract to make it more favorable to Keolis “undercuts the integrity of the process.”

MBCR, a partnership of Veolia Transportation, Bombardier, and O’Leary’s company Alternate Concepts, took over the service from Amtrak in 2003. The corporation exists now only in accordance with its old contract with the T, according to a spokesman.

Asked if he would be interested in bidding on Boston’s commuter rail contract at some future time, O’Leary said, “That’s the business we’re in.”

The wars at the T have to stop

The wars at the T have to stop

Put riders first with reform and revenue

THE CARMEN’S UNION NEEDS A LITTLE HELP with public relations. When the MBTA pitches a softball and you not only swing and miss but also hit the batboy in the face, you need to think about whether you need some help connecting the bat to the ball.

This is pretty much what happened recently when a WCVB-TV report revealed that current antiquated scheduling practices result in some T workers being “paid to stay home.” The Pioneer Institute, as it is wont to do, cried “scandal!” and another twist of the knife undermined public confidence in the T. This mind-numbing story of wasteful spending was, by the T’s own admission, a consequence of how easy it is to game the outdated mid-20th-century, paper-based scheduling system. The Carmen’s Union had the chance to support a sensible solution, and maybe even make a pitch for investment toward the T’s $7+ billion state-of-good-repair gap, but with eyes glazed they swung and missed, basically saying that they would work with the T to adopt an electronic scheduling system if the T agreed to consider a four-day work week. This posture redefined the term tone-deaf.

What are they thinking?

I could ask the same question of those who have continued a relentless drumbeat of attacks on MBTA workers. What are they thinking? Sure, beating up on state employees and public sector unions is a tried and true tactic of the “let’s cut taxes and reduce government” crowd. It’s worked like a charm in Wisconsin. But this rhetoric has its poisonous side, as it drives public anger and cynicism about government and the public sector, and those attitudes once set in stone are hard to reverse. Why alienate the very public who you want – and need – to support revenue programs that are required to solve for a $7 billion-plus funding gap that cannot be fully closed without net new revenue?

Rather than call for four-day work weeks, or regularly beat up on MBTA workers, all sides ought to be building a broad consensus to support a strategic, fair, and forward-looking reform and revenue program for the T. We’ve tried reform before revenue and reform without revenue, and they don’t work. What we ought to try is reform with revenue – and not just revenue at the margins, but the kind of robust revenue that will fix the T’s aging systems, enable strategic expansion projects, and establish an appropriate level of modal equity. In short, we should be building a consensus that supports both meaningful change and meaningful new revenue. We had an extraordinary opportunity moment to do this following last winter’s meltdown, but we failed to leverage it.

Because a broad consensus has not been built, we face a deluge of divisiveness: the divisive discussion of a fare increase that is not warranted by service improvements, and that exacerbates social and modal inequity; the divisive politics that says you can never raise the gas tax but you can always raise T fares; the divisive drip, drip, drip of information that cherry-picks issues to make T workers and unions look bad (and, yes, there’s lots of raw material to keep that going for a while). The result: T riders feel angry because they are once again being asked to pay more for the same unimproved service, and the general public probably wonders why they should support any large-scale program to modernize the T.

How about tearing up the old playbook – the one that relies upon ideological stubbornness on the part of both labor and management – with a collaborative approach that places T riders first. T riders who still wait in the rain at Mattapan Square because there isn’t an adequate shelter for the 28 bus, T riders who cannot get on a Red Line train or Silver Line bus because it is already packed like a sardine can when it arrives at their station, T riders who walk into an Orange Line station and are greeted by a sign announcing that the next train arrives in 20+ minutes, T riders who have to walk from Bowdoin Station to MGH with their child or elderly parent in tow because the Red and Blue lines do not connect – these riders are not served by the old playbook, by the ancient rivalries and ideologies, by the gamesmanship that feels satisfied when it wins the day in the Herald or Globe, losing sight of the reality that such victories are empty of meaning for the people they ought to be serving. Real reform would mean rejecting these old ways of doing business and building in their stead a broad consensus to support meaningful change.

A broad consensus would require a measure of equanimity and a commitment to innovation and collaboration that could be a national model for developing thoughtful and meaningful public policy. The pathway to rebuilding and modernizing the MBTA isn’t paved by good intentions, ancient rivalries, or stubborn ideologies. Good intentions mean nothing unless backed up by effective actions; ancient rivalries are self-indulgent expenditures of time and energy; and stubborn ideologies only push people apart, magnifying the fractious debate and preventing consensus. The pathway forward must be informed by facts, nurtured by good faith, and illuminated by innovation.

