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.


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.

Secretary Davey's Keynote at the MAPC Fall Council Meeting and Envisioning a Path to Better Transit Investment

This Wednesday morning, MassDOT Secretary Rich Davey gave the keynote speech at the MAPC fall council meeting. In it, he outlined the DOT's progress in maintaining the Commonwealth's infrastructure and its role in facilitating community growth within the metropolitan Boston area. Of significant interest is his mention of the DOT's new complete streets training programme to help local DOTs better plan walkable neighbourhoods throughout the Commonwealth. New York State had hit several roadblocks with complete streets legislation, despite support and pressure from many advocacy groups, legislators, and AARP, until the unanimous passage of a complete streets bill this summer.

Secretary Davey also spoke about his push for transparency within the DOT starting with the introduction of quarterly accountability meetings as part of general 'efforts to make reform visible to the public.' The strongest message from his keynote was the issue of fiscal solvency and the DOT's challenge to find new revenue streams and protecting the Commonwealth's transport infrastructure from falling into neglect.

During the question and answer period, I asked him about the possibility of outlining and financing an Accelerated Transit Programme, akin to the $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program. The ABP is fully funded by the state government and started as part of Governor Patrick's transportation reform, which also consolidated all Commonwealth transport management entities and transportation assets under MassDOT, created in 2009.

Secretary Davey noted that he is looking to work with legislators to allow for MBTA bridges to be included in an upcoming ABP2, though this is a far cry from a transit-specific infrastructure rehabilitation programme.

Potential for an Accelerated Transit Programme

The advantage of a separate ATP from the MBTA's 5-year Capital Investment Programme is the possibility of an ATP to be very targeted on a number of much larger, more visible projects, the latter of which is of particular interest to politicians and public officials for ribbon-cuttings and is an opportunity to bring hundreds of kilometers of track up to a state of good repair or higher.

An ATP would be the perfect programme to introduce a platform raising construction programme, DMU purchase for improved commuter rail service, commuter rail line electrification, or even the actual purchase of new Red and Orange Line cars (and not simply the planning and engineering of them for a wild $200 million, currently the only aspect of the project included in the 2011-2016 MBTA CIP). Might we even envision a proper build-out of the Silver Line as a fully traffic-separated light rail line? After all, Davey is now the chairperson of Massport, overseer of the area's major airports and cruise ports. May he be able to convince the board to contribute to the ATP toward a true airport light rail?

With Davey's position, the possibilities are endless. He has proven his competence as a personable leader who is able to establish and strengthen beneficial relationships, including that with the Commonwealth and its private railroads, CSX, Pan Am Railroads, and Norfolk Southern, a challenge New York State has found difficult in its attempts to build high speed rail between Albany and Buffalo.

Boston could be the first American city to consider modular freight transport utilising rail transit, right on the heels of Amsterdam's and Paris' current plans to utilise existing light rail to supplant commercial trucking within city limits. Service would have to be improved and signal systems upgraded to even entertain the idea of adding freight into an already troubled transit system, the perfect opportunity to turn an ATP into a public-private partnership that would bring in additional revenue to the Commonwealth for further investment in maintenance and expansion of its transport network.

But to what end investment in transit infrastructure? Public officials in the transit arena will name safety and accessibility as their top two priorities while quality of service and reliability are relegated to being tertiary priorities. While these priorities are not at odds, the most critical infrastructure investments to public opinion and use of public transport are weighted to service and reliability. Rarely do bus and train accidents happen, but they are certainly more publicised than a late bus or train, which has become acceptable and expected, even though the latter is more detrimental to the collective image and effectiveness of public transport.

This is the other advantage of a separate ATP. The CIP's smaller safety and accessibility programmes (the latter of which have mostly been completed with the help of accessibility grants from the federal government) can continue unabated while the ATP can focus on literally accelerating transit by raising quality of service and improving the effectiveness of existing infrastructure.

Of course, above all of these necessary calls for improved infrastructure is the essential lesson of transportation management: Organisation vor Electronik vor Beton because transit is on the line.