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Getting a handle on FTA’s to-do list for MBTA

The Federal Transit Administration gave the MBTA a safety to-do list last week, with each task assigned its own timetable.

The MBTA had 48 hours to come up with a way to ease time demands on dispatchers in the subway system’s understaffed operations control center. Unable to hire more dispatchers and supervisors in two days, the MBTA chose to lighten the load of the existing workers by reducing service starting this week on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines. 

The FTA gave the T 35 days to recertify all its workers on safety procedures. That task will be accomplished quickly, as the T said all rail transit employees would be fully certified as of this week. 

The transit authority was given 15 days to come up with a plan for handling vehicles ending up in repair yards with known or suspected brake issues. That safety issue had been the cause of five runaway trains in the last 1 ½ years, the FTA said. 

And the federal regulators gave the T 30 days to come up with a plan to fix the way track repairs are made. The FTA said the transit authority’s engineering and maintenance team is understaffed, underfunded, lacks quality data on track problems, and, by confining repairs to the middle of the night, doesn’t have enough time to get the job done. 

The FTA’s directives will be followed by a final safety analysis sometime in August, which will probably be accompanied by new directives.

“This is only the first shoe to drop,” said James Aloisi, a board member of the advocacy group TransitMatters and a former state secretary of transportation, on The Codcast. 

“We are in a world where the FTA comes in, they make their assessment. They say do this, do that, and sometimes they say do this by a certain time. And then they walk away, and the T is left with the prospect of either losing federal funding – which is the threat that happens if you don’t comply – or comply. So we’re in a bad place here in the Greater Boston area as a result of decades – decades – of bipartisan neglect,” Aloisi said.

Aloisi called for municipal officials, advocacy groups, and members of Congress to come together to brainstorm new ways to fill hundreds of open safety positions as well as new jobs needed to satisfy the FTA’s safety directives. “We need to triage it,” he said.

He said many of the FTA’s directives, particularly the ones dealing with maintenance, are likely to require the T to spend more money as part of its operating budget. The operating budget is currently balanced with the help of federal aid, but once the federal aid runs out over the course of the next year, the T is facing what it is calling a fiscal cliff – budget needs that are far greater than the resources on hand.

The former transportation secretary said the T’s precarious budget situation could be negatively affected by its decision to comply with the directive about staffing at the operations control center by shifting to Saturday levels of service. 

“It’s not going to help improve ridership,” he said. “It’s probably going to suppress ridership…and that’s not good for the budget. This action will have other consequences, or may have other consequences, that exacerbate the budget problem. It creates its own vicious cycle.”

Aloisi said money alone will not solve the T’s safety problems, but the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker should act now to remove any financial hurdles in the way of dealing with them. He recommended establishing a fund to deal with the FTA’s safety directives as part of the pending transportation bond bill or the state budget itself.

The former transportation secretary suggested the fund should start with more than $600 million, a figure he arrived at by restoring $500 million to the T’s operating budget that had been transferred to the capital budget and by having the state assume the cost of paratransit at the T and the regional transit authorities across the state. The paratransit shift would free up $120 million for the T, Aloisi said, adding that providing rides to the elderly and disabled “is as much a human service initiative as anything else.”

Why Black women die from childbirth twice as often as White women

When Nneka Hall was pregnant with her third child, she had a symptom of preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication, but her doctor never caught it. Hall felt her daughter hiccuping and worried something was wrong, but the doctor told her she was having a recurrence of depression because of separating from her husband.

“My child was telling me something was wrong. I was reiterating it, and I was unheard,” Hall said.

Her daughter was stillborn.

Unfortunately, Hall’s experience feeling her doctor wasn’t listening to her is not unusual for Black women in pregnancy and childbirth. Hall said she has spoken to Black doctors who have physically driven themselves from one emergency room to another one where their colleagues are working to offer treatment for postpartum preeclampsia, because their patients were not being taken seriously.  

