History & Culture

Podcast 09 - Snow Cripples MBTA, Governor Baker Presents Statewide Budget Cuts

Podcast 09 - Snow Cripples MBTA, Governor Baker Presents Statewide Budget Cuts

It's been a terrible few weeks for the chronically neglected MBTA as record snowfall and epic traffic congestion stalled buses and trains throughout the region. Damage to vehicles and infrastructure following 50 disabled trains on Monday forced the MBTA to suspend rail service for the third time this year as crews work to clear tracks and repair ancient equipment.

MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott blamed old equipment and lack of investment for the recent troubles and said she hopes we can pursue the "systemic, planned, serious, bold reinvestment" that the system needs.

Meanwhile, our new Republican Governor Charlie Baker called the system's recent performance "unacceptable" and blamed T management while admitting he has not yet called the GM.  Baker insisted his proposed $40 million transportation budget cuts will not affect transportation service.

How did we get to this point? Where do we go from here?

Comm Ave: from auto mile to people mile

Comm Ave: from auto mile to people mile

Nearly a century ago, Commonwealth Avenue from Kenmore Square, heading west to Packard's Corner, was home to over a hundred automobile dealers and associated vendors. For much of the twentieth century, while riding the trolley, you would have passed showroom after showroom, parking lot after parking lot, all calling out for you to buy a car and drive away.

MBTA Announces 24/7 Service, Promptly Declares Bankruptcy

April Fools

MassDOT and MBTA officials today announced the introduction of 24-hour service at a press conference held at the State Transportation Building. This move came from a recent mandate by state legislation requiring the T operate at all hours of the day. The legislature hopes to reduce the incidence of drunk driving and provide riders extra hours of service to beat delays and get to work on time.

Guest Podcast - Critical Transit: Train Crashes ARE Preventable

This year has been a big year for train safety issues, in particular for nearby Metro-North Railroad in New York and Connecticut.

How safe are our trains and at what cost can we have better safety?

Last week I had a chat with Jeremy of Critical Transit talking about these critical questions about safety, including some national trends that affect commuters in Boston on a daily basis.

Ultimately, many train crashes are preventable. Computer systems on the Orange Line, Red Line, and many lines on the commuter rail protect passengers daily. The Blue Line still relies on the same physical automatic train stop system used in New York, but the Green Line still desperately needs a $721 million safety upgrade. The South Coast Rail commuter rail expansion will cost well more than twice that. Which do we fund?

While we don't have high speed trains running through our tunnels, similar safety systems that could have prevented this summer's accident in Spain could prevent the next Green Line accident.

MassDOT Takes Pretty Pictures as Green Line Extension Gets Underway

Work is finally underway for the much-awaited first phase of the Green Line extension north to Medford. Last December, MassDOT issued the first contracts to Barletta Heavy Division and followed that with the go-ahead to start construction on a set of demolitions and bridge widening projects that will, according to the MassDOT web site:

  • Reconstruct and widen the Harvard Street Rail Bridge in Medford
  • Widen the Medford Street Rail Bridge in Somerville
  • Demolish 21 Water Street in Cambridge in preparation for the construction of the new Lechmere Station under Phase 2/2A of the GLX project
  • Construct retaining walls and noise walls adjacent to the Harvard Street Rail Bridge
  • Relocate MBTA Commuter Rail tracks in the Harvard Street Rail Bridge area
  • Upgrade and replace existing storm drain system between Harvard Street and Granville Avenue

These projects will continue for 2 years until March of 2015. During that time, the state plans to maintain its transparency and documentation through photos. According to Joe Pesutauro of the MBTA:

With strong support from the Green Line extension team, DOT Communications staff has done a total of 53 separate posts with Green Line Extension meeting, outreach, and construction information since the MassDOT blog debuted 50 months ago. More than one [post] per month on average and more than on any other single MassDOT/MBTA project.

Each of those posts was accompanied with a Tweet and link on Twitter.  Each such item is now also posted on our more recent MassDOT Facebook page, including two FB posts within the past week- one on the upcoming meeting and one displaying one of the Flickr construction photos.  We have a Flickr set established to add future construction photos.  All this in addition to the separate efforts on T social media.

The biggest highlight is MassDOT's latest album on Flickr, which captures the construction and is a great visual progress update. MassDOT has been doing this for some time to show very occasional and infrequent updates on bridge construction for the Accelerated Bridge Program, but the MTA has been posting album after album of construction updates for even less time. MassDOT started in the summer 0f 2009 with 1,165 uploads while the MTA has uploaded over four times that in half the time, starting with its first post in March of 2011.

