T notes: South Coast Rail optimism grows

Keolis charts progress after 4 years on job

STATE TRANSPORTATION OFFICIALS still need to work out how to pay for South Coast Rail and who should be in charge of the first phase of its construction, but on Monday they sounded as if the long-delayed project was a go.

James Eng, the deputy rail administrator for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, sought and won approval from state transportation officials to spend $28.5 million to complete the final design of the nearly $1 billion project to launch commuter rail service from South Station to New Bedford and Fall River via Middleborough. The second phase, costing about $3.2 billion, would run electrified rail service to New Bedford and Fall River via Taunton. The state, not the MBTA, is expected to pay for the rail project.

Eng ticked off a list of construction projects, listed which agency would be in charge of which jobs, and said he was prepared to use eminent domain to take property needed for the rail line. He also said he has found a way to get the ride down to less than 90 minutes.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said it’s not quite time for a groundbreaking, but she said a celebratory kickoff to the project is not far off. Officials say the new commuter rail line, a campaign promise of Gov. Charlie Baker, should be up and running by late 2022.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re really excited to put the pedal down on this project,” said Pollack.

“This is a milestone moment,” said Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan, a member of the MassDOT board.

Despite the optimism, a number of transportation officials raised concerns about the complexity of the project and the many agencies and contractors that would have to work together to pull it off. Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, called for the hiring of a consultant who could help state officials referee disputes. He also said one state official needs to be put in charge of the project, a lesson learned from the Green Line extension project. (A correction was made to an earlier version of this story to make clear that Aiello is the chairman of the Fiscal and Management Control Board.)

Keolis charts progress at 4-year mark

Halfway through its eight-year contract, Keolis Commuter Services said its service is demonstrating steadily improving.

Under terms of the company’s contract with the MBTA, trains are supposed to arrive on time 92 percent of the time, after adjustments for such external factors as severe weather and conflicts with Amtrak trains. Under that standard, Keolis said, the company has exceeded the requirement all but one of the last four years – the year when heavy snow crippled and then shut down the entire MBTA system.

Keolis’s actual on-time performance was 83 percent in fiscal 2015, 90 percent in fiscal 2016, and 89 percent in fiscal 2017 and 2018.

Officials said on-time performance by line has shown steady improvement, except on the Franklin and Lowell lines, where problems have halted progress in fiscal 2018.

According to the presentation, commuter rail revenue has risen from $16.5 million in July 2014 to just over $20 million in June 2018. Part of the increase was caused by a fare hike, but officials say the steadily rising fare income suggests the system is also gaining riders. The commuter rail system has difficulty tracking how many riders it actually has, but that problem may be remedied relatively soon as the T has approved funding for passenger counters in every car.

Baker wants to direct state aid to Uber, Lyft

Gov. Charlie Baker’s supplemental budget calls for using $3.2 million derived from a fee on Uber and Lyft rides to subsidize wheelchair accessible vehicles that would be deployed by the ride-hailing apps.

The state assesses a 20-cent fee on every Uber and Lyft ride. Baker wants to use the money to subsidize the purchase of wheelchair accessible vehicles that the ride-hailing apps could use to provide rides to disabled passengers. The MBTA saves money when ride-hailing apps transport disabled passengers participating in the RIDE program.

Getting from Red to Blue

The MBTA’s proposal to study the merits of a pedestrian, rather than a rail, connection between the Red and Blue Lines came under fire on Monday from several transit advocates.

The most interesting critique came from Fred Salvucci, the former secretary of transportation who orchestrated the Big Dig and agreed to a number of transit improvements – including a Red-Blue rail connection by 2010 – as part of that project.

“It’s an outrageous lack of delivery. It’s a real travesty,” Salvucci said.

He remembers reassuring officials from the Conservation Law Foundation, including Stephanie Pollack, the current secretary of transportation, when they worried that the promise to build a Red-Blue connection would not come to fruition. He said state officials should follow through today and build the connection.

“Why should anyone believe anything in a long-range plan is going to happen?” Salvucci asked.

Appointments at the Registry?

Brian Shortsleeve, a member of the MassDOT board, thinks the Registry of Motor Vehicles should explore giving members of the public appointments to handle their Registry business.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles, in the transition to a new software system and new federal licensing requirements, has been struggling with lengthy customer service delays. Shortsleeve said one way of addressing the problem might be to deal with customers on an appointment basis rather than first-come, first-serve.

Erin Deveney, the registrar of motor vehicles, said the agency is exploring the use of appointments for some customers but sounded like the approach wasn’t a top priority for her. She told the MassDOT board that service has been improving, with 63 percent of customers being served in under 30 minutes in June. That’s up from 44 percent in April and 51 percent in June.

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.

Danny Levy comes to the T

Danny Levy, communications and marketing director for the Massachusetts Port Authority, is moving over to the MBTA to become chief customer officer. The chief customer officer, a high priority of T General Manager Luis Ramirez, will advocate for customers at all levels of the agency. Levy will make $200,000 a year in her new post.