MBTA ROC

MBTA ROC Proposes Solution to Student Auto-Dependence and Late Night Service Costs

The MBTA Rider Oversight Committee released a report yesterday on the viability of using funds from a proposed student pass program with the region's innumerable universities to fund late night service. This follows months of research into other systems that have university transit pass programs in place and how those programs have succeeded phenomenally.

The MBTA ROC's proposed program would follow in the footsteps of the Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) U-Pass program, where area colleges are given the opportunity to purchase unlimited-use transit passes for no less than 100% of their full-time student body. In exchange for a 100% buy-in, the MBTA would offer semester passes to participating Boston-area colleges at a mark-down greater than the current college student discount. The program would be mutually beneficial since the students would be granted free access to all MBTA subways, light-rail vehicles, and buses, while the MBTA would receive additional revenue from the increased pass sales (the CTA, for example, generated $25 million in revenue through their U-pass program last year). Furthermore, the MBTA would be required to use that additional revenue to provide overnight service, which would be a benefit to all MBTA riders.

The biggest and nearly insurmountable hurdle will be convincing these universities that paying into the program will be buying students real mobility. The Green Line and 57/A buses along the BU and BC corridors are hardly the paragon of transit reliability and speed.

Additionally, there are many private carriers either run by the universities or contracted on their behalf that already provide a level of mobility across campus. These services could instead be given to the MBTA as an extension of the relationship with the T, but that is not explored in the report and would likely be a venture very far down the road.

The $10 million would only go to operations of extended late night bus service since the T still needs to shut down rail service for maintenance, as has been covered by numerous press outlets, including the Metro and the impressive documentary that leads this post.

Even more damning is the logistics in incorporating multiple technologies and standards into the same RFID card. Chicago's new Ventra system uses pre-paid debit cards integrated into MasterCard's PayPass system, which will eventually evolve into MasterPass and is already compatible with a number of RFID smartphones. HID, which provides the contactless card systems used by most colleges for integrated student ID key cards for residence halls, is also working toward integration with smartphones, which leads us even further toward the possibility that phones will be the common denominator for contactless payment and security systems.

Phones are already a conveyance for currency in Africa and have been for years. For those without NFC/RFID-enabled phones, systems like Ventra still enable fare cards that work with the contactless system. Many transit agemcies are looking to replace their expensive and proprietary fare payment systems, including the MBTA. GM Scott has already voiced her interest in replacing the CharlieCard system and New York City has been working with numerous agencies to find consensus before they replace their nearly 20-year-old MetroCard system.

CharlieCard, less than 10 years old, was delayed, well over budget, and outdated by the time it was fully implemented. The MBTA's reaction to the MIT hack of the CharlieCard itself was a significant setback and current policy and tightness around the system is preventing its growth, as acknowledged by many within the T. Standardisation of the payment system is the only way forward and that may well mean our phones are the lowest common denominator.

Boston's Buses Soon to Remove 'Boston Strong' Messages

A bus going through South Boston proudly displays 'Boston Strong' on its head sign and side LED sign. At yesterday's MBTA Rider Oversight Committee meeting, it was revealed by bus operations representative Dave Carney that the T would soon be spreading the word to all drivers to remove the message 'Boston Strong'  from the cycled messages on bus LED signs.

While not explicitly mandated by federal ADA law, the signs are intended for passenger information. The patriotic message takes up a full 1/3 or 1/2 of the display's time since each portion of the message is shown for the exact same amount of time. This can mean that the buses' route information may not actually be displayed long enough to determine which route the bus is serving before passing the stop, depending on how fast the bus is approaching.

Speaking frankly, Carney noted that it will be an arduous process to take the message off buses since it needs to be removed bus by bus and some drivers may refuse to remove the message despite orders from their supervisors. If it persists, the agency may have to address individual drivers about making the change. Apparently each bus' head sign is individually programmed, a potential opportunity for operations improvement with the MBTA.

A Muddled Call to Arms by the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee as MBTA is Forced to Consider Fare Increases

It may soon cost you more to walk through these gates, but a fare increase shouldn't be the only option on the table.

As the looming fare increase and service cut proposals gain more public awareness in the wake of yesterday's MBTA board meeting, Boston residents, and perhaps the Commonwealth itself, are forced to mull over what options are on the table to deal with the growing gap in the MBTA's operating budget.

Eric Moskowitz from the Globe lays out the situation accurately and succinctly:

If the T does nothing, it faces a projected $161 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1, as costs such as utilities, health insurance, and federally mandated paratransit service rise faster than MBTA revenue, the chief sources of which are fares (about $450 million a year) and a percentage of the state sales tax (worth nearly $800 million).

