Mass Transit 

A true commonwealth relies on the idea that the public realm – the resources we all share is important, and deserves to be maintained properly, and invested in. Roads and bridges; public water supplies; sewers and drains; rivers and the ocean; parks and recreational facilities – there are all public goods, belonging to us all, and to future generations. Here in Somerville, public transportation is another essential element of the public realm.

 

Affordable housing, whether public or publicly subsidized, is another social essential, both for the lower-paid end of the workforce (and increasingly, mid-wage workers), and for frail elders, and others unable to manage market-rate rents. While often maligned, and sometimes neglected, public housing is a vital asset among our public goods. Although the trend has moved to public subsidies of market-rate apartments for those without sufficient earnings, this practice is not sustainable in a housing market which is increasingly becoming attractive to investors, including those overseas.

 

A “true safety net,” for me, means maintaining all our public assets, first of all. It means investing in expanding the public realm to better serve our population. It also means providing the subsidies and services necessary to assure that our people are able to live decent lives.

MBTA updates: GLX Meeting, T Delay Woes, Proposed fare Increases, New fare Collection System

Where to start? That's the first question, at a time when so much is going on with MBTA, and so little of it excellent. One exception, perhaps, is the next phase of work on the Green Line Extension (GLX) coming with the spring. Unfortunately, one of the first tasks will be the clearcutting of trees in the Lowell Line corridor, where the commuter rail now runs, since adding tracks for the GLX requires widening of the right of way (ROW.)

 

You've probably heard by now that the storm-cancelled March 7 public meeting about GLX has been rescheduled for Wednesday, March 21, from 6:30 to 8:30 at the Somerville High School Auditorium. We will be able to ask questions about the timing and scope of work, including the number of trees to be felled, and what plan exists, if any, to replant some of the lost trees - and where. Since widening the ROW requires excavation of the earth upon which most of those trees now stand, it's not clear to me where new trees could be planted, or whether MBTA or the City of Somerville has plan to do so.

 

This winter I've had many complaints about frequent, sometimes lengthy delays on the Red Line. As someone who usually commutes to the State House on the Red Line, I'm surprised that employers all over Greater Boston are not up in arms over the loss of workers' time due to transit delays. The Orange Line, which I occasionally use, is even worse than the Red Line, and the Green Line is notoriously unreliable - and MBTA seems to have no immediate plans to address reliability.

 

Yet the T's Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) voted, in November 2017, to award a contract to a private company -"the consortium of Cubic-John Laing" - to replace MBTA's roughly 11 year old automatic fare collection system (the one which replaced T tokens with Charlie Cards.) Dubbed "AFC (Automated Fare Collection) 2.0," this new system has an estimated cost of about $723 million. MBTA's main talking point for the new system is that it will eliminate the use of cash on buses, and will supposedly improve bus travel times by 10%.

 

Since a new fare collection system will not help the T's breakdown, signaling, and reliability problems, I cannot imagine the justification for replacing a fairly new system at a cost of almost three quarters of a billion dollars. If the T wants to end the use of cash on buses, it could do so now by hastening its plan to sell cash-loaded Charlie Cards in every grocery and convenience store. By making T cards as widely available as those already available for Dunkin' Donuts, and every other retailer, the T could probably shore up its flagging ridership.

 

In September, 2017, MBTA hired a new General Manager, Luis Ramirez, a former general Electric executive with no previous transit experience. He has reportedly urged pushing off a proposed MBTA fare increase until 2019 - after this fall's elections.A more immediate fare increase, reportedly to cover a recently-discovered budget deficit, has been floated by Steve Poftak, vice chairman of the FMCB, whom I'm guessing is really the guy calling the shots here.

 

I'm also guessing that the next big fare increase will be timed to coincide with the rollout of AFC 2.0. The last really big fare increase was instituted alongside the T's switch to its first automated fare collection system (though there was also an increase of 5% in 2014, and an increase of 9.3% in 2016.) So, whether turns out to be 2019 or 2020, I'd expect these changes in tandem.

