T notes: Budget boosts RTA funding 10%

Seeks plan for electrifying Providence, Fairmount commuter rail lines

THE SENATE WAYS AND MEANS BUDGET proposal for the coming fiscal year would give a 10 percent increase in funding to the state’s 15 regional transit authorities, which provide bus service to residents outside the MBTA service area.

The budget plan would provide $88 million in funding, with $84 million allocated among the authorities using an existing formula and the remaining $4 million parceled out through a process run by the state Department of Transportation.

The Department of Transportation process requires the state agency and any regional transit authority seeking a portion of the $4 million to sign a memorandum of understanding that incorporates “appropriate ridership, customer service, asset management, and financial performance indicators and best practices to ensure that the authority makes data-driven decisions with respect to its operation including, but not limited to, service and asset management.”

If the full Senate approves the Ways and Means proposal, the measure would still need approval from the House and Gov. Charlie Baker. The House included $82 million for regional transit authorities in its budget, while the governor proposed level funding the authorities at $80 million. State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said recently that more money was not the answer to the problems the regional transit authorities are facing. She said they needed to seek smaller, regular fare hikes and improve their operations.

Several of the authorities have announced fare increases and service cutbacks to deal with deficits, and many officials are worried the service cutbacks will lead to less ridership and more deficits.

Senate President Harriette Chandler of Worcester, who has made more funding for regional transit authorities a priority, said increased investment is necessary. “We must move away from regressive funding and policies that trap RTAs in death spirals of reduced service and higher fares,” she said.

Officials at the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, which some say is facing a death spiral, could not be reached for comment.

Commuter rail electrification study sought

The Senate Ways and Means budget proposal also directs the Baker administration to develop a plan to fully electrify the Providence and Fairmount commuter rail lines and build high-level platforms at each station on the lines.

The proposal calls for the plan to envision a start date of September 30, 2022, for fully electric service. The plan itself would have to be finished by March 1, 2019.

Transit advocates are pushing higher platforms and electrified trains to speed up service. Higher platforms mean passengers could board trains directly rather than making their way up steep steps. Electrified trains are capable of reaching higher speeds much faster than diesel locomotives.

Ari Ofsevit and Jim Aloisi of TransitMatters outlined an electrification proposal for the Providence Line in a recent article in CommonWealth. They predicted full electrification (the line, which is used by Amtrak, is mostly electrified now but the state’s trains aren’t) and higher platforms would cut travel times between Providence and Boston to 45 minutes, a reduction of 20 to 24 minutes. They also said electrification would allow half as many trains to provide the same level of service.

Transit advociates would like to electrify the Fairmount Line to allow it to operate more like a subway with quicker and faster service. The line, which runs between Readville and South Station through Roxbury and Dorchester, currently has one of the lowest ridership levels on the MBTA.

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.

Both proposals fit the vision of regional rail, which is all about running trains more frequently in both directions rather than focusing solely on commuters coming into Boston in the morning and leaving in the evening. Senate President Harriette Chandler of Worcester has said regional rail is a top priority for her.

MBTA officials said they needed time to study the proposal. TransitMatters issued a statement saying it was grateful “the Senate has taken this important step forward toward transitioning from an antiquated and failing commuter rail system to a modern regional rail system.”