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Improving the MBTA, One Complaint at a Time...

September 01, 2018

August 7 was a hot Tuesday, and I was headed for a Somerville Homeless Coalition fundraiser after work. I eventually got there, but only after one of those Red Line commutes that make a person want to swear off public transportation - or perhaps just swear. Instead, I made efforts to contact MBTA personnel. Eventually, I received this email:


"Sent: Wednesday, August 15, 2018 2:33 PM

Subject: FW: Incident Follow up


Hi Representative Provost -


"I asked our Operations Team to provide me a summary of what happened the evening of August 7th. They informed me that at about 6:20 PM, Red Line train 1826 reported that it had lost its air departing Park Street northbound. On scene, they found a pulled emergency brake and worked to reset it. After resetting it, the train still would not move. There was an attempt to split the train but at the same time, a passenger tried to open a half door on the train causing a pilot light to go on and further delaying the officials.


Train 1841 arrived at Downtown Crossing, offloaded its passengers, and at 6:42PM prepared to assist the disabled train 1826. Due to the heat, passengers were offloaded train 1826 onto the platform and at 6:55 PM, rescue train 1841 departed Downtown Crossing and made a successful tack on at 7:06 PM to push the disabled train to Alewife. The disabled train and the rescue train were cleared from the mainline at 7:30 PM. This caused delays up to 30 minutes in service.


I have been informed that customers had been notified via T-Alerts, Station PA's, Twitter, and onboard announcements.


However, I certainly appreciate your feedback that there was not sufficient communication. I have passed along your concerns to our Operations Department. It is understandable that incidents will happen but when our customers feel they have not been properly informed is a concern. Operations Management informed me they will continue to monitor their communications to ensure accurate and up to date information."


Finding this response unsatisfactory, I sent this reply, on Thursday, 8/16/2018:


"Thanks for your account of the August 7 Red Line incident. I myself arrived at the Park Street Red Line platform at 6:21 pm, but other individuals on the platform informed me that the stuck train had already been in the tunnel for at least 30 minutes before I arrived - perhaps personnel on the train tried to solve their problem before reporting it? There were some announcements over the loud speaker, but these were mostly unintelligible - the only ones I could hear were about upcoming weekend shuttle service between [unintelligible] stations.


From the two visible cars not yet in the tunnel, it was clear that train 1826 was packed with people, sitting and standing. What is not clear is why the train was not evacuated before one of the gentlemen standing on the train became so overcome that he suffered a medical emergency. Seeing him pass out and fall prompted me to go upstairs and report it to the T employee in the booth; when I asked him what was going on downstairs, he said he'd report the medical incident, but only knew about Green Line operations.


When I went downstairs passengers were being evacuated from the stuck train. The platform, of course, had continued to fill with more people. A transit police officer appeared - the first T employee visible on the scene - presumably to oversee the evacuation, and to keep passengers on the packed platform safely away from the second train, which had pulled into the station.


I asked the police officer what was going on, and learned that the second train would be pushing the first out of the station. Passengers then flocked to me to ask what the officer had said; it was then that I learned about the man whose 94 year old father was among those stuck on the platform - I think it was only a stroke of good fortune that more people did not pass out during this ordeal. Please consider that the temperature must have been in the high 90s on the platform, and the atmosphere stifling.


Also, the math doesn't work for your claim that this incident 'caused delays up to 30 minutes in service.' According to your time line, the stalled train problem was reported at 6:20, and was cleared from the main line at 7:30 - by another train that did not open its doors for passengers. Trains offering service only came after the track was cleared.


So, even by your reckoning of events, there was a 50+ minute delay in service, with heat in the 90s, no T personnel to be found, and the electronic sign on the platform warning of "15 minute delays." If the 'alert' system you describe actually had functioned in any meaningful way, I don't think that Red Line passengers would have continued to pour onto the platform as they did. Those of us on the platform could not hear the on board announcements, the PA system was useless, the electronic board misleading - and I don't know about you, but it would never occur to me to check Twitter to found out what was going on with the Red Line.


My travel delay was an hour long, in unpleasant and rather alarming circumstances - hence my text message to you. Others waited even longer than I did for a train. Some, of course, gave up and found another way to travel, but still there were hundreds of people on the platform waiting.


How long a delay does the T have to anticipate before shuttle buses are provided? What about sending your Walmart greeter folks in the red shirts down to the platform, in a situation like this, to make announcements, check on the wellbeing of the elderly, and hand out little bottles of water? Or station then at the entrance to the Red Line, to warn passengers about what to expect? Why did you wait until a man passed out and fell before you evacuated the stuck train?


