MBTA rejects WiFi commuter rail proposal

MBTA rejects WiFi commuter rail proposal

Cites public safety concerns, license violations

FACING PUSHBACK FROM LOCAL COMMUNITIES on the North Shore, the MBTA on Thursday abruptly rejected a commuter rail WiFi proposal that called for the installation of 320 poles each more than 70 feet high.

Steve Poftak, the T’s interim general manager, said in a letter to the CEO of the contractor, BAI Communications, that residents of communities along the commuter rail lines had raised “valid concerns” about the project’s impact on historic sites and the character of their cities and towns.

Justifying his decision to cancel the WiFi initiative as drafted, Poftak said the project did not reflect the agreed-upon terms of the license, which envisioned poles half as tall. He also said the contract’s language allowed the T to stop or delay the project if it endangered public safety, adding that the MBTA needs to focus all of its attention now on extending the Green Line into Somerville and installing an anti-collision system along commuter rail tracks.

“We invite BAI to submit a new implementation plan that better reflects the more modest project envisioned by the license, on a time frame that is consistent with the MBTA’s transportation and safety needs,” Poftak said in the letter to Jerry Elliott.

Ray Howell, a spokesman for BAI, issued a statement saying the company’s project offers the potential for enormous benefits. “BAI looks forward to working with the MBTA and local officials on a system that delivers these benefits while minimizing impacts to areas located along the commuter rail’s existing corridors.”

Alex Vispoli, the vice chair of the Andover Board of Selectman, hailed the decision as a victory for grassroots efforts by citizens in his community and others. “This shows you that when residents get involved, they do have a voice and people listen,” he said, adding that it is very possible to develop a project that would be a win for community residents, commuter rail passengers, and the MBTA.

Vispoli said he was not aware the BAI license negotiated by the state put any limit on the height of the poles, as Poftak suggested in his letter to Elliott. “If that was there, I think we would have highlighted it right away,” he said.

The WiFi project quickly snowballed into a public relations disaster for the MBTA in June when residents of Andover began mobilizing opposition and showing up at meetings of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, complaining about the lack of notice about the project, the ugliness of the poles, and the dated technology being deployed. Opposition quickly spread to other communities on the North Shore, where the contractor was moving ahead with its plans. Little advance work had begun on commuter rail lines along the South Shore.

As opposition gained momentum, MBTA officials moved from defending the project to saying there was little they could do about it. At a meeting of the control board on July 31, Poftak told the board that he would try to mitigate the impact of the proposed towers but insisted the authority couldn’t just walk away from the contract.

Between that meeting and Thursday, Poftak apparently concluded the T could walk away from the contract, at least as it is currently drafted. The Fiscal and Management Control Board had been expected to discuss and possibly take action on the contract at its next meeting on Monday.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The contract to install the poles and the WiFi system was signed in 2014, during the administration of former governor Deval Patrick, and then updated through an amendment in 2015, during the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker. The amendment was signed by the former acting general manager, Brian Shortsleeve.

The contract called for BAI to install at its own cost all of the equipment to improve WiFi service on commuter rail trains. In return, BAI was allowed to rent out the upper portion of the poles and sell advertising on the network. BAI estimated it would cost $140 million to complete the project. Once BAI had recouped all of its cost to build and maintain the system, the contract said the T would be entitled to 7.5 percent of any revenues. Poftak estimated at the July 31 meeting that the T would recover between $20 million and $40 million over the 22-year life of the contract.

A spokesman for BAI could not immediately be reached for comment.