Facts are those stubborn things that many people try to avoid when they want to win the day with an emotional argument. Facts must inform how we move forward with rejuvenating the T, and we know that the largest fact that must be addressed, the fact that hangs in the air like a cloud over all else, is the gap of over $7 billion in state-of-good-repair funding. This enormous funding gap ought to be addressed as a top priority, with a plan that raises sufficient net new revenue over a relatively short period of time. An effective plan would not stop at simply raising the necessary revenue, but would include adopting mobility policies that are responsive to the shifting paradigms and demographics of our city and region.

Good faith is required in order to successfully accomplish any large and potentially groundbreaking effort. Old ways of thinking, protection of long held sinecures, adherence to long-held ideologies: these are all the enemies of good faith, and leaders on both sides must leave them at the door. There is clearly an urgent need to reform the T’s administrative and management structure, including ending the current binding arbitration policy that incentivizes bad attitudes and poor judgment. Changes of this magnitude require leaders on both sides who can emulate the statesmen portrayed in John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage: people who are willing and able to put their personal ambitions aside, and accept a measure of personal risk, in order to achieve something lasting and important. Do such people exist any more?

Finally, there must be openness to innovation. The T’s recent re-hiring of David Block-Schachter, a talented and astute MIT trained technologist, is a strong step in the right direction. He and others should be given a large measure of leeway in thinking about and acting upon ways to harness the power of innovation to improve the T rider’s experience and the T’s administrative and management systems. But innovation should not be confined to adoption of new technologies. It should extend to how we think about service delivery, project management, and labor/management relationships. An innovation culture is about much more than adoption of the next new smartphone app – it is a commitment to thinking and acting outside the box in order to improve service, enhance resilience, and contain costs. Change does not have to come at the expense of unions or the workers they represent, but it does have to come at the expense of antiquated ways of managing and doing business.

We ought to be in this together. T riders, T union officials, T employees, and T managers should all be pulling on the rope in the same direction. Our common, shared objective should be building a modern reliable public transportation system that is responsive to our needs and worthy of our city and region. It shouldn’t have to be this hard.

James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.

Governor proposes $200 million in roads funding

Governor proposes $200 million in roads funding

State would need to find room under debt ceiling

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THREE DAYS AFTER saying he would file a multiyear local road funding bill, Gov. Charlie Baker submitted a one-year, $200 million borrowing bill that includes $50 million for a five-year small bridge program.

With the state on track to hit its debt limit of $21.735 billion in fiscal 2017, the administration also proposed exempting bonds for the state’s Rail Enhancement Program from the state debt ceiling.

Local officials this week asked Baker to support a local road funding bill, known as Chapter 90, that extends multiple years at $300 million annually.

During his 2014 campaign, Baker said one of his first actions as governor would be to release $100 million in Chapter 90 money authorized by the Legislature but held back by the Patrick administration, which claimed there was not enough revenue to support the borrowing. The $100 million was released by the incoming Baker administration, padding $200 million that had been released in 2014.

The $200 million in 2016 Chapter 90 funds requested by Baker matches the funding level he sought in his 2015 Chapter 90 funding bill.

The governor seemed poised to file a multiyear road funding bill earlier in the week, and though the governor said local road funding would remain level for three years the bill he filed Friday was for one year.

“We made pretty clear in our filing letter that we’re going to file a $200 million bill every year for the next three years, and it’s my view that that’s something that cities and towns can count on,” Baker told reporters Friday when asked what had changed since Tuesday. The governor indicated his stated intention to annually file Chapter 90 bills of the same amount would satisfy the request for a multiyear bill.

Rep. William Straus, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the governor chose the right amount of Chapter 90 money and agreed with his decision against filing a multiyear bill.

“I think the governor was right to only file a one-year bill,” Straus told the News Service. He said, “I think the 200 million number is realistic given the amount of money that is currently available…. People had hoped we could be at $300 million levels but at present the revenues that can be dedicated to transportation that are available aren’t what everyone had hoped for.”

Straus said if the bill is referred to his committee, as it has been historically, it is prepared to hold a hearing quickly.