I am giving you this level of detail about that August 7 commute in the hope that you will pass it on to operations. The perception of many T riders is that MBTA does not care about its passengers, and what they often have to put up with. If I were running a transit system, I would not want to have this image."


To my intense surprise, soon after I sent this email, I received a phone call from my correspondent, thanking me repeatedly for my detailed account. I was told that this was important information, that it would be shared with Operations, and that the T would do better. I was doubtful about that latter claim, but appreciated the courtesy of the call.


Then, on August 27, 2018 I heard this then-breaking news story:


  Amazing, right? The countdown clocks on the platform will no longer give misleading information about the status of a broken down train, and when it might be expected to arrive!


While I cannot know for certain this change was made in response to my complaint, I'm going to hang on to that belief. In future, when MBTA breakdowns leave me in limbo, I'm going to seek an alternate route. And others waiting on the platform will have the information they need to make an informed decision.


For a related story, see:The MBTA vs. Other Legacy Transit Systems: How Do We Compare? It observes: "Nearly half of Bostonians use alternative means to get to work, (and) Boston's subway cars and buses are very old, even when compared to other legacy systems," comparing our MBTA to systems in five other big cities. Another interesting data point was that, compared to these other systems, "Subway service has deteriorated fastest in Boston."

About Somerville's Missing Trees...

August 27, 2018

One aspect of the GLX project that has taken many of us by surprise only became evident after land surveys were completed. The right of way (ROW) owned by MBTA was not, in some cases, where abutters thought it was; in some cases, it was practically up against of homes along the ROW. In other cases, MBTA had taken (usually by negotiation, in lieu of eminent domain) "temporary construction easements" across private properties abutting the ROW, and removed trees from these areas as well.


Much of this land will be cleared away altogether, to allow widening of the below-grade portion of the ROW, to enable track to be installed. Some of the railroad bridges will need to be partially demolished and reconstructed, because of this widening. It is a huge engineering project.

It was clear that construction plans would require the removal of a significant number of trees, but it was represented to the legislative delegation that the cutting would be more "selective" than it proved to be. Additionally, state regulations prohibit the felling of trees with nesting birds, but having watched the crews mowing down trees, it seems unlikely that anyone actually checked.


There is no requirement in the scope of work for the GLX that MBTA do any kind of significant tree planting, apart, perhaps, from some station landscaping. Indeed, the land in the ROW will for the most part have been removed, and replaced with retaining walls. Such replacement of trees as can be achieved will have to be done, for the most part, by the City of Somerville, on public land, or by private landowners.


I've also been shocked by the number of healthy trees - street trees, and those in schoolyards and on other public properties - that have been summarily removed by Somerville DPW and its contractors. I don't know whether the city has any coherent policies about trees, but DPW seems to regard them primarily as a nuisance. DPW seems either not to put in its contracts - or not to enforce - standards for preserving our stock of trees. For instance, several trees on my street died when a city paving contractor cut their roots - but when I called DPW to object to this practice, I was told that the city's contractors "don't cut tree roots" - true in theory, perhaps, but not in practice.


I think that it will take community pressure to develop a satisfactory policy respecting trees and green space. Now that Emerald Ash Borer has been found in Somerville, our approximately 1,000 ash trees are likely to die a slow death. How we handle that challenge, and that of the more deliberate removal of trees in multiple locations, will ultimately depend on the engagement of Somerville residents, some of whom are organizing around these concerns: 

The Fate of the "Community Benefit Districts" bill - A Story of Organizing, and Staving Off Bad Law

August 27, 2018

I wrote at length recently about a bill I felt strongly compelled to vote against when it came before the House for enactment, on May 30 of this year. H.4546 would allow municipalities to authorize the creation of "Community Benefit Districts" (CBDs), fiefdoms with government-like powers controlled by private land owners. Districts like this assess fees on landowners in designated area to provide special services and amenities within the district.


I've described how suddenly the vote on engrossment came up in the House, where only one other member voted against the bill. I doubted that my vote would count for much in the long run, but this bill was so alarming that I had to register opposition. Afterwards, I had a number of inquiries about my vote, and the Boston Globe asked me to make the case against it, in a piece they committed to publish.


When the Senate voted on engrossment, 15 senators out of 40 voted "no." By the time of that vote, ACLU of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Collectors and Treasurers Association had weighed in on the bill. Then the action moved back to the House, where the next step would have been enactment of the bill.