March 17, 2018

Overall MBTA Funding - A Brief, Recent History

MBTA has struggled with its finances since it was put on a "forward funding" plan in 2000, during the governorship of Paul Cellucci. At the time, the state projected that the T would receive adequate revenue for operations and maintenance from an earmarked portion of the sales tax. In exchange, MBTA was saddled with the enormous liability of building the transit mitigation projects associated with the Big Dig, for which no funding was provided. The MBTA has become the most debt-burdened transit agency in the USA; the rising popularity of online retail has meant that the projected sales tax revenues for the T have not been realized (even after raising the sales tax from 5 to 6 and a quarter percent), and gas tax revenues are trending down as fuel economy increases.

 

I'm well aware that MBTA needs better maintenance and more capital investment, so all my time in the legislature, I've been focused on revenue. In 2013, I was one of just eight progressive House members who agreed to strategically vote against a proposed increase to the gasoline which would have been wholly inadequate for adequate MBTA funding. Our votes, though, combined with the votes of members opposed to the increase because they thought it was too much, stopped the House from getting a veto-proof majority for its paltry increase.

 

This tactical vote allowed the Senate to adopt a more robust increase, which then pushed the conference committee to adopt a higher gas tax than the House Speaker had proposed. We were confident that Governor Patrick would not veto this increase, and the resulting new revenue was enough to end federal transportation funding probation, and to secure the New Starts grant for GLX. But at the polls in 2014, the voters of Massachusetts repealed our legislation's "indexing" provision, which would have raised the gasoline tax with the rate of inflation - and we find ourselves today with shrinking revenues, and a statewide public "mandate" against raising the gas tax.

 

In 2015, newly-elected Governor Charlie Baker found he was not satisfied to have MBTA under the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) - his cabinet agency, staffed by his appointees. Baker proceeded to set up a Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) to make the major decisions for MBTA. While MBTA has seen modest investments, especially in winter-readiness, the FMCB has largely concentrated on privatizing various MBTA functions - even though MBTA has difficulty managing its existing private contracts, such as its agreement with Keolis, which operates its commuter rail service so abysmally, and expensively.

 

Nonetheless, Governor Charlie Baker (reportedly the most popular governor in the nation) is generally opposed to tax increases, has proposed no new revenue for the MBTA. After the transit-crippling winter of 2015, I heard many voices brightly announce that Gov. Baker had "fixed" the T, and weren't we fortunate. I can only suppose that these individuals, like Baker himself, are not T riders.

March 17, 2018

GLX Update: Good News, and Not-So-Good News

On March 13, members of the Somerville legislative delegation, and Mayor Curtatone, were briefed by John Dalton, head of the GLX project, on current progress. We learned that "three teams made the shortlist" for bidding on design and construction of the GLX, and that they were scheduled to receive the MBTA's Request for Proposals (RFP) today. We learned what the process would be, leading up to the bid opening on November 28 of this year; the issuance of a Notice to Proceed on February 9, 2018, and a project completion date of December 10, 2021 - seven years after the legal commitment to complete GLX.

 

MBTA's RFP is based on its "conceptual design" of GLX. The RFP will evidently contain language to the effect that the "base design" developed under the successful design/build contract "may not preclude" future construction of either the extended Community Path, or the extension of GLX to Route 16. Design and construction of neither element, however, will evidently be included in the RFP.

 

 MBTA's RFP contains an "Additive Option Concept" list of MBTA's six priorities, which creative bidders could try to add into their proposals, if they think they can do so at a sufficiently modest cost. Bidders may not pick and choose among the add-ons. It was expressly clarified that to get to the third item on the list, for instance, a bidder would have to include one and two.

 

The Community Path Extension (CPX) was not high enough on the list to satisfy those of us who attended the briefing. Nor were we pleased that the city's chief executive and representatives were not consulted about prioritizing additional project features. We asked Mr. Dalton to make adjustments to the RFP before it is issued; it remains to be seen if he will.