Earlier in the week, Baker said he would file a multiyear bill.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of appetite in the Legislature to do Chapter 90 on a multi-year basis, but given the commentary we heard from the [Local Government Advisory Commission] folks we’ll file it as a multi-year and we’ll advocate for it,” Baker said Tuesday after meeting with local officials.

With the debt ceiling starting to come in to view, the governor’s Chapter 90 bill also exempts all borrowing for the Rail Enhancement Program from the state’s debt limit. Massachusetts had been on track to hit the $21.735 billion ceiling in Fiscal Year 2017 — the first time since the limit was established in 1989 that it would be reached.

Outstanding debt in the rail program totals $450 million, according to the Office of Administration and Finance. The bonds issued for the program are special obligation bonds backed by dedicated revenue from the gas tax and Registry of Motor Vehicle fees, the administration said.

The state cannot issue debt in excess of the statutory debt limit, and hitting that ceiling would prevent the state from issuing certain types of bonds to pay for large-scale capital projects, therefore slowing spending on things such as infrastructure improvements.

Administration and Finance and Treasury officials have pointed to the 2014 authorization of the Rail Enhancement Program — $1.86 billion in bonding through 2020 to finance the Green Line Extension project, the purchase of new Red and Orange Line trains, the Knowledge Corridor rail extension, South Station improvements, and the South Coast commuter rail extension — as a main reason the state is fast approaching its debt ceiling.

The Rail Enhancement Program, administration officials and the chairman of the House Bonding Committee Rep. Antonio Cabral said, was structured almost identically to the Accelerated Bridge Program but borrowing for the bridge program was not counted against the debt ceiling.

Baker, in a letter accompanying his bill, said the bill makes “technical corrections” to “make the Rail Enhancement Program consistent with the Accelerated Bridge Program, a similarly designed authorization with an identical provision.”

After the News Service reported in December that Massachusetts appeared likely to hit the debt ceiling, Baker said the issue “falls into the category of something we need to pay a lot of attention to and process with the rating agencies and the Legislature and others as we move forward.”

Braintree Mayor Joe Sullivan praised Baker’s overall attention to cities and towns and said the $200 million bill is “a good start.”

“In terms of the $200 million, we always wish it was more. We will continue to advocate,” Sullivan said. Sullivan said the early filing of the Chapter 90 bill – which had been delayed in recent years – helps prepare municipalities for the start of construction season.

Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoff Beckwith said the Chapter 90 bill needs to be made law by April 1 for construction season to start on time and he said he would make the case to lawmakers that local governments need “at least $300 million” to maintain 30,000 miles of roads. Beckwith said he would also push for a multiyear bill.

Melrose Mayor Robert Dolan told the News Service he wanted to review the legislation but Baker’s move to release $100 million in road money right after he took office gave him a “track record” of helping cities and towns. Dolan said Melrose faces similar fiscal constraints to the state.

“I have 10 people that want their street redone and I can do two,” Dolan said.

The bill also includes $750 million for federal highway projects, and the Baker administration said the state would be responsible for $135 million of that spending.

The bridge funding will support about 1,300 bridges on local roads across spans between 10 and 20 feet, according to the administration.

Baker’s road-funding bill would also rework the state’s “complete streets” grant program that encourages roadways friendly to bikes, pedestrians, transit and freight. The bill would remove some specific statutory requirements and give the Massachusetts Department of Transportation the ability to adopt criteria.

The bill also makes reference to purchase of land in Needham along Route 128 for a buffer zone with the highway, as well as port improvements, which were included in an earlier bill.

Colin A. Young contributed reporting

T board cautious on privatization

T board cautious on privatization

‘If we’re going to do it, we need to do it right’

THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD on Wednesday cautiously began exploring the privatization of some of the agency’s non-core services, prompting a forceful response from union officials who emphasized the dramatic impact these efforts could have on long-time T employees and their families.

Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator, said a request for information from private companies yielded 13 responses suggesting ways the agency could farm work out to private firms and in the process reduce costs, improve customer service, and provide more flexibility. Shortsleeve identified several functions that could be privatized, including fare collection and cash handling, marketing and retail services, and oversight of employee leaves. He said the T could also streamline its $7 million in telecom contracts and hire civilians to handle the dispatch system for transit police, freeing up cops to do police work.

Shortsleeve estimated 250 T employees currently work in these areas, with 165 in fare collection and money handling operations. He said many of the employees displaced through privatization could be transferred to the T’s core operations, including driving buses or subways, doing electrical work on the transit system, or overseeing the private contracts.

