Battle for MBTA’s soul underway

As the task to slice and dice the MBTA’s historic collapse gets underway, a battle royale has erupted anew between two camps of transportation influencers who can be loosely described as the expansionists and the fix-it-firsters.

On the expansion side, advocacy groups like the MassPIRG and Conservation Law Foundation, which backed a controversial Big Dig mitigation agreement for a package of MBTA enhancements, have long lobbied state lawmakers for increased transportation revenues to maintain and improve the system.

In the fix-it-first corner are think tanks such as the conservative Pioneer Institute, which has long railed against MBTA management and spending practices. The organization has put forward a plan that would put the transit agency into receivership to better confront several decades’ worth of problems.

While the suits ruminate in Boston, what’s unfolding in some towns are proxy skirmishes in the war over how the MBTA is managed and funded.

An expansion clash is under way in Bourne. The apparent success of the Cape Flyer’s limited summer service between Boston and Hyannis has tantalized communities along the route such as Bourne with the possibilities of commuter rail. A Bourne special town meeting approved an article to place the question of joining the MBTA service area before voters in May.

Tom Cahir, the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority administrator who lives in Bourne, is sanguine that 30-day commission appointed by Baker won’t hinder sensible rail projects.

Cahir told the Cape Cod Times that he believes the commission will conclude that “things are not as terrible as they may appear and that commuter rail that makes sense is going to happen.” He added: “I think we can sell the case of extending commuter rail to Buzzards Bay with relative ease.”

Meanwhile, in the towns along the northern stretches of the controversial South Coast Rail route, Snowmageddon 2015 has propelled some officials into the fix-it-first camp.

“As service gets restored, hopefully, Stoughton must use this experience to focus attention on the folly that is the South Coast Rail project, as presently proposed, to convince Gov. Baker that he should plow this project to the curb,” Robert O’Regan a Stoughton selectman and commuter rail user told The Enterprise. Earlier this month, he had voiced support for the project.

In a few weeks, the Baker commission could give comfort to one camp or the other. No member has really played his or her hand quite yet, though commission chairman Paul Barrett took a ride on the lightly traveled Greenbush line, the system’s newest commuter rail link. Or the group could surprise the Bay State by devising fiscal and operational solutions that finally break the back of MBTA dysfunction, while green lighting modest projects that won’t hamstrung an already prostrate agency.

BEACON HILL

The state budget deficit in the coming fiscal year could be $1.5 billion, the Globe reports.

CommonWealth reported on the deficit and the prospect of steep budget cuts more than two weeks ago.

Treasurer Deb Goldberg is critical of Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature for pledging not to cut local aid but then cutting Lottery funding, which she says will result in local aid cuts, State House News reports.

Plymouth County employees are facing layoffs if they do not take pay cuts or submit to a salary freeze triggered by a nearly $1 million budget cut from the state.

Former state public safety secretary Andrea Cabral is hoping to tap a lucrative pension category designed for public safety officials who put themselves in harm’s way, the Herald reports. Under the so-called “category 4” classification she is seeking, the 55-year-old Cabral could be poised to begin collecting about $90,000 per year, the paper says.

Kurt Schwartz, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency director, also serves as the state’s homeland security undersecretary and holds a slot on the Massport board of directors, a troika of positions that the Herald’s Joe Battenfeld says could present some conflicts of interest.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Paging Citizens Connect: Add to complaints about Boston’s snow plowing efforts the fact that some residents have not had garbage pick-up in weeks, the Globe reports.

The Civil Service Commission has closed the case against the Braintree police chief without taking action, saying changes made in the town’s hiring practices are sufficient to avoid problems in the future. The commission got involved after the police department hired the chief’s son.

The Office of Campaign and Political Finance rules Fall River mayor — and former Bristol district attorney —Sam Sutter did not violate campaign laws, rejecting a complaint that alleged he used employees at the district attorney’s office on his mayoral campaign and accepted illegal contributions in his run for office.

The Newburyport City Council votes 7-3 not to put a fluoride ban on the ballot, the Gloucester Times reports.

OLYMPICS

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh revises a contract with the US Olympic Committee, dropping language barring city employees from criticizing the Games, WBUR reports. He also acknowledges in the reworked agreement the possibility of a statewide or local referendum to put limits on a potential bid.

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Robert Sullivan finds a lot to ridicule in the “branding” efforts taking place in Hillaryworld.

ELECTIONS

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is forced into a runoff election, Time reports.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Lowell Historic Board is trying to work more cooperatively with local businesses, the Sun reports.

The Forum restaurant in Boston, which was badly damaged by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings but reopened several months later, will shut its doors for good this Sunday, citing a steep rent hike that made the business no longer viable.

Revenues from legacy walks and runs for big name charities dropped by 10 percent last year as more offbeat fundraisers such as the Ice Bucket Challenge and head shaving for cancer became more popular.

Dan Barry pens a love letter in the New York Times to the Pawtucket Red Sox and minor league baseball and wonders if the new owners of the Boston AAA affiliate know what they had and what they’ll lose when they abandon the gritty mill city.

EDUCATION

Tommy Chang, the second of four finalists for the Boston school superintendent post to go through a daylong set of interviews, says granting all schools the autonomy enjoyed by innovation schools, pilot schools, and charter schools should be part of the next phase of education efforts in urban districts.

One day after the KIPP charter school in Lynn received permission to add kindergarten through fourth grade, Catherine Latham, the head of the city’s public schools, accused the charter of returning unwanted kids to the public system. Latham said 47 KIPP students returned to the Lynn public schools this year and 55 last year.

Holyoke students are being shortchanged, but state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester isn’t ready to push for a state takeover of the schools just yet, State House News reports.

Methuen stands to lose about $300,000 in state education grants because of budget cuts, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

The lawyers for Evan Dobelle, the former Westfield State University president who is pursuing a federal lawsuit against the state, want to move on.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

President Obama follows through on his threat to veto congressional approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Electricity ratepayers are stuck paying huge bills even though wholesale electricity prices are down, theGlobe reports. CommonWealth reported early in January on the drop in wholesale electricity prices but the inability of most consumers to take advantage of that drop.

The population of bald eagles in Massachusetts has risen dramatically in the last 20 years, with much of the growth attributed to the ban on using the pesticide DDT.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

An ex-Marine was convicted of murder in the shooting death of Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was the subject of the movie American Sniper.

The Justice Department says there is not enough evidence to lodge hate-crime charges against George Zimmerman in the 2013 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

MEDIA

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

John Carr, columnist for the Jesuit magazine America, offers a meditation on the life lessons left by his younger brother, David Carr, the New York Times media columnist who died earlier this month.

The Herald’s Jessica Heslam offers a defense of Bill O’Reilly in the flap over a Mother Jones article on his reporting on the Falkland Islands war, the essence of which is, he’s a full-blown bloviator, but he’s no Brian Williams. Among those witnesses she calls is WGBH’s Emily Rooney, who worked with O’Reilly in the 1970s and later helped hire him at WCVB. “Rooney points out that O’Reilly has never said he was ‘in’ the Falkland Islands,” writes Heslam. Except O’Reilly actually did appear to make such a claim. Gabriel Sherman, author of a biography of O’Reilly’s boss, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, says there may be legitimate questions about O’Reilly’s war reporting claims, but his “credibility with the audience is based not on his war reporting, but on his willingness to go to war against the enemy: liberals.” In that way, writes Sherman, lefty Mother Jones “threw him a meatball to hit out of the park.”