The T faced a similar situation last year but avoided a fare increase by implementing one-time measures such as selling future parking revenue to investors for a lump sum. The T has also tightened pension eligibility, streamlined labor costs (including switching from two operators to one operator on multiple subway lines), auctioned surplus property, and sold ads on everything from station walls to its website.

The T last raised fares Jan. 1, 2007.

Just in time to be a part of this discussion, the MBTA Rider Oversight Committe has released a plea to riders to speak to their representatives and advocate for better MBTA funding, which will hopefully run in tomorrow's Metro:

Riders, now is the time for us to stand up and speak out. The T’s red ink is much worse than you think. Next year, without increased funding, your bus or train could be the one that stops coming. Do we want the transit system we can afford or the transit system that we need? Rally round, and get engaged! Come join us at the public meetings and support the MBTA. Help us by calling your local and state representatives to insist they finally address the T’s funding gap. Fellow riders, it’s our T. It’s time for us to defend it.

In their letter, they speak to the better senses of the public, as does much of the press, trying to inform and arm the public with information to help advocate for a better solution, but many of the more radical options have been left out of the conversation, at least outside of twitter.

The last time New York City had to face these issues a few years ago, local politics included more vocal pushes for alternative funding vehicles to prevent a massive fare increase and service cuts. (They happened anyway because New York politics is a mess and has been one for a while.) Beyond typical ignorant ranting of government largess and inefficiencies, there were calls to start congestion pricing, tolling East River crossings, and even tax local businesses' payrolls (which has not gone over well).

Suffice it to say, all of these seem to be third rail topics that neither the press nor local advocates are willing to propose. While the ROC and others, including Secretary Davey himself, are pointing at the Commonwealth's legislature for relief, the fact remains that none of them are standing behind a unified message of what to ask for from the legislature in terms of bridging the funding gap, especially considering the Commonwealth is already trying to deal with a tight budget for every other state agency.

From my experience on twitter lately, it seems riders are more concerned with the platform experience more than the funding mechanisms behind the MBTA, more quick to bash it for inefficiency and waste than grant the agency a shadow of a doubt and look into reports about the funding situation. Advocates and members of the public in the know need to step up, do a better job to make the facts and options more accessible to riders, and stand behind a more cohesive message.

All I'm seeing is repeated messages of what we don't want and what we don't feel comfortable bringing up. I'll start by throwing my weight behind moderate fare increasescongestion pricingparking reform (market pricing), and better long-term real estate deals on MBTA/state owned property. Perhaps we could get started on making public-private partnerships to assure funding, quality construction, and well-capitalised reconstruction of ageing stations and the Green Line extension, because simply selling naming rights of stations to corporations is really selling out the system.

Copley Opens Friday, Green Line Updates

After a long drought of blog posts, some news from last night's MBTA Rider Oversight Committee meeting: According to MBTA officials at the meeting, the completion and re-opening of Copley station will be marked with fanfare at 10:30 this Friday on the eastbound side, adjacent the Boston Public Library. This will also end the first week of three car Green Line train operation since three car trains were silently discontinued in 2005 due to technical issues. Deborah Gies, Green Line manager, on behalf of Brian Dwyer, Director of Light Rail, at last night's MBTA ROC meeting had several Green Line updates, with several notes about metrics for success of three car operation. In particular, the MBTA will be monitoring the number of third car boardings and the ability of the power delivery system to handle the additional load of a third car. To create the three car trains, the MBTA is simply splitting up one train that normally runs between the two scheduled three car trains during rush hour and adding one car from that train to the other two.

With respect to on-time statistics and the new three car trains aimed at tackling reliability and capacity, MBTA ROC co-chair Karen Wepsic noted that it is an ongoing issue that trains are still considered to have completed their journeys 'on time', even if they skip stops in between, as often happens on the E line. Further, Jarret Walker over at humantransit has recently tackled the fundamental issues with on time performance metrics and the realities the riding public actually face:

The explanation, of course, is that peak hour commuter trains are most likely to be late, because they run when the system has the least margin for error.  And since most riders of commuter rail are on the peak, most riders experience the system at its least reliable.

In short, 96% on-time performance doesn't mean that 96% of customers get where they're going on time -- only that 96% of trains did, counting nearly empty trains at 10:00 PM when there's plenty of spare capacity on the rails, and a lot fewer causes of delay.

Gies also notes that three car Green Line trains will be coming to the B line in November.