T notes: Aiello tells T bus staff to think much bigger

Votes allow T Retirement Fund to invest with state fund

THE CHAIR OF THE MBTA’S oversight board strongly encouraged T staff to think much bigger in trying to improve bus service, suggesting one possibility might be a $50 million challenge grant that would cover 90 percent of the cost of a bus rapid transit buildout in municipalities that sign on quickly.

The suggestion by Joseph Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, harkened back to a discussion from last week, when T officials were asked whether they needed more money and they said they were having trouble spending the money they had.  Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she had $1 billion in capital funds in reserve for the T if the transit authority needed it.

Aiello, noting the T is planning to spend $8.7 million over the next five years on so-called “bus priority infrastructure,” said the transit authority should be doing far more. He suggested using a minimum of $50 million of the $1 billion offered by Pollack to pay 90 percent of the cost of any municipal initiative to create dedicated bus lanes and other improvements that would speed up MBTA buses.

“We’ve got a mobility crisis here,” said Aiello. “Let’s think bigger than $8.7 million over five years.”

Protesters hold signs at the meeting of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control. Board. Many of the protesters are affiliated with the state Democratic Party. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Aiello acknowledged he didn’t know whether a challenge grant could be done or even if it’s legal, but he said it’s an example of how the T needs to think bigger.

The discussion surfaced as T staff laid out plans to launch a transit priority team to focus on moving buses through traffic more quickly, with a focus on 14 miles of bus routes over the next two years. Aiello said he thought the goal should be doubled to 28 miles of bus routes in one year – before next June when the Fiscal and Management Control Board expires.

Even the creation of the transit priority team raised questions about the T’s funding adequacy. T officials disclosed that the salaries of three members of the transit priority team will be paid with funds donated by the Barr Foundation.

New data indicate how congestion on city streets is impacting bus service. According to the data, median bus run times increased 11 percent between 2006 and 2018 and 17 percent at peak travel periods, with nearly all of the increase coming after 2011. Kat Benesh, the T’s chief of operations strategy, policy, and oversight, said the longer run times are bad enough for bus riders, but the variability of the run times is so dramatic that it’s difficult to count on the reliability of many bus runs.

Where the T has launched dedicated bus lanes on city streets, data indicate there has been significant savings in time and improvement in reliability. The dedicated bus lane on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge has cut five minutes off the run and reduced variability by 50 percent. For the dedicated bus lane in Everett, the payoff has been a 7 minute time savings per trip and a 40 percent reduction in variability. The dedicated bus lane on Washington Street in Roslindale has saved 2 to 3 minutes per trip with a 10 percent reduction in variability.

T Retirement Fund opens door a crack to state fund

The MBTA Retirement Fund seems poised to invest at least a portion of its $1.5 billion in assets in the state retirement fund after the Carmen’s Union and the Fiscal and Management Control Board voted to permit such investments.

The control board voted unanimously on Monday to allow the investments, while the Carmen’s Union, the T’s largest union, approved the arrangement last week. The board of the Retirement Fund, made up of gubernatorial appointees and Carmen’s Union members, is expected to vote similarly at its next meeting.

The compromise falls well short of what Gov. Charlie Baker had been pitching, a takeover by the state Pension Reserves Investment Trust (PRIT) of the assets in the T Retirement Fund. But the amendment to the trust agreement, allowing the private T fund to invest some of its money with the state’s pension fund for public employees, opens the door a bit to investments in PRIM, which typically has higher investment returns.

The T Retirement Fund has been plagued in recent years by a cash outflow prompted by having more retired employees taking money out of the fund than current employees paying into the fund. The T Retirement Fund has an estimated $1.4 billion unfunded liability, and contributions to the fund by the T and union members have been increasing.

James O’Brien, president of the Carmen’s Union and a member of the T Retirement Fund board, issued a statement that appeared to downplay the change in policy. “Going forward, PRIT will be added to the list of approved investment advisers for consideration by the MBTA Retirement Fund board,” he said.

Red Line derailment cause still unknown

MBTA officials said on Monday that it could be two months before they determine what caused the derailment of a Red Line car on June 11 at the JFK/UMass Station.

T officials said several vehicle parts suspected as potential causes of the derailment have been sent out for metallurgical analysis, which can take 60 days.

Steve Poftak, general manager of the T, said 10 to 11 Red Line trains are now running each hour, with an interval between trains of approximately six minutes. Pre-derailment, the T had run 13 to 14 Red Line trains each hour. The level of service had initially dropped to six trains per hour in the wake of the derailment.

MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville demonstrates what needs to be done to restore the automated signal system on the Red Line. Next to him on the right is General Manager Steve Poftak and next to him is Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Poftak said approximately 50 employees have replaced an automated signal system that was knocked out by the derailment. That system is slowly being brought back on line, but Deputy General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville said it will take time to fully restore it. “This is a great deal of bespoke work,” he said, also noting that some of the equipment dated to the 1970s.

The derailment and its aftermath was a big blow to the T because the transit authority was preparing to replace all its Red Line trains and the signal system to manage them. Now it has to piece together the damaged signal system, redeploy 50 MBTA workers to manually signal to trains when it’s safe to move forward,  and while that’s being done redeploy 50 workers to fill in.

“This was a very, very discouraging incident – a really, really tough situation to place our customers in,” said Joseph Aiello, the chair of the control board. “But the response of the T personnel, given the circumstances and the age of the equipment, has been sensational.”

T stepping up contract awards

The Fiscal and Management Control Board awarded four contracts on Monday, bringing the total for the fiscal year to $848.5 million, well above the target level of $650 million.

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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 contracts are considered a leading indicator of the T’s ability to spend at target levels over the next five years and address long-standing deficiencies in equipment and systems.  Control board members hailed the achievement. Joseph Aiello, the chair of the control board, called it a “critically important accomplishment.”

Beth Larkin, the T’s assistant general manager for capital delivery, said the T has awarded contracts worth $1.8 billion over the last three years; over the previous three years, she said, the agency awarded just $285 million in contracts.