March 14, 2017

Building the Green Line Extension (GLX) We Need

On December 10, 2016, I was invited to give a presentation as part of a program titled "Reviving Federal Investment in Public Transit: Build Subways, not Submarines." The program, held at MIT's Stata Center, was expected to draw 50 -75 people; 125 from around the region attended, and an overflow room with a video screen had to be set up to accommodate those present. It's encouraging to me that so many people care enough about transit to give up half a Saturday in December, to be informed and energized about it...

December 12, 2016

MBTA Watch

I recently testified before the MBTA Fiscal Management Control Board (FMCB) in favor of the Transit Matters proposal to restore late-night transit service, by bus. The so-called "Night Bus" would travel linked routes every night of the week. Some FMCB members still seem skeptical that there are people working last or early shifts who would use such a service.

I also testified against further privatization of MBTA services. Cleaning staff, for instance, already work for one of two private companies which have contracts with MBTA for janitorial services. Sizeable numbers of cleaning staff were laid off on September first, with very little notice, creating unrealistic workloads. And, as several staffers testified to the FMCB, the hours of many have been cut to just under 30 hours per week so that the employer doesn't have to provide health insurance - nice, huh?

 

I'm still working with MBTA to get them into Somerville to speak publicly about their plan to replace our present automatic fare collection system with a new system. We have conceptual agreement, but no dates yet - so stay tuned.

October 04, 2016

Learn More about MBTA's Plans for a New Fare Collection System

On September 13, 2016, MBTA unveiled to the legislature's MBTA Caucus its already-developed plans to replace its roughly 10-year old automated fare collection system with an all-new system. MBTA has not, to my knowledge, solicited any public input on its plans. Yet it intends to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP), the first step in the procurement process, in October, 2016.

 

I find it rather odd that MBTA claims to not to know the cost of the proposed new fare collection system. Even more strangely, MBTA told its audience of legislators that it does not know the cost of its present system; either its original capital cost, or the costs of annual operation and maintenance. MBTA does know, on the other hand, that it plans to charge its customers $3 to $5 for the new cards themselves, which T riders will then have to load with the cost of their fare.

I'm currently working with folks at the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP) and MBTA to set up a meeting in Somerville, to present MBTA's plans to T riders here, and also an update on the Green Line Extension (GLX). Since we're such a tech-savvy community, we might provide MBTA with some good input about what system features might work best. Be on the lookout for notices about the upcoming meeting's date, time, and place.

 

Ideally, we could get answers to some of the many unanswered questions surrounding this undertaking. STEP has set up a google doc to generate questions for MBTA about its proposal:

 

https://docs.google.com/document/d/15SbUuvBaI_6orABnAMFwveqXfYUkVOBLAA0cdjzCj_U/edit?usp=sharing 

September 23, 2016

Local Power to Lower speed Limits!

Frustration with the state's 30 mph default speed limit (which applies "unless otherwise posted") predates my public service. For many years, municipal pleas to allow local decisions to lower speed limits on local roads fell on deaf ears. When I was elected to the legislature in 2006, I vowed to end this gridlock.

 

More than ten years, three Highway Administrators, and the creation of the consolidated transportation agency MassDOT later - victory! I filed the latest iteration of a local-control speed limits bill as an amendment to our Municipal Modernization bill. It was filed in the Senate side, kept by the conference committee and received a final favorable vote on July 31, 2016.

 

What went on in the intervening ten years? I filed a variety of bills, based on meetings with state highway officials and municipal stakeholders, some of which made legislative headway, only to meet practical or political impediments. I learned a tremendous amount, not just about the interplay of federal and state speed limit law, but about how various urban, suburban, and rural communities in Massachusetts view their roads, and their road users.

 

What, specifically, will the new law allow? It will allow municipalities to reduce the default speed limit on local roads to 25 mph, in "any thickly settled of business district," (Section 193,...) also, municipalities may designate "safety zones," on local roads, with speed limits of 20 mph (Section 194,...). So, prepare to organize locally, to lower the speed limit in a suitable location near you.