And Black women’s outcomes in pregnancy and childbirth are far worse than their White counterparts. In Massachusetts, a Black woman is nearly twice as likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause as a White woman. Black women are 70 percent more likely than White women to have severe health consequences related to pregnancy and childbirth.

The legislatively formed Special Commission on Racial Inequities in Maternal Health recently released a 74-page report exploring why these disparities exist and what can be done about them. Two commission members, state Rep. Liz Miranda, a Roxbury Democrat, and Hall, the founder of Quietly United in Loss Together Corporation, spoke on this week’s Codcast about the report.

The report concluded that there is no single cause of inequities in maternal health. There are factors related to the health system, families, communities, racism, and poverty. 

For example, the use of a doula – a trained person who can support a woman during childbirth in non-medical ways – can improve birth outcomes. But doulas cost $800 to $2,000 and are not covered by insurance.

Yet Miranda said resources alone cannot explain the inequities, though money and insurance are a factor in accessing care. She noted that her Cape Verdean sister gave birth to a 21-week-old baby who did not survive after a doctor minimized her symptoms. But Black tennis star Serena Williams had her own near-death experience with childbirth and had to personally insist on tests after hospital staff seemed unconcerned. 

“Birthing is the one space that it doesn’t matter how much education you have, where you live, what’s your socioeconomic status. Black women are still dying at two to three times the rate of white women across the country and even here in Massachusetts,” Miranda said. “There is a lot of structural, systemic racism, ageism, and gender issues between Black and White women,” Miranda said. “The other things that make it hard to give birth as a Black birthing person is the weathering of Black people. We are stressed out. The highest income inequality. We’re living in communities that are historically segregated.”

Miranda said many women – particularly women like the non-English speaking immigrants she represents – do not know what resources are available to them. “There’s a lack of cultural competency, there’s a lack of a prenatal workforce that is diverse and has the language capacity to help our diverse communities in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park,” she said.

Hall said there are volunteer doula programs at hospitals, midwives who accept payment plans, and state home visiting programs, but people don’t know about them. “I’ve given birth in the Commonwealth four times,” Hall said. “The first time I heard about the home visiting program that’s available through the Mass. Department of Health for anyone is when I was working as a contractor for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.”

The Committee on Health Care Financing recently sent to study, or legislatively killed, two bills that would have set up a licensed, regulated system of professional midwives while requiring that midwives be covered by insurance and paid the same amount as other medical providers for the same services. Today, Massachusetts is one of a small number of states that doesn’t recognize a national certification for midwives, which makes it harder for women to get midwife care.

Miranda, who is running for state Senate, said the lack of progress on various bills related to maternal health indicates the need to increase representation by women and people of color in the Legislature. She hopes that either this session or next session, there will be an appetite to pass an omnibus “birthing justice” bill. “This is not a situation that we can pick or cherry pick which intervention we’re going to do now,” Miranda said. “Speaking as a Black woman, saying that Black women are dying at two times the rate of white women, but Massachusetts is better, does not give me justice.”

“I, for one, am not giving up on Black women, indigenous women, and women of color, because I know if we work to improve their outcomes in birth, we improve the outcomes for everybody,” Miranda said. “And that’s the most important thing. We can get to zero. We can save mothers, we can save partners, and we can save babies in Massachusetts if we focus and center and let Black and Brown women lead in this space.”

What derailed unemployment insurance commission?

Billions of dollars are going to be pumped into the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, but there is no guarantee the money will solve the fund’s problems.

A special legislative commission set up to find solutions to the long-term problems that have plagued the fund was unable to come to any consensus last week, which means the same issues that undermined the fund during the pandemic are likely to recur at some point down the road.

“Since we haven’t fixed anything, there’s no reason to think we’re going to have a different outcome. The economics and the politics suggest we’re going to end up in the same place, which is to say we’ll be underfunding moving forward because we weren’t able to agree on changes,” said Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University and a member of the unemployment insurance commission.

