MBTA WiFi project put on 30-day hold

MBTA WiFi project put on 30-day hold

Agency will gather feedback on commuter rail initiative

THE MBTA SAID ON FRIDAY that it is putting its $140 million commuter rail WiFi project on hold for 30 days while it gathers feedback from customers, residents, and appointed and elected officials.

“There will be no construction of poles or other infrastructure during this review,” the T said in a statement.

The project has stirred an avalanche of protest in a handful of communities that say they received little notice of the MBTA’s plans to erect 320, 75-foot poles along the commuter rail right-of-way.  Residents say the poles are eyesores that will disrupt the historic nature of some communities and cause property values to fall.

Alexander Vispoli, a member of the Andover Board of Selectmen, said he was encouraged by the T’s decision to gather input. He said he hoped the project is scrapped and a new approach for providing WiFi using less intrusive technology is deployed.

“This was a misguided approach,” he said.

At a meeting of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday, residents from Andover and Manchester-by-the-Sea packed the room to complain about the lack of notice about the project, the ugliness of the poles, and the dated technology being deployed.

T officials say they notified local town officials and historical societies in writing about the poles and their locations. They said the contractor on the project also placed ads in local newspapers inviting responses.

“To date, 41 municipalities on north side commuter rail have been notified regarding 110 sites,” said a T presentation at the meeting. “Some municipalities have expressed concerns regarding pole installations; the majority have not raised significant concerns.”

But elected officials and residents from the two towns said they learned about the project almost accidentally from their neighbors. Andover mobilized its opposition, creating a web page full of information about the project.

Meet the Author

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.

Members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board asked a lot of questions about the project at their meeting on Monday, but T officials had few answers. A 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.

Members of the T oversight board also learned at the Monday meeting that the authority is paying two different vendors to install two sets of fiber optic cable along the commuter rail right-of-way. One set is is being laid underground for the WiFi project, while the other is being hung from poles as part of the installation of a new federally required system to prevent train crashes.