T notes: Lessons from Toronto

MBTA signs contract for digital billboards on highways

TORONTO TRANSIT OFFICIALS on Monday briefed the MBTA on their vision for commuter rail – a vision that many Massachusetts transit advocates would like to see the T emulate.

Three officials from Metrolinx, a Toronto transportation agency, said they are in the process of building a $16.2 billion electrified rail system that would offer service inbound and outbound every 15 minutes, 18 hours a day. The Toronto vision also calls for free fare transfers to other forms of transportation and level boarding, meaning platforms would be raised so passengers would not have to climb steps to board a train.

Planning for the project has been going on for more than a decade and work is not expected to be completed until 2027. The T is at the beginning of a similar planning process, reviewing a series of commuter rail options that range from more modest improvements to a regional rail system strikingly similar to what Toronto is adopting.

What was striking about the Toronto presentation was the high cost, the engagement of the private sector in the planning and construction of the system, the buy-in for the vision from all parties, and the customer focus of Toronto transit officials.

“The notion of customer-centricity is core to all our planning,” said Leslie Woo, the chief development officer for Metrolinx.

While the MBTA is developing a rail vision study for the future, it is still trapped in the past. At Monday’s meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, T officials said they are currently operating with 260 obsolete or near-obsolete commuter rail passenger coaches that have been in service for more than 30 years.

To begin retiring the old vehicles, the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday approved contracts worth $345 million for the purchase of 80 bi-level cars that will start arriving in the fall of 2022, in time to provide 16 vehicles for the South Coast Rail service that is set to launch in 2023 and provide more seating to accommodate the system’s rising number of passengers.

“The trains are packed. There’s just not enough space,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak.

T officials also wanted to begin preparations to buy 200 more bi-level cars, but Joseph Aiello, the chair of the control board, put a halt to those plans until the transit authority tests the market for self-propelled electric or diesel vehicles that many believe would be more suitable for the commuter rail system of the future.

The advocacy group TransitMatters, which supports a regional rail vision very similar to what Toronto is pursuing, has recommended moving away from bi-level coaches because of the extra time it takes for passengers to load and unload. The advocacy group believes more frequent service can more than make up for the lower seating capacity of single level train cars.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack pushed back against the notion voiced by some transit advocates that the T’s procurement of 80 bi-level cars was a step away from its commuter rail vision of the future. “These are coaches we needed five years ago,” she said.

Peter Zuk, chief programs officer at Metrolinx who previously worked in Massachusetts, raised another interesting issue for Massachusetts transportation officials to consider. He said Toronto officials, like their counterparts in Massachusetts, were faced with capacity constraints at the system’s hub, Union Station. Instead of adding track capacity, Zuk said, Union Station cut the number of tracks from 16 to 10 by simply moving trains in and out of the station more efficiently. TransitMatters has called for a similar approach at South Station, dispensing with the need for a $2.5 billion track expansion there.

Pollack said South Station track expansion “is still on our radar screen,” and questioned whether the Union Station track reduction in Toronto could be replicated in Boston. One of the keys to using the tracks more efficiently is speeding up trains as they enter and leave South Station, which she said may not be possible with the new anti-collision system the commuter rail system is installing. Pollack said she believes Canada, unlike the US, did not mandate the adoption of the anti-collision system.

Pollack also raised two other questions about the Toronto commuter rail vision. She said the population of Toronto is much larger than Boston, which makes round-the-clock service more feasible. She also noted that electricity in Canada is far cheaper than it is in Massachusetts, which makes electrification of the commuter rail system far more cost effective.

Contract signed for digital billboards on highways

The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a 15-year contract on Monday with a company that intends to erect 8 to 10 digital advertising billboards along major highways such as I-93 and I-95 and share half of the revenues with the transit authority.

Evan Rowe, the T’s director of revenue, said the transit authority will be guaranteed a minimum of $3.37 million under the contract with Outfront Media, the same company that operates digital billboards at subway stations.

Rowe said the T will be able to place its own content on the billboards 25 percent of the time. For that reason, Rowe chose to call the 14-foot-by-48-foot displays “outdoor information panels” rather than digital billboards. He said the panels would be located near an access point to MBTA services and provide valuable customer information, such as when the next train or subway is leaving. He said the precise location of the panels has not been determined yet.

The T already owns or leases space for 137 conventional billboards located on property it owns. Many of the billboards have been in operation for decades.

New vendors hired for RIDE service

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.

The Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday approved contracts worth $607 million with three vendors to provide paratransit service for five years beginning at the start of 2020.

The three vendors will split service, with National Express Transit Corp. providing 50 percent of the coverage, MV Transportation Inc. providing 30 percent, and Veterans Transportation LLC providing 20 percent.