As Horowitz explained on The Codcast, the unemployment insurance trust fund was a New Deal initiative to provide some level of financial support for people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

The financial support is funded through assessments on businesses. Businesses say the assessments are taxes on them, but Horowitz says most economists believe workers actually foot the bill because companies account for the assessments by paying their workers slightly less.

The key to a sound unemployment insurance system is to set aside money from employers in good times so it can be spent in times of high unemployment. Horowitz said the system is designed to address any looming shortfalls automatically, by raising assessments on businesses if the balance in the fund dips too low.

“For 15 years, it never happened. The trust fund was low but legislators stepped in to say, ‘You know what, let’s not raises taxes, now’s not a great time to raise taxes,’” Horowitz said. “They just never did it.”

There’s also a technical problem with the way money is collected. Horowitz said businesses pay assessments on only the first $15,000 of an employee’s salary, not the full paycheck. That means as salaries rise, and unemployment benefits rise in concert, the assessments remain static, so the gap between collections and payouts widens.

The commission was set up to recommend solutions for these and other problems to the Legislature. But after 11 meetings over the course of a year, the commission couldn’t muster the necessary two-thirds support for any major solutions.

The short-term fix is fairly simple – the state directed $500 million in federal COVID relief money into the trust fund along with $2.6 billion in bond money, with businesses paying the interest on the bonds.

But none of the major underlying problems facing the trust fund are fixed, according to Horowitz. He said the failure to address those problems probably was unavoidable, given the fairly even split between business and union members on the commission.

He said most of the commission members echoed the views of their constituencies and the inability to meet in private meant the members never could compromise.

“We really weren’t that far apart, but we couldn’t do that,” said Horowitz. “People are in character and they’re caught up in shorter-term things and everything happens publicly and this makes horse-trading impossible.”

Rep. Haddad is star of energy documentary

Rep. Patricia Haddad of Somerset, long a powerful figure in the Massachusetts House, is now also the star of a new documentary written, directed, and produced by California-based filmmaker Kiki Goshay about America’s love affair with energy.

The documentary’s strength is the long look it takes at the country’s haphazard energy evolution from one president to the next, and from one crisis to the next. The story is told using Haddad and Somerset as the laboratory where those twists and turns play out – often with devastating personal and environmental consequences. 

“It is a microcosm of all of America,” Goshay says of Somerset on The Codcast. 

Somerset is a small community located on Mount Hope Bay across from Fall River. Electricity has long been its chief export, but the fuel used to produce the power has changed with the times. At Brayton Point, the power plant started with coal, shifted to oil when that fuel was cheap and plentiful, and then reverted to coal with the formation of OPEC and the runup in oil prices in the 1970s. 

Then came the environmental movement and the discovery that the Brayton Point plant was polluting the air and killing off the fish in the bay. That led to expensive scrubbers and cooling towers, which made the plant too costly to operate when cheap fracked natural gas came along. The plant was torn down and the cooling towers were imploded in April 2019, paving the way for a turn to offshore wind that has taken far longer than planned with the foot-dragging of the Trump administration finally giving way to the full-speed-ahead approach of the Biden administration. (CommonWealth has written a lot about this segment of the city’s history.) 

What gives the documentary poignancy is its look at how the twists and turns of American energy policy have been felt in Somerset. Haddad recalls how she kept the windows closed on one side of her house to keep the coal dust out, yet accepted that inconvenience and others because the plant kept the town going financially. Indeed, she fought for the coal plant right up until it was torn down. 

“I fell in love with her when I met her because she’s so open and honest,” said Goshay, “Her personal arc is really interesting to me because she first said she was the queen of coal and now [she says] ‘I’m the witch of wind.’ She is proud to have changed her stance as a politician and a leader to adapt to the reality of what was happening. That’s what we need in leadership, people who will adapt to what’s happening right now, not be stuck in a certain position.” 

