Wooing back riders: A tale of 2 transit agencies

The MBTA and the Washington, DC, transit systems are trying to woo back riders as the summer comes to an end, but they are taking slightly different approaches. 

Both systems have suffered a COVID-induced falloff in ridership that is likely to continue as many employees continue to work (at least some of the time) from home. The goal of the welcome back efforts is to attract more riders who are using transit as part of their everyday life, not just those who are commuting to work.  

The MBTA has restored service levels with the help of federal aid and spread trains and buses out over the course of the day. The most dramatic change has been on commuter rail, where schedules have been revamped to offer hourly service in and out of the city throughout the day rather than bunching trains during the morning and evening peaks. T officials on Thursday morning made a special pitch, unveiling transit toolkits designed in conjunction with the business group A Better City targeting new riders and riders who have been away for some time.

Washington has adopted a similar approach, extending service on Fridays and Saturdays to 1 a.m.; increasing bus frequency, particularly on popular routes; and cutting wait times on the busiest rail lines to six minutes on weekdays.

Where the two systems differ is their approach to fares. The Metro, as the Washington system is called, has attracted national attention for a Labor Day reduction in fares. It’s eliminating the $1.50 transfer fee between bus and rail (a huge benefit for the low-income riders who tend not to live near rail stops), cutting the price of a seven-day regional bus pass by 20 percent, offering a 50 percent discount on some unlimited service passes, and making all weekend rail trips $2 as opposed to the usual model based on distance traveled. 

The T has experimented with some select fare cuts on commuter rail, and it has also offered greater flexibility. Instead of requiring commuter rail riders to buy a monthly pass, the T sells a a flex pass — five one-day passes good on any day over a 30-day period. At the Thursday morning T event, the flex pass was extended until March 15. 

Overall, however, the T is standing pat on its basic fare structure. That could change, however, later this year. 

At one of the last meetings before it disbanded in June, the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board directed T staff to develop by October two options for testing income-based fares, one using a state agency for determining income eligibility and one using a community-based organization. The T’s new oversight board, which is still being assembled, will then have to decide whether to proceed with income-based fares and how to pay for them.  

There’s no guarantee the program will ever get launched because the previous board was split on the issue and Gov. Charlie Baker, who appoints most members of the new board, has been lukewarm to the idea. Still, if the new board gives its approval and funding is acquired, T officials say an income-based pilot program could start in the middle of next year and run for nine months.




Cape Wind again? Two Nantucket residents, backed by a network of think tanks and beachfront property owners along the East Coast, set in motion what appears to be a Cape Wind strategy for derailing the nation’s first industrial-size offshore wind farm and others that are lining up behind it.

— The lawsuit claims federal regulatory agencies, in approving Vineyard Wind, failed to protect endangered species such as the North Atlantic Right Whale. The money for the litigation is coming from a group trying to rally opposition to proposed wind farms up and down the East Coast, which means the lawsuit over Vineyard Wind could be the first of many.

— In many ways, the strategy of the offshore wind opponents is the same used by opponents of Cape Wind, who killed it by filing lawsuit after lawsuit against the project. The goal was delay, delay, delay, which ultimately was successful as investors became skittish and Jim Gordon, the developer of Cape Wind, failed to pull together his construction financing and lost his power contracts in 2015. In 2017, he threw in the towel after spending 10 years and $100 million of his own funds trying to get Cape Wind built.

— Like the opponents of Cape Wind a decade ago, today’s offshore wind foes have many concerns and many grounds for filing lawsuits. Some are worried about endangered species, others about the cost, and then there’s the industrialization of the Atlantic Ocean with turbines rising nearly 900 feet in the air.

— Success or failure of the delay, delay, delay strategy will depend on how much money gets raised. Cape Wind opponents had billionaire William Koch, who invested $5 million in the effort. The Vineyard Wind money is being raised by a group spearheaded by the Caesar Rodney Institute in Delaware, which bills itself as a “nonprofit committed to protecting individual liberty.” David Stevenson, policy director at the institute, said he has raised $70,000 so far with an initial target of $500,000. Read more.


Big housing opportunity: Katherine Martinez and Elana Brochin of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations say federal ARPA money opens the door for a major investment in housing. Read more.





Fall River and New Bedford have received conflicting legal advice — from two different lawyers at the same Boston firm — on whether their city councils must sign-off on how federal American Rescue Plan Act funding is used. (Herald News

Worcester city manager Ed Augustus said a policy is being drafted that will require municipal employees to be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. (Telegram & Gazette)

Members of a city commission charged with overseeing residency rules for municipal employees are questioning why Dr. Jennifer Lo, medical director of Boston Public Health Commission, continues to be allowed to work remotely from Hawaii, where she has been since last November. (Boston Herald

Four elected officials representing Allston-Brighton, three of whom have endorsed Michelle Wu for mayor, call on the city to halt work on Harvard’s massive Allston development project until after the mayoral election. (Boston Herald


US Rep. Seth Moulton defends his heavily criticized trip to Afghanistan, saying, “I don’t care one bit about anonymous quotes from Washington when we’re saving the lives of our allies.” (Boston Globe) Joe Battenfeld pans Moulton’s trip as consistent with his “well-earned reputation for grandstanding, egotistical behavior. (Boston Herald) National security expert Juliette Kayem describes Moulton’s actions as “boy behavior” and “frat behavior.” CommonWealth teed up the controversy that his journey has provoked. 

The US has received information on security threats of possible terrorist action directed at the Kabul airport, where Americans and Afghan allies are converging to get flights out of the country. (Washington Post)


New research from the Boston Fed suggests the racial wealth gap may be smaller than earlier reports claimed, with pensions and Social Security benefits playing a big role in the different way of measuring wealth used in the analysis. (Boston Globe


The archdiocese of Boston reversed course and is now mandating masks through October 1 for all students and staff at its 69 schools, following the lead of the state education department, which issued such an order for all public schools in the state. (MassLive


Pittsfield cultural institutions press for federal ARPA funding to help them recover. (Berkshire Eagle)


US Sen. Ed Markey, at a stop in Sagamore, said he is confident federal funds for the replacement of the Bourne and Sagamore bridges to the Cape are coming. (Cape Cod Times)


Boston is asking developers to contribute to a Climate Resiliency Fund that will be used to build protection for coastal areas from rising sea levels. (Boston Globe)

A Coca-Cola bottling plant in Northampton released “juice waste” into the Connecticut River for several weeks until a corroded metal coupling was discovered and repaired. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)


Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni has ordered his staff to evacuate their offices in a Springfield courthouse where mold has been found. (Boston Globe