T notes: South Shore customers want later trains

MBTA GM wants less jargon in messages to customers

MBTA ADVISORY BOARD Executive Director Paul Regan thought he had given the MBTA everything needed to change up schedules of commuter rail trains to make them useful to South Shore riders spending a night on the town.

“It’s the only area of the commuter rail service that doesn’t have service after 11 o’clock,” Regan told the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, reporting that the idea of later train departures from South Station has unanimous support among city and town officials in the area.

T officials contended the schedule change would cost $150,000 to $200,000, according to Regan, who claimed those expenditures could be covered by only a slight increase in ridership. T officials have also treated the request like a pilot program idea, which could entail more regulatory hurdles, rather than a simple schedule change.

In his comments to the board on Monday, Regan made it clear that proponents will be perturbed by the agency’s response to the proposal.

“The MBTA Advisory Board’s members have jumped through every hoop that the MBTA has asked us to jump through. We’d like a decision,” Regan said. “It’s not going to be pretty if I go back and describe to them after all of the evidence what seems to be a non-decision from the MBTA.”

After the meeting, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said he would meet with Regan and other supporters about the idea to find out whether either side made a mistake in evaluating the proposal.

“Our internal analysis showed there was an additional cost,” Poftak said.

Control Board Chairman Joseph Aiello asked to take the issue up at a future meeting.

Poftak takes on jargon

In addition to plans for increased capital spending, Poftak wants to do a better job telling the public why construction projects are underway in language that will convey their importance.

“It is important to explain the utility of projects to customers in plain language that is meaningful to them,” Poftak told the control board. “We really need to be communicating in a way the customer understands.”

A clean air project in Back Bay Station is a case study for how jargon can obscure the reason for a project.

“Back Bay has a door pressurization project that is labeled as such 200 yards away from the project. I don’t think customers care very much about door pressurization. The project will result in no more diesel exhaust coming up into the lobby of Back Bay Station so you won’t get that blast of exhaust,” Poftak said. “Clean air in Back Bay Station is a much more compelling message to customers and it’s one we need to get out there.”

Electric buses

The MBTA has received the first of five battery-powered buses, which will go into service on the Silver Line, Poftak announced.

The first of their kind on the system, the 60-foot electric buses will give the T insight into how they work, how useful they are, and how to maintain them.

The purchase was funded with a grant from the Federal Transit Administration, Poftak said.

Fare evasion discussion

The unexplained delay in rolling out a new system of fare collection throughout the MBTA will give advocates and the public more time to weigh in on what that should look like, and one member of the control board thinks changes should be made to how fare evasion is enforced.

The T is negotiating a new schedule with Cubic, the vendor hired to outfit the transit system with more convenient payment methods.

“I don’t have concrete details on what that schedule looks like now but I assure you both parties are working towards it,” Poftak said. “We do have some major policy issues to still work through, and this does actually give us some time to engage in those conversations.”

The delay was reported earlier by the Boston Globe after comments the company’s CEO, Bradley Feldmann, made in a conversation with analysts on May 2. Regarding the project in Boston, he said, “We’ve delivered the preliminary design documentation. We’ll probably adjust some of the milestones. We’re in conversations with the customer now, but the project will do well and we’re excited about the progress we’ve made there.”

MBTA control board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt said when evaluating fare policy one item to consider is the hefty fines that people owe for sneaking onto the T without paying.

State law calls for non-criminal citations and fines that go from $100 for a first offense to $600 for a third or subsequent offense.

Advocates are worried how enforcement will work when the new system is in place and are also concerned about how the fines would affect particular demographics, Tibbits-Nutt said after the meeting.

“They’re really, really worried about continuing to disproportionately burden youth of color especially when you’re talking about these fines, because they go to the RMV. This becomes an actual criminal case if you don’t pay them,” said Tibbits-Nutt.

Ferry procurement

When only one vendor, the incumbent Boston Harbor Cruises, bid to run the MBTA’s ferry service contract last year, the new arrangement dramatically increased costs for the transit agency.

On Monday, Jeff Cook, who is now the T’s chief procurement officer, explained some of the reasons for the lack of competition and the “spike up in cost” that will lead to about 4-5 percent increases every year beyond fiscal 2020 for the remainder of the contract.

The incumbent vendor owns many of the boats used for the service. When T bought its own boats they cost about $5.8 million apiece so they are significant investments, according to Cook, who said the T should cultivate relationships with other ferry operators to foster competition that could bring down prices.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

“We have the opportunity to ask more of these questions by thinking farther in advance, because if the T wanted to own more boats and then ask an operator to operate them, or if we want an operator to buy more boats dedicated to the T, [those are] completely different procurements,” Pollack said after the meeting.

Boston Harbor Cruises is not the only ferry operator around. Wynn Resorts, which plans to open a casino at the mouth of the Mystic River, near where it meets the Inner Harbor, has plans to offer a ferry or water taxi service. The casino company has hired Boston Boat Works to build the vessels, which will be operated by Bay State Cruises, according to Michael Weaver, a spokesman for Wynn who said the company will announce more details about the service soon.