Granted, the MTA has at least one dedicated photographer, but it has roughly the same number of ongoing capital projects and maintenance needs as MassDOT and the MBTA combined. Suffice it to say, MassDOT's planning site is well-organised, but much of the information is either hidden deep within many clicks or in lengthy PDF documents; the closest thing to a dashboard is the 'Projects' tab on the main MassDOT page. The MBTA's project page is slightly better, but is a simple table that doesn't give indication of scope or size of projects, instead listing project statuses. Deeper in, there isn't much consistency to project documentation, impact, or even format.

Other agencies have varying levels of success with building project dashboards. The CTA has a presentable planning site that highlights major upcoming projects. BART's project site is incredibly accessible through its good design via simplicity. SFMTA's site is more text-heavy, but highlights major projects well, perhaps only by default because they have fewer but wider-scoped projects. Washington Metro also has a very text-heavy project page littered with links to PDFs, but many of these are studies and preliminary analysis for projects and are well-organised into major categories on a single page. WMATA even has a rider-oriented blog-style site called PlanItMetro for focused feedback and updated on various projects, similar to MassDOT's blog. The NYC MTA, which has far more ground to cover than most in gaining public trust, has the best capital projects board; the capital projects are organised by division, similar to the way our capital projects are presented, and outlined with a breakdown of estimated and actual cost and deadline with notes for any discrepancy.

The NYC MTA has a very detailed and easily navigable dashboard that more clearly gives interested stakeholders project status.

NYC's MTA arguably has bred a similar, if not deeper, strain of distrust as the MBTA and re-constituted MassDOT, which didn't exist until nearly four years ago. The MBTA/MassDOT need this kind of visibility and information accessibility. The T and MassDOT/former EOT have come a long way to show that they hold themselves accountable to its stakeholders outside of hour-long update meetings, regardless of whether the current people in leadership are responsible for the decades of actions that have bred the distrust in the agencies. A Flickr or Twitter feed or even Facebook page are more accessible than a physical meeting or even a PDF of the PowerPoint presentation from the meeting posted to the web.

The Green Line Extension does have a Facebook page, but as of this writing is not linked from the main project site, which suffers the same disjointed branding, presentation, and deep linking of information as many of MassDOTs other project pages. This capital project is the most promising in being a consistently transparent project through regular photo updates, but this consistency needs to be pushed across all projects and start well before any shovels hit the ground. This will be hard for the much maligned and beleaguered agencies, but both Secretary Davey and MBTA GM Scott deeply know and daily act on how important transparency is to public accountability and trust. While they're just getting started turning things around, many others in their field are leapfrogging past them and we can learn from those advances going forward.

LivableStreets hosts a T-riffic night of T Trivia

WP_20130328_001 The turnout for this evening's LivableStreets first (hopefully annual, semi-annual, quarterly, or even monthly) T trivia night was on-par with what programming manager Kara Oberg had expected, but definitely filled the room on the lower level of Lir on Boylston St. On the evening's agenda: drinks, food, networking, and community-building.

'I just met these people an hour ago', said a student among a group that seemed to have known each other for years. The group, itself, a perfect mix of the attendees this evening: students, train enthusiasts, and professionals across every trade.

At the adjacent table, former LivableStreets board member, current Walk Boston board member, and graphic designer Nina Garfinkle sat with David Loutzenheiser, transportation planner of MAPC, and several others. A mix of who's who of transportation advocacy and trivia lovers, the event seemed like it was only missing a visit from MassDOT secretary Richard Davey and newly appointed MBTA GM Dr. Beverly Scott.

The trivia questions ranged from MBTA triviata to political and financial issues. One of the first round of questions included facts about the Boston's Green Line being the most heavily used light rail line in the US and the origin of the T's iconic logo of a 'T' in a circle.

WP_20130328_002Artie, a transportation engineer from HDR Engineering, brought in many of his friends to form his team. A designer of the very streets we walk, drive, and bike on or travel rapidly underneath, he was very 'new school' of those within transportation engineering, many of whom are notorious for taking an auto-throughput-first view of street design. Upon mention of 'sidewalk bumpies', he politely enlightened me of their more correct industry term: detectable warning pads. His consultancy work with the city of Boston and its outlying areas has even brought him into the engineering and design of innovative mid-block crossing notification strips for the visually impaired, a feature often not needed in or overlooked by most walkable American cities because of their lack of mid-block pedestrian crossings.