August 08, 2016

MBTA Fares - Another Little Victory

Everyone is doubtless aware of the MBTA fare increases, averaging 9.3%, that went into effect on July 1, 2016. You might have heard that this substantial increase was the result of the MBTA's Fiscal Management Control Board (FMCB) deciding that the legislature had authorized an increase of 5% each year - contrary to the intent and recollections of most legislators. The Senate in its budget, included an outside section clarifying that fares could increase no more than 5% every two years.

 

The House did not include such a provision, and asking the House to do anything the Senate way is always a delicate matter - something some colleagues will categorically never do. Still, MBTA fares are a significant expense for many modestly-paid people. So I circulated a letter, asking the House to include the Senate provision in the conference budget, and prevailed on others to send their own letters.

 

We did not get exactly what we asked for. The ultimate compromise was a cap of a 7.2% increase every 2 years. Yet Gov. Baker signed this version, and it will keep T riders from getting socked with an increase of the magnitude we this this year - and yes - it was a bipartisan group of legislators in the House who supported the Senate fare cap.

 

In other good news for transit riders, congratulations to Action for Communities & Environment (ACE) for their success in establishing a broader, better, MBTA Youth Fare - see ACE's cool video by clicking this link . 

August 08, 2016

GLX Gets Conditional Approval - at City Expense

On Monday, May 9, 2016, the MassDOT Board, together with the fairly-new-to-GLX  MBTA Fiscal Management Control Board (FMCB), voted to keep this crucial project going - albeit conditionally, and in reduced circumstances. That this vote occurred is due to the hard work and perseverance of many individuals (most of whom never expected to develop a major sideline in transportation advocacy), community organizations, and the city governments and elected leaders in GLX corridor cities. I always feel so proud and grateful when I go to a GLX meeting, and see how our community has turned out, armed with facts and passionate arguments.

 

But there's no denying that this vote took place after the Baker administration had extracted promises to contribute significant funding for the project from two of the three cities in the GLX corridor. Cambridge has committed $25 million, half of which it may be able to recoup from the developers of the North Point Project. Somerville, smaller, and poorer by most every measure, has committed $50 million - having been given no real choice. See, for instance:

 

http://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2016/05/09/green-line-extension-move-forward and http://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2016/05/10/scaled-green-line-extension-look-like

 

Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that this announced "new policy" of local contribution for capital spending on transportation projects is abysmal transportation policy (let's also see if the Baker administration applies it statewide, as represented.) Let's ask what the formula is that puts Somerville on the hook for $50 million. And let's look more closely at the contention - foreshadowing recent events - that Somerville needed "skin in the game" in order to move the project forward.

 

Many, many devoted people have testified and submitted testimony, over the years that GLX has been pending, about the various costs - in health, safety, mobility, and development opportunities - that Somerville has paid and paid again. At a recent meeting on the joint boards to take testimony on GLX, I testified specifically about some of the fiscal "skin" that the state has extracted from Somerville, to serve the transportation needs of the region: MBTA already owns 70 acres of land in our city. That's 3.5% of our total land area, and if it could be taxed at commercial rates, would be worth $2.7 billion in annual tax revenues.

 

Additionally, Somerville pays the 5th highest MBTA assessment in the state - $5,062,633 in FY 2016, and roughly the same amount for many years before that. This assessment is almost as much as the amount paid by the Brookline ($5,064,774), with its several Green Line stops. Quincy, which has three Red Line subway stations, pays just over $2 million annually - making me wonder about the formula for calculating the assessments.

 

But let's say that we take the position of MassDOT Secretary Pollack at face value - the GLX is too costly, and there's a shortfall of $73 million even counting all current sources of funding - how does that argument stand up? Well, it's plausible, I suppose, until we consider that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently committed up to $120 million in direct grants for infrastructure improvements related to the new General Electric headquarters in Boston - including for new vehicles, dispatch software, and other services for the "Seaport Transportation Management Association." Another $25 million of the total is committed to GE for other "improvements," which could include a parking garage, water shuttles facilities, and/or a helipad  (see: "General Electric executives really, really want a helipad in Boston" ).