Goshay adopted a very unconventional approach to shooting her series of documentaries over the last three years. She raised enough money to do the filming and editing, using her daughter as the narrator, but she had no commitment from any cable or streaming platform to eventually carry the series. She held a screening of the Somerset episode last week at the local high school. 

Goshay said she felt she needed to push ahead with the project for personal reasons as she watched the country fail to wake up to the dangers of climate change. She interviewed scientists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers like Haddad and came away far more optimistic about the nation’s future. 

“I called [the documentary series] ‘Empowered’ because it’s exactly how I felt personally,” she said. “When I did this deep dive and met all of these people over the course of two years, I felt this excitement for the future for the first time. I really thought, wow, things are going to be better in five years and even better than that in 10 years because I met the people that are doing the work and I realized we have the tools.”

One of the people she interviewed was Phil Colarusso, a marine biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency in September 2002. While investigating the environmental impact of the Brayton Point power plant, he went on a dive in Mount Hope Bay and over the course of 50 minutes didn’t see a single fish.

Goshay said she asked Colarusso more recently if the fish will ever return. He reminded her of the cleanup of Boston Harbor and its startling return. Goshay said she now believes Mount Hope Bay has a chance to recover.

“If we give nature a chance, and back off from fighting it, it comes back,” she said.

Getting the odds on passage of sports betting

In a highly unusual move, the Massachusetts Senate on Thursday voted for a bill legalizing sports betting by voice vote – sparing individual senators the need to record their position through a roll call vote and denying constituents the opportunity to know where each senator stands.

Eric Lesser, the Senate chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, disputed the fact that the public does not know their senator’s stance. “The public does know how senators voted because there were multiple amendments and there was debate for hours throughout the day,” Lesser said.

Under Senate rules, Lesser said, any senator could have called for a roll call. But he said by the time the amendments were debated “there was broad consensus, and in the four years since the Supreme Court legalized sports betting, there was “a pretty exhaustive processleading up to the vote. 

We were getting towards the end of things and people felt like it was in a good place. And so…we didn’t feel it was necessary,” Lesser said of a roll call. “At that point, people felt comfortable with where the bill was. There really wasn’t any opposition.”

Lesser joined Father Richard McGowan, a Boston College finance professor who is a national expert on legalized gambling on this week’s Codcast to discuss the recent Senate vote on sports betting – and the chance sports betting will be legalized this year.

McGowan gave sports betting a 70 to 80 percent chance of the House and Senate coming to an agreement that is signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker. “Let’s face it, you might as well,” McGowan said. “All the neighboring states have it. So why not bring it back to Massachusetts?”

Lesser, who will likely play a major role negotiating a final bill, wouldn’t put odds on his chances of success. “All I’ll say is that we’ve been working on it for several years now and there’s growing consensus,” Lesser said.The Senate, for the first time, did a stand-alone bill on the floor. And we’ll see where it goes.”

There are several major differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The Senate envisions a higher tax rate and additional consumer protections, like a ban on betting with credit cards. The Senate bill is estimated to raise $35 million annually in revenue, while the House bill would raise an estimated $60 million. The House bill would allow betting on college sports, while the Senate would not.

House Speaker Ron Mariano has called not allowing betting on college sports a dealbreaker.

But Lesser said there are big differences between college and professional sports. College athletes aren’t paid and don’t have players associations to protect their interests. Most professional leagues support sports betting. But, Lesser said, “The colleges have told us that they don’t want betting on their campuses and they don’t believe that betting and a betting culture is an environment that they want with their athletes or with their student populations.”

In states like Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi, where college sports teams have large followings, McGowan said college sports betting is a huge deal. But, in Massachusetts, people are much more focused on professional sports. Other than March Madness, McGowan said, “I don’t think there’s really that great of a demand” for betting on college sports.

Even without betting on college games, McGowan anticipates that sports betting will “cause a real problem for some of the colleges,” where officials will have to decide if they want to block sports betting through college internet connections.