Directly after the Senate vote, there was an effort in the House to enact H.4546 in lightly attended informal sessions. Because I was there to object to the bill's passage - a prerogative of any single legislator in an informal session - the bill had to be held over to later sessions. To my amazement, in the time that the final vote on H.4546 was delayed, an extraordinary coalition of advocacy groups came together to oppose enactment of this bill.


Here, in alphabetical order, is the list of organizations groups which publically opposed H.4546: Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU), Arise for Social Justice, the Boston Tenant Coalition, the Chelsea Collaborative, the Chinese Progressive Association, Citizens for Limited Taxation, City Life/Vida Urbana, Common Cause Massachusetts, Lynn United for Change, the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, the Massachusetts Collectors and Treasurers Association, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), NAACP NE Area Conference, the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), New England United 4 Justice, Right to the City Boston, SEIU Local 888, Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude, The Welcome Project of Somerville - I apologize to any opponents which I might have left off this list.


I would add that Secretary of State William Galvin sent a letter to the House, urging that it amend H.4546 to make the special districts it would create subject to the Public Records Law. Galvin had no reason to get involved in this controversy, and he did it in his customary quiet way. I have to say that it is characteristic of how he has handled his role as Secretary of State: 


H.4546 was not enacted by the House by the end of formal sessions. I have reason to believe that it will not again be proposed again for passage during an informal session. The whole experience has reinforced for me the value of reading the bills presented to us, and of taking a stand on important matters of principle, even against overwhelming odds - and that's a great affirmation.

Immigrants' Rights and the Massachusetts Budget for Fiscal Year 2019

July 23, 2018

"Budget dealmakers ignited a firestorm when they revealed the fiscal 2019 state budget would not include language to bar local law enforcement from collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Wednesday [July 18,2018]," wrote reporter Stephanie Murray in the July 19, POLITICO Massachusetts Playbook. I had truly thought that the delay in producing a budget meant that the conference committee budget would emerge with some kind of basic due process assurances, at least. I was stunned, and beyond disappointed that there was nothing. Here's what I wrote on Facebook:

"I am heartbroken to be presented with a budget which has no heart for immigrants. The long delay in producing a state budget had given me hope. Yet the conference committee budget offers not a single substantive or procedural protection for those imperiled by ruthless, reckless federal immigration policies. The deportation clock is running already for over 12,000 Massachusetts residents whose Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is under revocation. I am stunned that the Massachusetts House would not offer the most minimal protections to people targeted by the Trump administration, and I am voting against the budget in protest."


Both publicly and in caucus, the House Ways and Means Chairman who negotiated the budget deal said, "We just did not find consensus." I have to wonder, who is the "we" in this statement? Does it possibly refer to the meeting House and Senate budget chiefs reportedly held on Monday July 16, with Governor Baker - along with questions whether the House could muster the veto-proof majority for such measures that the Senate was able to provide?


The POLITICO piece referenced above noted that basic protections were "knitted into the Senate budget and would have stopped local law enforcement from making agreements with ICE. It also would have largely halted officers from asking about immigration status. The rider was the remnants of the Safe Communities Act, and Gov. Charlie Baker has said he would have vetoed the measure if it got to his desk." As with so many policy areas, from environment and energy, to mass transit and housing affordability, Charlie Baker is the Problem in Chief.

Fighting "Community Benefit Districts" - Another Neo-Liberal Boondoggle

July 23, 2018

I have a fundamental philosophical objection to privatizing government functions, services and property. I recently voted against a bill (H.4546) which would allow the creation of appealingly-named "Community Benefit Districts, (CBDs) by private land owners. These private fiefdoms - which could include public property - would further institutionalize wealth inequality, by allowing the biggest landowners to exact fees from their neighbors, and spend for purposes devised by private boards of directors - unelected, non-transparent, and unaccountable.


The Boston Globe recently asked me to make the case against CBDs - in a mere 350 words. My analysis was published in the Sunday July 15 edition. Since the link no longer seems to work, here's the content:


I recently voted against a bill allowing private property owners to map out and create "Community Benefit Districts." Once municipally approved, these district corporations would assume many powers, including to charge "assessments" that all non-exempt property owners in the district would have to pay, even those who do not support the district or its plans.


Proponents say Community Benefit Districts are a "local option." While it's true the districts would need municipal approval, cities and towns would have to hold hearings within 60 days and then vote within another 45 days whether to approve the districts. This tight schedule would demand local staff time and might require special town meetings.