His most interesting insight was something that many miss when talking about re-urbanisation: I think that many disabled people will start moving into cities because of their ability to provide [the disabled] services and accessibility that suburbs simply can't provide in order to give them independence. In areas outside the T, mobility and independence can be very costly and time-consuming for the disabled, as shown by The Ride's growing costs and hurdles as compared to the rest of the MBTA's operations. Even as the fixed routes of the T have become more accessible, affording the disabled and elderly better independent mobility, other systems have been improving their accessible services, like the MTA in New York and the CTA in Chicago that have started piloting newer, more flexible vehicles designed specifically for accessible door-to-door transit services.

A number of student organisers from Northeastern were also present, including Justin Bensan, Daniel Morrissey, Alexa Torres, Jake Berman. The group is in the process of creating a 'transportation club' at Northeastern as a means of bringing forward mobility issues at their school and building a community around alternative transportation issues. Led by Jake Berman, president of the nascent club, and Justin Bensan, founder of the Northeastern branch of Students Against T Cuts, the group wants to build the club on the momentum from last year's unified protests against severe service cuts and advocacy of more balanced transportation funding.

WP_20130328_003

In the hopes that this might be a more regular event, I asked Kara about the next T trivia night. Of all the planning that had to come together for the evening, she noted the most time-consuming was coming up with all the trivia questions. That said, I challenge the state's decision-makers to come to LivableStreets' next T trivia night to see how much they actually know about the system that drives the economic engine of the Commonwealth.

Not everyone has to be a transportation expert or historian on the T, but without an appreciation for it, we may as well be blind to the T's funding problems as we would a spewing, backed up toilet.

MBTA Steps Closer to Corporate-Sponsored Station Names

Corporate sponsorship is about to take advertising within the MBTA a step farther but at what cost and how effective will it be? [Photo by Flickr user nic221]I've been fairly preoccupied with life lately, so this story (and many others) nearly flew right under my radar, but not before I had a chance to catch the original posting on the Boston subreddit. In short, the MBTA is one step closer to making corporate-sponsored station names a reality in a last ditch and fairly ineffective attempt to grasp at straws for new revenue. No doubt the MBTA is having to continue pursuing this as a means of proving to state leaders that they are doing what they can to resolve the internal financial problems at the T to the best of their ability.

Either way, it turns out that the study by IMG Worldwide found a market for station naming rights and would bring in a potential $18.4 million a year to sell rights to 11 key stations throughout the system, leading to a total $147 million over eight years, according to the MBTA report to MassDOT. According to Mark Boyle, Assistant General Manager for Development and the representative of the MBTA who briefed MassDOT on the proposal, this could be good to go by mid-summer as sponsors line up to have their brands share sign space with historic Boston subway station names.

The unfortunate reality is that this tactic has historically failed to bring in the revenues promised here in Boston and elsewhere. It is a considerably less solid deal with corporations than encouraging developers to build on MBTA property and invite corporations to lease space within those well-situated, innercity developments to bring long-term revenue in as they have been doing for decades in Japan.

This is yet another short-term, short-sighted fix. In the 8 years these contracts would run, a well-designed contract that gives the MBTA a way out of deals that go sour and holds developers accountable for delays could build thousands of housing units (hopefully less stratified than what we already have and actually addresses the glaring housing issues plaguing Boston) and square feet of commercial office and retail space over, in, and around stations. This would further ensure sustained ridership levels, possibly increase non-rush hour ridership, and provide the sustained funds from real estate leasing to maintain and even improve our ailing system.

At the same time ridership growth threatens to overload the system in coming decades, it would be beneficial for the MBTA, Boston, and Commonwealth to create mixed-use neighbourhoods around transit (not at the far flung suburban stations) where people can walk to work and alleviate increasing uni-directional rush-hour traffic volume while still providing new revenue for the T through value capture policies.

There are precedents for doing that here in the US already and many municipalities are adopting these long-term plans to provide additional funds for further improvements from the initial investments (e.g. new light rail lines, subway extensions).

Most importantly, transit-accessible office space is far more valuable to any of these potential investors than the relative pennies they're throwing at the MBTA to slap their name on a station. We have the potential to create new neighbourhoods, strengthen existing ones, provide housing for thousands, and bring back tax revenue from companies that have long since fled Boston proper because of its lack of accessible, modern, and affordable office space. Boston is low on the list of world-class cities playing host to Fortune 500 companies, Liberty Mutual being the only company to call Boston home. Two others, Raytheon and TJX, apparel and home fashion megachain, sit just outside of Boston in outlying suburban office parks accessible by I-95/Route 128, but hardly walkable from any commuter rail station.

While we deliberate and the MBTA/MassDOT continues to insist on calling suburban islands of development around massive commuter parking garages at its fringe stations is 'transit-oriented development', the Boston Metro region will continue to flounder as residents struggle to commute to work in suburban office parks only accessible by car as traffic increases and gas prices soar. Now more than ever does transit matter.