The Bay State’s forgotten commuters

The MBTA sucks all the air out of the room when it comes to mass transit funding, leaving scarcely any oxygen for the commuters who rely on the state’s 15 regional transit authorities to get from point A to point B. The smaller systems face some of the same woes as the MBTA ,like budget shortfalls and maintenance issues, but these agencies suffer in relative silence.

Demand for regional bus service is on the upswing. In a report on central Massachusetts commuting patterns, the Worcester Business Journal notes that the Worcester Regional Transit Authority has seen a ridership increase of between 3 and 4.5 percent in the past three years.

Attracting new riders is the name of the game. The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, which serves 24 cities and towns, launched a pilot program to educate potential riders, such as seniors and the disabled, about the system. They are hoping that an increase in ridership will provide benefits to the regional economy by sending more shoppers to local businesses and enabling more local workers to get to jobs.

Like the MBTA, some of the regional transit systems are seeing ridership gains precisely at a time when the agencies are fighting for their fiscal health. The 2012 budget for all the regional transit authorities comes to $269 million (compared to $1.6 billion for the MBTA). The cities and towns served by regional authorities only pay about 25 percent of the authorities’ net costs, The remainder of their budgets are covered by federal and state funds, which promise to be scare in fiscal 2013.

To trim their reliance on state aid, the regional transit authorities were scheduled to move in 2012 to a system of “forward funding” — a scheme that would require the authorities to pay more of their own costs. But since any discussion about new revenues for transit sends lawmakers and state officials scurrying for the exits, a dedicated revenue stream for the regional transit agencies has yet to be identified. Instead, Beacon Hill delayed the move to forward funding until 2013, leaving the regional authorities still struggling to maintain their fleets and meet rider demand. Perhaps a delay is a good thing: Forward funding didn’t work out so well for the T.

Other authorities have problems that mirror those faced by MBTA riders. While the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority negotiates a new management contract for its buses, its riders are hostage to computer glitches that produce late buses and send several buses to one location. Although many riders seem to be satisfied with their options, some people have commutes that are so convoluted that they look into more time saving options.

                                                                                                                                                            –GABRIELLE GURLEY

BEACON HILL

The chief engineer for the Big Dig, Helmut Ernst, was sacked by Transportation Secretary Jeff Mullan yesterday following a review triggered by a light fixture falling in a Big Dig tunnel in February and statements Ernst made to the Globe about Big Dig officials avoiding putting safety concerns in writing.

Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez mulls over the impact of the debt limit law. House Speaker Robert DeLeo isn’t sure what it means either.

Stand for Children plans a ballot campaign that would force school districts to give more weight to teacher effectiveness than seniority in teacher hiring decisions, the Lowell Sun (via State House News) reports. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, meanwhile, vows to repeal the state’s health insurance mandate, CommonWealth’s Mariah Sondergard reports. Here is the Globe story on the group’s move.

The Eagle-Tribune, in an editorial, says the Civil Service Commission doesn’t serve the interests of taxpayers. To learn more, check out CommonWealth’s article on Civil Service from its spring issue.

The Boston Herald looks at an arbitrator’s decision to overturn the firing of several troubled MBTA employees.

The Springfield Republican says that Massachusetts needs to get tougher on texting while driving.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Brockton city officials may be out of bounds in their decision to ban a political fundraiser for a City Council challenger that she planned to hold at the city-owned D. W. Fields golf course later this month.

An unusual recall effort funded by a single businessman fails in Chelmsford as four selectmen retain their seats, the Lowell Sun reports.

There will be no preliminary for mayor in Quincy this year, saving the city $35,000. Only the incumbent, Mayor Thomas Koch, and a challenger, School Committee member Anne Mahoney, filed the requisite signatures by the deadline.

