T laying 2 cables along same route

WiFi contract generates lots of questions, few answers

THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD raised a lot of questions on Monday about the planned installation of more than 300, 75-foot towers to improve WiFi and cell phone service on commuter rail trains, and learned accidentally that the T is simultaneously installing two sets of fiber optic cable along the same tracks.

One T official told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that the agency is burying 400 miles of fiber optic cable along the commuter rail right-of-way to improve WiFi and cell phone service. Another official said the T is stringing fiber optic cable from pole to pole along the commuter rail lines to implement a system designed to prevent train crashes.

Board members expressed surprise that the two initiatives were being done apparently with no coordination. Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s chief operating officer, was also taken aback. “Certainly it would be redundant fiber optic cable,” he said.

Karen Antion, who just weeks ago took command of the train-crash prevention project, declined to say whether she thought two fiber optic lines along the same track were redundant. “I’m not really in a position to answer that,” she said.

The WiFi contract is quickly becoming a hot potato. The 24-year contract was initially signed in 2014 during the administration of former governor Deval Patrick and then amended last year by the MBTA’s acting general manager, Brian Shortsleeve.  The contractor agreed to spend $140 million building the WiFi network at its own cost and to pay the MBTA 7.5 percent of its revenues after expenses once the project is completed.

The contractor inMotion Services Inc., who was subsequently bought by an Australian company, is expected to earn significant revenues from WiFi advertising and service fees and by leasing space on its fiber optic cable and the 320 poles it plans to erect.

Ryan Coholan, chief railroad officer at the T, said the authority notified local town officials and historical societies in writing about the pole locations and gave them 30 days to respond if there was any concern the poles would disturb historical areas. He said the contractor also placed ads in local newspapers inviting responses.

Coholan said 41 municipalities on the north-of-Boston commuter rail lines have been notified about 110 pole locations. “Some municipalities have expressed concerns regarding pole installation; the majority have not raised significant concerns,” said his presentation to the control board.

Residents of Andover and Manchester by the Sea crowded into the control board’s hearing room carrying signs saying “No MBTA towers.” Resident after resident testified that the T did a poor job of notifying them of the pole installation plan and refused to meet with them when they asked for information. They also warned the T that the technology being deployed was substandard and the poles themselves would blight historic areas of their towns, where most utilities are located underground.

“I’ve never in seven years received as much information from the residents of Andover as I have on this,” said Rep. Jim Lyons of Andover.

Members of the control board peppered Coholan with questions about the contract, most of which he was unable to answer. Coholan promised to gather the information over the next few weeks and report back to the board.

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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.

Coholan wasn’t at the authority when the contract was originally signed, and neither were most other T officials. Shortsleeve signed the amended contract last year but because it imposed no costs on the T he was not required to bring it to the attention of the control board. Board member Lisa Calise said the board’s policy should possibly be revised to deal with similar situations in the future.

Andover resident Carey Po said it was obvious T officials were unfamiliar with the contract and what it would do. “It’s obvious to us they have no clue what we’re talking about,” he said. He warned that the T board would face a “public relations nightmare” over the issue. “We will not stop until all 60 communities [along commuter rail lines] are notified of what this plan entails,” he said.

Joseph Aiello, chairman of the control board, said later in the meeting in dealing with another MBTA contract that he wanted to go slow and get it right. “Everything we do here seems like there’s an oops in the contract,” he said, specifically mentioning the WiFi contract.