Poftak reports on commuter rail WiFi project

Contractor slammed for not answering questions at T meeting

THE MBTA’S INTERIM GENERAL MANAGER on Monday laid out the benefits of a controversial WiFi commuter rail contract that calls for 74-foot towers along the tracks, but he acknowledged the initiative had been rolled out poorly and couldn’t explain why the contractor was not available to answer questions about the project.

Steve Poftak, the interim general manager, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that he would work with the contractor to mitigate the impact of the towers but cautioned that the T cannot simply walk way from the contract. He said he planned to continue looking into the contract and report back to the board on Aug. 14.

Residents of Andover and other communities that would be affected by the proposal turned out in force once again to protest the towers, which they said would disrupt the historic nature of their communities and drive down property values. They slammed the design of the project, the technology being used, the poor return for the T, and the transit authority’s failure to give them advance notice of the initiative.

Poftak said the project would significantly improve WiFi service on commuter rail trains and added that the T’s experts have concluded the technology will work as promised.

He said the WiFi initiative, which calls for the installation of 320 towers with fiber-optic cable running underground between them, is expected to cost $140 million. His presentation said the contractor, BAI Communications, would cover the entire cost of the project and make back its investment by selling access to the portion of the towers above 35 feet to wireless carriers and “by taking advantage” of the excess fiber-optic infrastructure.

The contract calls for the T to receive 7.5 percent of any BAI revenues after all of the costs of the project are recouped. Poftak said the T estimates it would receive between $20 million and $40 million over the life of the 22-year contract.

The contract was originally signed in 2014 and then amended in February to include a construction completion schedule that calls for work to begin next month and be completed by August 2018. The contract allows BAI to determine the locations of the towers “subject to approval by the MBTA.”

Joe Aiello, the control board’s chairman, asked how much influence that contract language gives the T over tower locations. The T’s legal counsel, John Englander, said any discussion of contract terms should take place when the board meets in executive session.

During Poftak’s presentation to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, one Andover resident shouted out that BAI should be there to answer questions. When Aiello banged his gavel, another Andover resident shouted, “Don’t gavel.”

Lisa Calise, a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said she doubted the contract would end up being cost-free for the MBTA. She also criticized BAI for not being at the meeting.

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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.

“It is unacceptable to me as a board member that they wouldn’t be participants in answering direct communications from the community,” she said.

Brian Shortsleeve, another member of the board, asked Poftak how the WiFi contract might affect other work being done along commuter rail tracks and whether customers are still pushing for better WiFi service on the trains. Shortsleeve, who until last month was the acting general manager of the T, was the official who signed the WiFi contract amendment in February.  He declined, on advice of the T’s legal counsel, to answer questions about the amendment after the meeting.