But several members of the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board urged Shortsleeve to move cautiously.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, said he worried the agency lacked the internal capacity to handle all these privatization initiatives at the same time. He said outside consultants may be needed to negotiate contracts in a way that protects the T’s interests. “We have to get these contracts right,” Aiello said.

Steven Poftak, another board member, said the MBTA has had difficulty in the past overseeing private contractors. He said he wanted T officials to oversee any privatization contracts, and Aiello said T workers may need additional training to perform that task.

Board member Brian Lang wanted to know how much fare revenue is currently being lost because fare machines are not working properly. He said the information would be helpful in determining whether a private contractor would improve revenue collection. “This is a big step and, if we’re going to do it, we need to do it right,” Lang said.

Shortsleeve said his staff is having difficult determining the downtime of fare machines, largely because they are dealing with two software platforms that don’t communicate. “I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is to get that information,” he said.

Gov. Charlie Baker in this year’s budget won a three-year reprieve for T officials from the so-called Pacheco law, which regulates how state agencies can privatize state services. “We want to fix the T,” Baker said at a legislative hearing on his proposal. “I do not want to privatize the T. I do not want to slash services. I do not want to lay off hundreds of employees.”

Union officials testified on the privatization efforts, but they were very measured in their comments. Instead of attacking the governor or T officials, as they have in the past, the union officials made the case that the privatization initiatives would have a major impact on the lives of long-time T employees and their families.

James O’Brien, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, which represents 77 of the 165 people currently working in the T’s money room or in automated fare collection services, urged officials to make sure any savings promised by private companies are real.  He also said he believed the work is best handled by public employees who can be held accountable for their work.

But his primary message was that privatization efforts will disrupt the lives of T employees. “Behind every employee is a family, a home, and a story,” he said.

Antrynette Hobbs, an 18-year T employee who currently works in the money room, said she likes her job and would probably have to go back to driving buses if her work was privatized. “I wanted to put a face to a job for you,” she told the T oversight board.

Samantha Mills, a technician who works in automated fare collection, said she has no “fallback rights” to a different job at the T if her existing job is privatized. “By you taking me out of this job, you’re going to impact my life,” she said.

Louis Antonellis, president of IBEW Local 103, said he represents 50 electricians who work in automated fare collection. He said they undergo drug tests and criminal background checks and must be licensed. He said 31 percent of them are minorities. “That’s not something you’ll get with privatization,” he said.

T oversight chief favors fare hike

T oversight chief favors fare hike

Light turnout so far at public hearings

THE CHAIRMAN OF THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD said on Wednesday that he believes the underlying arguments for a fare increase remain valid. He made his comment after hearing a top agency official say the two fare hike proposals the T is considering are attracting a light turnout so far at public hearings.

Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator, told the agency’s oversight board that the 12 public meetings on the proposed fare increases and commuter rail schedules, to date, have drawn a median attendance of 20 people per meeting. The highest attendance was 150 people at a meeting in Boston and the low was 10 in Newton, he said.

Shortsleeve said 5,400 people have used the T’s website to calculate what impact the proposed fare hikes would be on them, and 1,800 of those people went on to post public comments on the website.

Two more hearings on the fare hikes will be held in Roxbury and Weymouth before the public comment period ends Friday. A vote on whether to increase fares and by how much is currently scheduled for March 7.

Shortsleeve promised a more extensive report on the feedback from the public hearings at a future meeting, but indicated nearly all of the comments so far at the hearings and posted online were opposed to the fare hikes. He said the T is hearing concerns about service quality, employee compensation, budget management, affordability and equity, fare evasion, and student pricing.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, indicated he is comfortable with hiking fares. “The underlying reasons for the fare increase remain valid in my mind,” he said.

The T oversight board is taking comment on two fare proposals, but has said it may not increase fares at all or blend the two proposals in some fashion. The proposals would boost base fares by either 5 percent or 10 percent, while hiking the price of many popular T passes by greater amounts.  For example, the popular LinkPass, which offers unlimited bus and subway travel, would go from $75 a month to either $82.50 (an increase of 10 percent) or $84.50 (a 12.7 percent increase).