Baker and Mariano have long been pushing Senate President Karen Spilka to bring sports betting to a vote,  and the president still has not said whether she personally supports it. Asked on Wednesday, Spilka refused to give her position. “It doesn’t matter whether I support it, it matters whether the senators, and the Senate as a whole supports it,” Spilka said.

Asked what took the Senate so long, Lesser said,This is still a gambling product and a lot of members of the Senate are concerned about expanding gambling.” Lesser said it took time to develop robust consumer protections – like the credit card ban, limits on advertising, and a self-exclusion list – that make those senators more comfortable.

McGowan said this concern has been born out in other states – for example, New Jersey saw its level of problem gambling double from 2 percent of players to 4 percent due to online betting. Despite that, McGowan said there has been a national trend toward allowing more controversial practices, like gambling, as long as they do not hurt anyone other than potentially the person choosing to participate. It took over 30 years for 30 states to have a lottery. It took less than three years for 30 states to have sports gambling,” McGowan said.

Challenging the status quo on electricity, heating

Two top officials with the Conservation Law Foundation say the region’s power grid operator and the state’s utilities are in some ways part of the problem instead of the solution to dealing with climate change. 

Greg Cunningham, the vice president and director of CLF’s clean energy and climate change program, and Caitlin Peale Sloan, the vice president for Massachusetts, said on The Codcast that they are concerned the institutions that should be leading the fight against climate change are not doing so. 

Cunningham’s focus is on ISO-New England, the region’s power grid operator headed by Gordon van Welie. Van Welie was a guest on The Codcast two weeks ago and his focus was on the vulnerability of the power grid, the potential for rolling blackouts, and the continued need for natural gas as a backup fuel.

“It’s frustrating needless to say for us to sit here in 2022 and hear the litany of problems and concerns repeated over and over again from the entity that was designed to be central around fixing them,” Cunningham said. “Gordon van Welie has a substantial pedestal from which to speak and many people listen when he does. There’s an unfortunate tendency to use fear-mongering and the risk of rolling blackouts and all of the bad things that may happen if we don’t address these issues rather than identifying for us how we’re going to solve these problems.” 

ISO-New England hasn’t yet found a way to incorporate the clean energy New England needs into the region’s wholesale electricity markets. Van Welie is trying to buy more time to find a solution by asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve an extension, with a few tweaks, of the existing, flawed regulatory system. He is facing pushback from Attorney General Maura Healey and others who feel the status quo is not acceptable.

Sloan is equally concerned about National Grid’s proposal to decarbonize the way we heat homes and buildings by keeping the existing system of pipes in place and swapping out natural gas for renewable natural gas and green hydrogen. She says pumping a different form of methane through a leaking pipe system doesn’t work for her.

“My reaction to any of our gas utilities who talk about essentially keeping their current business models and swapping in alternative fuels is that that’s just categorically not a decarbonization plan,” she said. 

Cunningham said he has the same reaction to ISO-New England’s continued reliance on natural gas. “To identify gas and the need to bring more gas into the region as part of the solution, feels, as Caitlin was saying about the utilities, it’s just a justification for continuing to do business as usual, which is no plan at all,” he said. 

Sloan said Massachusetts energy policy has been stalled in place for most of the last eight years with the exception of offshore wind procurements. She said the Baker administration’s push to wean solar companies off of subsidies “is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.”

Cunningham said the calls by the two Democratic candidates for governor — Healey and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz — for the power grid to be fueled by clean, renewable energy by 2030 are not unrealistic. 

“Is it feasible? Yes, it’s absolutely feasible from a technical and physics perspective,” he said. “I think the question is how much will it cost.” 

Neither Cunningham nor Sloan see a need to blow up the current regulatory framework, but they say time is running short. “I don’t think we’re advocating for blowing it up now, but I can tell you that if change doesn’t happen soon it’s going to blow up,” Cunningham said.