The number of vacant homes is up in Springfield, an alarming trend for the “City of Homes,” says the Springfield Republican.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Time’s Michael Scherer explains how the debt deals sets Washington up for a bitter tax fight. The Daily Beast says the expiring Bush tax cuts could give Obama the upper hand in round two of debt negotiations. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tells All Things Considered that new revenues will be part of round two or there will be no bill, which would trigger cuts in defense spending. Roll the tape or transcript. The Atlantic asks, why is Barack Obama so bad at negotiating? Slate can’t wait until the next debt crisis. Larry Summers weighs in.

NECN’s Broadside has an interesting talk with state Rep. Dan Winslow and Elaine Kamarck of the Kennedy School, with Kamarck saying the debt deal threatens America’s position as the holder of the world’s reserve currency.

The Globe reports that economists say the huge spending cuts in the bill will work against an economic recovery, which depends on a growth in spending.

US Reps. Barney Frank and James McGovern tell the Fall River Herald News why they voted against the debt ceiling bill, while Rep. Stephen Lynch and Sen. John Kerry defend their “yes” votes. Kerry tells the Sun Chronicle the deal amounted to “legislative extortion.”

The devil is in the details: The National Review editors like the idea of cuts in the debt deal, just not these defense cuts. The Weekly Standard concurs that defense spending got a raw deal out of the deal.

Nonprofits and their supporters breathed a sigh of relief that charitable deductions were spared in the debt deal but are keeping a wary eye on the new “super committee” of Congress charged with cutting an additional $1.5 trillion from the deficit by Thanksgiving.

Some politicians still haven’t gotten the memo.

ELECTION 2012

Mitt Romney pumps up the volume.  But the Mass GOP doesn’t really want to hear it.

Another day, another story wondering aloud about Republican presidential hopefuls’ tortured relationship with the tea party movement.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Salem News, in an editorial, examines the falloff in blue-collar jobs, particularly construction jobs.

The Wall Street Journal profiles Amazon.com’s crusade against the sales tax.

HEALTH CARE

Noted Boston parks and open space leader Eugenie Beal, in a CommonWealth commentary, argues that the debate over the national health care reform law carries echoes of the earlier battle to build infrastructure for a public water supply in Boston.

Paul Levy lets us know what he thinks of Partners HealthCare’s $40 million “pledge.”

The New York Times charts a teenager’s path from a Westborough psychiatric hospital to the defense table in a murder case.

Pittsfield and North Adams need to break the culture of teen pregnancy, says The Berkshire Eagle.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Marketplace examines the downside of shuttering dirty coal power plants by visiting Salem.

Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini says he will fight a waste food-to-energy plant in the town’s industrial park, but the company seeking to build the facility questions whether existing city regulations apply to the firm’s “anaerobic digestion composters,” the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll’s proposal for a wind turbine on Winter Island is met with strong resistance at a public forum, the Salem News reports.

The American Spectator highlights a report that claims many groups and individuals critical of “fracking” — a process to extract natural gas — are being funded by grants from a number of left-leaning organizations, including millions from the Heinz Endowments, overseen by Teresa Heinz Kerry.

The North Adams Transcript says more needs to be done to find the causes of a cluster of cancer cases among people with past connections to Mount Greylock Regional High School.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Investigators are still unsure how Celina Cass, the 11-year-old Stewartstown, New Hampshire, girl whose body was found Monday in a river, died.

Former US attorney Donald Stern, who indicted peripatetic crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, talks with Emily Rooney about lessons learned from the case, including the idea that justice delayed is still justice.

Freshman state Rep. Tackey Chan of Quincy, a former Senate aide to current Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, filed a bill on behalf of his old boss to require sex offenders to register their email addresses and the aliases they use on social network sites.

A 4-year-old boy who was shot in a Dorchester park in late June appeared at a press conference with his mother, who talked about his halting recovery.

MEDIA

The Globe creates a Twitter board for its newsroom, reports the Nieman Journalism Lab.

A blogger shows how easy it is to learn personal information about someone from a single Tweet.