Baker seeks to redevelop state parcel

Baker seeks to redevelop state parcel

Works with Walsh on parcel near Chinatown

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

PLANNING TO MOVE STATE HIGHWAY OFFICES from their perch above Boston’s Big Dig, city and state officials want to develop a large area at the edge of Chinatown, they announced Tuesday.

The move is a high-profile example of an effort by Gov. Charlie Baker to convert state-owned land into housing and economic development opportunities. The buildings sit on 5.5 acres at 185 Kneeland Street, and officials say the site offers the potential for up to 1.5 to 2 million square feet of redevelopment.

A steam plant and highway offices overlooking the Southeast Expressway could make way for a mixed-use development at the edge of Boston’s Chinatown.

The space overlooking Interstate 93 houses the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s District Six highway offices as well as a Veolia North America steam plant. The plant will remain, but is likely to occupy a much smaller footprint. Officials will need to find a new spot with highway access for the transportation offices, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.

A public input session is planned at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 in the 1st Floor Conference Room at 185 Kneeland Street.

Pollack said neighborhood meetings will shape development of bid documents, and officials are “very committed” to including housing in what could be a mixed-use development.

“There’s a lot of potential in this area to bring housing opportunities, economic, closer to transit,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, touting his administration’s plans for 53,000 new units of housing built in the city over the next 15 years.

Department of Neighborhood Development Chief Sheila Dillon said 30,000 units are somewhere in the pipeline and the city’s competitive, expensive housing market is “starting to see some relief.”

“There are a lot of things you can do with 2 million square feet, some of which will include an affordable housing piece,” Baker said. He also said, “The land won’t be what it would normally be under a traditional buy.”

According to Boston assessing records, the two parcels owned by the state and Veolia are worth a total of about $30.3 million.

Development of the lucrative site, which is walking distance to South Station, Chinatown, the Leather District, and Ink Block, is of a piece with Baker’s goal of converting more modest state-owned lots (that he has often described as trash strewn and neglected) into development opportunities.

“There are a bunch of those in the city of Boston and, truthfully, it makes me crazy when I look out and see those parcels that could be adding so much to their community and aren’t doing anything,” said Baker.

The governor recalled visits with Chrystal Kornegay, now the undersecretary of Housing and Community Development, at Urban Edge in Roxbury. Noticing a trash-filled lot near the office, Baker asked Kornegay “‘What’s the deal with this one?’ and she said, ‘That’s a state-owned parcel. It’s looked like that for as long as I can remember. Nobody’s ever done anything with it.'”

Pollack said in addition to relocating the Boston area highway office, the administration is considering relocating a backup highway facility in South Boston, and proceeds from the real estate deal would be used for the relocation. “The first level question is repayment of any obligations we would have to Federal Highway” stemming from the Big Dig, she said.

The parcel that hosts the state transportation offices has long been the subject of speculation over a potential sale, including as part of the state’s deliberations over financing the Big Dig.

A 10% fare hike for the T is too much

Anything above 5% is a social inequity

AS THE BITTER COLD has returned to the streets of Boston, I have been driven into the warmth of the T more than once on my bike commute home from the hospital. The scene there is familiar – workers weary at the end of the day, parents with children swaddled in snow pants, young adults making their way. The English language is wrapped into many other languages, many of which I now recognize from my 11 years working at Boston Medical Center, New England’s largest safety net hospital.

The MBTA, though rife with many concerns about functionality over the past year, has long served as a window into the population of Boston. As such, it is a great equalizer. According to estimates, the typical weekday ridership of the T is 1.3 million.  On weekends and holidays it is around 500,000. These numbers make the Boston T the fifth-busiest transit agency in the nation. My patients are among these riders, using the rail lines carved through the city as their way of getting to one of many jobs, numerous appointments, and children’s schools.

This means of commuting may soon become financially untenable to some of Boston’s T riders. On January 4 this year, the governor’s Fiscal and Management Control Board released two possible scenarios for fare increases to go into effect in July 2016. One raises fares by nearly 7 percent; the other is more radical, increasing fares by 10 percent. This will not be the first time the MBTA has increased its fares recently. In fact, since 2000 the MBTA has increased fares five times: in 2000, 2004, 2007, 2012 and 2014. Fares have increased 6.1 percent per year on average between 2000 and 2014, which is significantly more than inflation.