If approved, these district corporations could build infrastructure and facilities; acquire property, including parkland; operate transit services, enter contracts, and incur indebtedness. Coincidently, these functions are ones governments usually perform. This commonality makes the districts look like vehicles for broad delegation of municipal powers to private parties essentially operating as shadow governments.


Some say district assessments would be a new tax. These fees also resemble small-scale eminent domain takings since they extract private property. But eminent domain takings must be for public purposes. Community Benefit District corporations would be privately initiated and controlled, their one-time local approval the merest lipstick of operating under color of law.


Local governments have the power to assess fees on specific properties to pay for special benefits. Municipalities use these "betterment assessments" to fund traditional property improvements like sidewalks, sewers, or even golf courses. To pass constitutional muster, though, municipal betterments must meet accountability standards. Yet the proposed legislation turns the work of providing betterments over to private corporations, with no clear accountability.


Human societies recognize that there are separate public and private realms, an essential distinction in government because it determines which rules apply. There is no legal clarity whether muddled hybrids of public and private power such as Community Benefit Districts and Business Improvement Districts are subject to public integrity requirements like the open meeting, and public records laws.


Aggrieved parties would probably have to go to court to get answers to the many questions that adoption of the Community Benefit District model would raise.


These districts are designed to provide additional services within designated district, creating a class of 'gated communities' within cities. Once they have the blessing of their local governments, CBDs are empowered to collect fees from other landowners within the district; those who are just 30 days late in their payment get liens slapped on their property. CBDs are designed to base governance, access, and services on wealth, and so undermine the civitas.


The articles linked below are about "Business Improvement Districts" (BIDs), a less powerful version of the CBDs; they demonstrate what makes these kinds of districts so problematic: 

Biography of a House Vote: An Example of Lawmaking by Ambush

July 23, 2018

Some of you may be scrambling to discover how your representative voted on H.4546, the complex, consequential bill I've described in the previous section. Spoiler alert: only two of us voted against this bill. Let me explain, though, why you should not necessarily jump to negative conclusions, if your rep cast a "yes" vote.


When I take the T into Boston in the mornings, I read electronic news digests like the "MASSter List" and "POLITICO Massachusetts Playbook," which sometimes give me good information about goings-on in the House. On the morning of Wednesday, May, 30, I saw that H.4546 had been polled favorably out of the Committee on House Ways and Means that morning. As soon as I looked up the bill, I could see that it was the latest iteration of bills I'd been voting against for years, except that the districts were no longer called "special assessment districts," but the warmer, fuzzier "community benefit districts."


H.4546 hadn't been on the list of bills the House was planning to take up that day, and at the 11:00 am Progressive Caucus meeting, it was still not clear that we would be voting on the bill. I left the noon Democratic Caucus at 12:30 to take a meeting; roll call votes were scheduled for 1:00 pm. At 1:15 pm, an email came from the Clerk's office, saying that amendments were in order for H.4546.

Soon after, there was a quorum roll call announcement, and I went to the Chamber. Several colleagues told me that they had not had their questions about H.4546 answered in caucus, but had been promised a meeting with a staff lawyer from the Speaker's office to answer them. I was asked to attend, and readily agreed.


In a matter of minutes, "H.4546 on engrossment" appeared on the board, and the Court Officers chased the members out of their private conversations and into their seats. We got to hear a little speech about how Community Benefit Districts were a 'helpful tool,' stronger than Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), which would allow commercial areas to be spruced up; if, for instance, business owners wanted to put planters outside all the shops.


I felt quite confident that this vote was not about sidewalk planters, but the roll call machine was immediately turned on. Rep. Michelle DuBois of Brockton and I cast the only "no" votes. The members who had unanswered questions never got their promised "meeting;" the bill was passed to be engrossed, and the official tally of the vote showed that the roll call machine was closed at 1:46 pm.


By contrast, members of the Senate learned at least one day before that H.4546 would be taken up on Thursday, July 19. This little window of notice gave the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts and other interested parties time to send expressions of concern to the senators. Fifteen members of the Senate voted against the bill, and at least one did so provisionally, saying he might vote against enactment, depending on what he was able to learn.


Personally, I think that both chambers of the legislature should have given their members more notice about the upcoming vote on the bill. It's a long, complicated bill, and its implications are not immediately clear. I have to wonder, for both branches of our legislature: what's the hurry?

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