T notes: Revenue discussion still percolating

Bus on-time performance hit; regional rail OK coming

THE LEGISLATURE AND THE PUBLIC have yet to hear from the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on whether new transportation revenues are needed, but two members who weighed in on the issue earlier this year say their viewpoint hasn’t changed.

Brian Lang and Monica Tibbits-Nutt said after Monday’s meeting that they continue to believe it makes no sense for the MBTA to keep raising fares in isolation. In March, they urged the Legislature to consider raising the gas tax, explore congestion pricing, or hike fees on ride-hailing apps.

“I haven’t changed my mind,” said Lang. Tibbits-Nutt said the same.

At the time of the revenue discussion in March, the control board indicated it would try to reach some consensus on the issue and then communicate that to the Legislature. That hasn’t happened yet, with Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, saying earlier this month that the board is now more likely to lay out a series of options for the Legislature rather than recommend any specific policy action.

Lang said the push for a revenue letter from the entire board to the Legislature on the question of new revenues was sidetracked to some extent by the Red Line derailment in June.

That may be the case, but the issue is also sensitive politically. Gov. Charlie Baker appointed all five members of the control board and he opposes new transportation revenues, other than revenues from imposing a price on the carbon content of automobile fuels. Some on the board say privately that it’s not part of their job description to discuss state tax policy, but others say they should weigh in because they are the most knowledgeable about what the needs of the T.

Tibbits-Nutt and Lang declined to say where their fellow board members stand on new revenues.  “We can’t speak for the rest of the board,” Tibbits-Nutt said.

Bus on-time performance comes under fire

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, sharply criticized the agency for the poor on-time performance of its bus system and a top T official agreed that a long-term plan to address the problem needs to be developed.

Data indicate buses operating on the T’s 15 key routes and the Silver Line were on time between 76 percent and 78 percent of the time over the last seven months, shy of the 80 percent goal. By contrast, buses on all of the T’s other routes have been on time between 60 percent and 66 percent of the time, well below the 75 percent target.

In September, the Silver Line was on time 78 percent of the time, key bus routes were on time 76 percent of the time, and the other bus routes were on time 60 percent of the time. For the Silver Line and key bus routes, on-time performance is defined as leaving a stop within 3 minutes of the scheduled time. For the other bus routes, being on time is defined a leaving a stop more than 1 minute before or 6 minutes after the scheduled time.

“These numbers are not getting any better and I’m not convinced the Better Bus Project is actually addressing those concerns,” Tibbits-Nutt said, referring to a T initiative to revamp bus service. “It just feels like we’ve been kicking the can and kicking the can and hoping that some of these adjustments at the Better Bus are actually going to improve this. I can’t imagine that the riders have any patience left….As the weather gets worse and more and more diversions continue to happen, my concern is this number is going to get worse. This is beyond unacceptable.”

Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, said he agreed with Tibbits-Nutt. He said bus service experiences the biggest delays at peak travel periods, and he promised to develop a plan to address that.

Aiello says regional rail OK likely

Joe Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, urged T staff to start planning for a major mobilization to launch some form of regional rail service in the future.

Aiello said the control board will meet with stakeholders at next Monday’s meeting and then vote on what direction to move in at the November 4 meeting. The T has been analyzing six different options for future commuter rail service, ranging from more frequent service on a small portion of the system to service every 15 minutes on the entire system. The T is also considering electrifying the system, expanding service, and revamping operations at North and South Stations.

“It is highly likely that the consensus of the board is going to be that we’re going to move to some form of a regional rail system,” he said. “What shape it may take is not clear until November 4, but clearly a lot more operations, more all-day service, and more utilization of the right of way facilities of vehicles, possibly changing technology.”

Aiello said the regional rail effort will be a massive project, and he wants the staff to start developing some sense of what type of organization will be needed to carry it out, both in terms of procuring new vehicles and technology and negotiating with potential vendors.

In the meantime, commuter rail needs more coaches

MBTA officials say they plan to use $33 million to refurbish 20 out-of-service passenger cars to help address overcrowding on the commuter rail system.

The T recently signed a contract for 80 new bilevel coaches, but those won’t start being delivered until September 2022 and they won’t be fully in service until June 2024. The 20 single-level cars are structurally sound, but need updates to seats, floors, lights, and air conditioning before they can be used.

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Bruce Mohl

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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.

Officials said they hope to get the 20 single-level cars back in service starting next year and all of them by 2021. Initially, four cars will be refurbished at the T’s facility in Rochester and Keolis Commuter Service will oversee the refurbishment of an additional 10. Whichever approach has the best success will get more cars to repair.

Jody Ray, the deputy rail administrator for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said some of the passenger cars are currently being used for tests of the anti-collision system being installed on the commuter rail system. “These coaches weren’t really fit for riders to ride them,” he said.