The proposal for fare increases comes from a seemingly justifiable position: the MBTA is looking to address an estimated $242 million deficit in the next year. However, critics of the fare hikes, such as the Conservation Law Foundation, have correctly pointed out that a system-wide average fare increase of over 5 percent is not needed to balance the MBTA’s FY2017 operating budget. This deficit has already been closed with additional state assistance (held constant from last year at $187 million) coupled with cost reductions identified by the MBTA (such as the elimination of non-essential spending increases and reductions in unnecessary materials, services, and supplies), which will add at least another $55 million.

As a resident of Boston, I deeply want the T to become solvent and a dependable source of timely transport. However, as a physician who cares for individuals whose incomes are often 200 percent below the poverty line, I am extremely concerned what this hike in fares will do to the lives and well-being of many residents of Boston. Just recently, a patient of mine – a young woman who is already a mother of four and a grandmother – was late to her appointment. Knowing her medical and psychological issues were complex and urgent, I folded her into my schedule and she began the visit crying, stating that one of the reasons she was late is that she could not find the fare to travel across the city. The proposed increases may mean that she will become one of many who no longer are able to easily access needed appointments, subjecting her to potential poorer health outcomes and increased social isolation.

I am thus joining others in imploring the governor to look for different means than a passenger fare increase of up to 10 percent to bridge any gap in the MBTA’s funding. Asking for a greater than 5 percent fare hike every other year (a predictable and modest increase that people can budget for) from riders is a social inequity. What is more, we need to start thinking about transportation more holistically: the well-being of our T system can be fed, in part, by revenue sources such as higher taxes on individual drivers.  State and federal gas taxes are at an all-time low and our bridge and tunnel tolls are the lowest compared to other large metropolitan areas. Bringing our T system back to health by means outside of radical fare hikes also means that, as a city, we can recommit to bringing people to appointments, schools, and groceries safely and with a sense of true equity.

Dr. Katherine Gergen Barnett is the vice chair of primary care innovation and transformation at the Boston University Medical Center’s Department of Family Medicine.

All aboard

All aboard

How crowded is too crowded for MBTA passengers?

WHEN IS ENOUGH enough when it comes to crowded trains? For about 20 percent of those who ride the MBTA, apparently there is nothing that will stop them from trying to squeeze onto a packed subway car.

As transit officials try to come up with some metrics to increase rider satisfaction, focusing more on customers’ needs and less on the agency’s shortcomings, the MBTA has begun canvassing riders and hosting focus groups to find out what is important. Personal space, it seems, is one of those.

Laurel Paget-Seekins, director of strategic initiatives in the T’s Office of Performance Management and Innovation, made a presentation to the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday showing various points at which riders said they’d be uncomfortable getting on a crowded train and when they just wouldn’t even try.

The T received about 6,000 responses to an online survey that showed six different stages of crowding on a train and asked riders to gauge their comfort level. Meanwhile, with a number of small focus groups, the T marked off a square meter on the floor using tape and asked people to step into the marked area until they were no longer willing to do so.

The respondents were given three choices with the assumptions they didn’t know when the next train was coming but they weren’t running late: Comfortable, uncomfortable but would board anyway, and would not board.

According to the results, nearly everyone would be comfortable boarding a train holding up to 1 person per square meter. But after that, the tension escalates. Nearly 30 percent said they’d be uncomfortable with an average of 1.06 people per square meter while about 9 percent said they wouldn’t board at that level of crowding.

MBTA chart showing several scenarios of crowded trains in which riders were asked to give their opinions. PPSM stands for "passengers per square meter."

MBTA chart showing several scenarios of crowded trains in which riders were asked to give their opinions. PPSM stands for “passengers per square meter.”

More than 80 percent said they would be uncomfortable if there was an average of 1.67 people in the square meter, and that rose to nearly 100 percent at each level after that, up to 6.29 people crammed into a 40-inch-by-40-inch square. But that wouldn’t necessarily stop them from getting on.

While 98 percent of those surveyed said they’d be uncomfortable being one of three people in that square meter, only about one-third said they would not try to board. When the sardine quotient hits more than 6 per square meter, most people finally say enough and more than 80 percent would not try to board.

A determined 18 percent of respondents said nothing would stop them from trying to get on.

More thoughts on the Seaport District

More thoughts on the Seaport District

Relieving congestion by adding capacity doesn’t work

MY RECENT THOUGHT PIECE on how to address the growing mobility mess in the Seaport/Innovation/Fort Point Channel District (the District) triggered a fair amount of reaction, and prompted me to consider adding these additional thoughts to what has become a fairly robust civic debate.  Much of that debate has been centered on the future of the Northern Avenue Bridge and the call of many (including myself) to limit use of a rebuilt bridge to cyclists and pedestrians.