 

So what does the existence of the agreement between GE and the Baker administration show? First of all, that if the political will is there, the dollars can be found. Secondly, why should folks in the GLX corridor get cleaner air, and a one-seat commute to Boston, when GE officials want a helipad? It's all about priorities - and our governor has made his clear.

May 16, 2016

Fear of Spending Money on Public Transit?

Let me be plain - I believe that the taxpayers of Massachusetts should never be fleeced by contractors. Much of my early career in municipal law was devoted to overseeing public contracts, fighting frivolous lawsuits, and generally protecting the public purse from those who would see it as an easy mark. I can get as incensed about the Big Dig as anyone.

 

But one of the things that still frustrates me the most about the Big Dig is the foot-dragging that has accompanied its biggest -and federally required - transit commitment, the Green Line Extension (GLX). Alarmingly, Gov. Baker's appointees on the MassDOT Board of Directors and the MBTA's fiscal control board have recently escalated talk of pulling the plug on our much-needed GLX. You've probably followed the story; if not I recommend visiting the website of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP).

 

Of course we should not be overspending on the GLX - but neither should we be turning back $1 billion in federal assistance to build our long overdue transit link to Boston. Nor should this discussion be taking place in the top-down manner we're currently witnessing. Kudos to STEP and its partner organizations for its recent letter to MassDOT/MBTA asking for a reopening of the public process surrounding the GLX.

 

The Baker administration engaged a consultant to answer the question of how cost projections have risen so high. A bit part of the answer seems to have been insufficient management capacity at MBTA, which had only four full-time equivalent (FTE) employees of its own assigned to GLX. Most of the contract management for GLX was being done by a private firm, under contract to MBTA.

 

It can't be helpful to the operations of the state and its agencies when experienced employees are cut from the workforce. Yet, one of the first actions of the Baker administration was to offer "voluntary early retirement" buyouts to large numbers of its most senior employees. Its recent decision to hire back 250 of these retirees is proving controversial, due to the associated costs - but it's reassuring that the administration realizes that its original cuts to staffing levels were counterproductive.

 

There seems to be no fear of raising transit fares to the maximum level allowed by law, something we can look forward to in the New Year. But what of other revenue sources to fund public transportation? For an artful, seasonal discourse on the current state of transit in Massachusetts, I tip my hat to former Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi for this gem.

December 23, 2015

MBTA "Reform"

Gov. Baker's proposal to reform MBTA once again (H.3347, filed April 22, 2015) seems to enjoy remarkable public support. I suspect that folks in Somerville are more transit-savvy than most, but I wonder how many people know that the governor's bill would cut funding to MBTA, remove limits on fare increases, and even repeal reduced-cost transfers between lines. At the May 11th hearing on H.3347, I testified against these aspects of Gov. Baker's plan..

 

I'm also skeptical of the Governor's desire to repeal of the Taxpayer Protection Act, which requires prior scrutiny of privatization proposals. MBTA - like other state agencies - has regularly used the existing provision to privatize functions (e.g. commuter rail service, station cleaning, and provision of bus shelters.) There's been no evidence put forth that this statute - also known as the "Pacheco law" - has impeded changes at the T, but this winter provided ample evidence that the privately-operated commuter rail functioned much less well than the publicly-run MBTA during a tough winter (I applaud Baker's more recent proposal to invest $83 million to better "winterize" the T.)

 

As to the Governor's desire to have MBTA run by a "fiscal control board" of his choosing, I have mixed feelings. I've no objection to Baker wanting to take full responsibility for MBTA. At the same time, I wonder to what extent this board might end up being a Trojan horse, filled with an army of anti-transit activists, who will continue pushing ideas like - well, cutting T funding, uncapping fares, and eliminating our hard-won transfer system.

June 09, 2015

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