You don’t have to be a traffic engineer (I am not) to understand that allowing vehicular traffic on a rebuilt Northern Avenue Bridge would wreak havoc with traffic on Atlantic Avenue.  Access to (or egress from) the bridge would come at a point where there is much traffic and where lots of on-street parking takes place: parking for tour busses, and parking for commercial vehicles providing a variety of goods and services to the nearby law offices and hotels.  The consequences of adding an additional vehicular access and egress point at that location ought to fill the adjacent property owners and tenants with fear.  It should also cause concern for the custodians of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, because the last thing that magnificent urban open space needs is more traffic congesting the streets and polluting the air in a ring around the park.

Adding vehicles to a new bridge will also cause more gridlock by adding new choke points to the District’s built roadway environment.  History and experience show that attempts to relieve congestion by adding capacity quickly fail, fulfilling the “Field of Dreams” adage that if you build it, they will come. This is not theory or speculation.  Think about the chronically congested Leverett Circle Connector coming off Interstate 93, hailed upon opening in 1999 as a major addition to capacity, which 16 years later becomes a parking lot during many hours of the day.  We cannot keep trying to relieve traffic congestion by expanding capacity. As a strategy, it almost always fails as a lasting solution.

So from a completely practical perspective, adding vehicles to a rebuilt Northern Avenue Bridge ought to be off the table.  But practical considerations aside, there is a larger issue raised by those who call for a new bridge with vehicular traffic.  That larger issue goes directly to our urban transportation policy and whether we are ready to move away from the old auto-centric approaches of the last century and toward a more forward looking, sustainable approach to transportation design and planning.  It isn’t too late to reclaim the District as a place of transportation innovation and multi-modal mobility, but the clock is ticking.  If we aspire to make sustainable mobility a reality and not just a talking point, then we need to act accordingly.

A sustainable, modern transportation network is one that offers people a range of reliable, affordable, and green multi-modal choices.  In a dense urban environment like that epitomized by the District, sustainability means placing our focus on transit, cycling, and walking.  That emphasis must be made not because those modes are deemed greener than driving (although they are), but because they may provide the best mobility solutions to support a thriving mixed-use urban environment. When a political leader recently observed that he could have walked to a destination in the District faster than driving, and in the same breath recommended that we add vehicles to a rebuilt Northern Avenue Bridge, he is (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot) having the experience but missing the meaning. We all have had the experience of chronic traffic congestion that costs too much in time wasted, fuel spent, and air polluted. Let’s not miss the meaning of that experience, or the solutions that are readily available.

Breaking old habits is always hard to do, and that is especially true for those who grew up in a post-World War II America where the auto was king and highways were seen as the way to capture the future.  Highways certainly played an important role growing the national economy, particularly through the Interstate Highway system, but there was a large price to be paid for that kind of fossil-fuel driven modernity. In Boston, we were fortunate to have a series of political and civic leaders who understood this and who took action to correct the outdated and often destructive policies of the past.  Just read the Environmental Impact Statements for the Big Dig and you will see the emphasis placed on reclamation of open space and the importance of transit improvements as a part of the overall mix.  The Big Dig was never meant to solve congestion all by itself – it was always the case that transit improvements (like connecting the Red and Blue lines and building the Green Line extension) were critical components of an overall strategy to improve mobility and reduce carbon emissions.  But in the years following completion of the highway components of the Big Dig, we have been laggards about finishing the transit improvements that were tied to that massive project.

It seems to me that we are at a crossroads. We know that we have growing mobility problems in Greater Boston – increased congestion on the Interstate system, with peak congestion times gradually lengthening; a public transportation system that is unreliable and not resilient regardless of the weather – and we know (or ought to know) that new approaches to improving mobility are urgently needed in order to respond to 21st century mobility preferences.  We know this, and because we do we should not accept “same old” thinking about how to improve mobility in one of our most vibrant and important development and residential districts.  If we get it wrong, the Seaport/Innovation/Fort Point District will quickly become labeled as a congested and chaotic place best avoided rather than embraced.

I’m reminded of Yogi Berra’s famous comment about Rigazzi’s restaurant:  “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”  Replace “crowded” with “congested,” and you get my point.

James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.