Spring has sprung today for transit as NYC MTA CEO Thomas Prendergast announced a small donation of snow fighting equipment and the Governor announced a commitment of $30 billion over 15 years to drastically upgrade the MBTA's infrastructure and equipment.
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.
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.
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.
The Public Citizen's Commercial Alert released a public letter yesterday to MassDOT CEO and Secretary of Transport Rich Davey speaking out against the ongoing efforts to sell station names to corporations in an attempt to close the $160 million operating budget gap.
Commercial Alert is a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights advocacy group under Public Citizen whose agenda is to 'keep commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting higher values of family, community, environmental integrity, and democracy.'
This news came in yesterday evening from the Metro and was mentioned in this morning's paper.
If the budget gap isn't closed, the MBTA may have to reduce service or cut certain services entirely, but if the MBTA continues this path, the amount it will gain from the naming rights sale to close the gap is dubious. While Commercial Alert's primary objection to station naming rights is mostly to do with their issue with over-commercialisation and the idea that the city is explicitly endorsing certain products, behaviours, services, and corporations through naming stations after corporations, they also pointed out a fact that we have seen before:
As you know, attempts to sell naming-rights to T stations have not been successful in the past. Taken together, the lack of interest from corporations and the vehement opposition of citizens to these past plans should be enough to suggest that selling naming rights is still not the right direction for the MBTA. Not only does this plan compromise the public nature of transit services in the Boston area, it is also unlikely to alleviate the financial strain the MBTA is currently facing. In other cities, transit naming rights schemes have not yielded significant revenues. In Philadelphia, the recent deal between Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and AT&T will yield $3 million over five years. In New York, a twenty year deal to rename a Metro Transit Authority station after Barclay’s will yield only $200,000 per year. Were the MBTA able to raise similar revenues from its planned naming rights sales, they would amount to a drop in the bucket when compared to the reported $150 million deficit the MBTA faces for fiscal year 2013. Moreover, private corporations stand to benefit from any revenues the Transit Authority is able raise; consulting firms in the aforementioned examples have taken significant cuts of sales revenues, as they will in Boston.
While we may need to pinch pennies and make every dollar count (which the old MTA CEO set out to do earlier this year), we need to decide if selling the names of our stations is worth the effort. Before we can make that assessment, we need to wait for IMG Worldwide to finish their assessment of the market; no doubt they will find tepid interest from corporations as has been the case in the past and for other systems.
The question is on the table again as the MBTA moves forward with its interest in selling naming rights as IMG Worldwide as been announced as the firm that will conduct a 'a thorough analysis to determine if there's a market for naming rights and what the value would be', according to Joe Pesaturo of the MBTA.
Boston is not unique in its operating budget issues, nor is it unique in some of its attempts to close the funding gap. About a year ago, Boston joined New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Toronto, and New Jersey in the growing list of North American transit agencies trying desperately to close operating gaps with a funding concept that is an illusion and hardly effective for actually raising the revenues that agencies claim.
To bring it home, one of my followers on Twitter brought to my attention a sponsorship from 1997 to 2000 by Citizens Bank to rename State on the Blue and Orange Lines to State/Citizens Bank. The sponsorship eventually failed and the station's name was reverted.
Ben Kabak in New York has written numerous posts on the issue (in the numerous links above), so I won't bother rehashing a topic. I will however highlight one particular public-private partnership that Chicago capitalised on, which was the $4 million rehab of the North/Claybourn station, all paid for by Apple. If we're going to be selling the system to private entities, why not work with them to refurbish the system or even build out revenue-generating properties without selling the property or rights to profits (Chicago lost $11 billion from a poor leasing agreement of its parking meters to Morgan Stanley)?
While we shouldn't necessarily be relying on commercial entities to be paying for and completely refurbishing our public infrastructure just so they can use them as their own vehicles for advertising, public transport is in an ailing state. Budgets are tight and will continue to get tighter until the costs (of construction and maintenance) are reined in and publicly owned property can be made more profitable.
Of the latter, these public-private partnerships could be used to capitalise on unproductive, low revenue-generating properties owned by the state, such as station head houses, rights of way, and station platforms themselves. Looking at just Porter Square, why is the Shaw's located so far away from the public transport hub that likely brings in the majority of its business from commuters picking up their groceries on their commutes home? Why is there not a passage under Somerville Ave to connect to a basement level of CVS or another business and provide a safer crossing of the major boulevard? This is the ultimate form of not only transit-oriented development, but also leveraging MBTA property as convenient and profitable real-estate to developers. We may be far from Japan's platform-side malls and ramen shops, but it's high time the MBTA start pushing its property and really engaging with developers and private entities to serve the public more directly.
I'd rather be able to grab a fresh bowl of ramen and groceries conveniently on my commute home than ride through Apple/Copley Square or Macy's/Downtown Crossing, especially if I know that one initiative is more likely to keep the trains running, the lights on, and the buses well-maintained.
Despite initially tepid response to the open position for MBTA General Manager (and MassDOT Rail and Transit Administrator), a number of applicants have stepped forward in the month since it was last reported on the matter.
From the Board of Directors, John Jenkins, Elizabeth Levin, and Secretary Richard Davey comprise the three person preliminary search committee who met this morning to begin screening the applicants who have thrown themselves into the pool thus far.
Their intent is to narrow down the pool of applicants to three to four candidates to present to the board with a group interview of selected candidates. So far, there are over 40 applicants with varying degrees of operational and leadership expertise, including candidates with experience from Toronto's TTC to San Francisco's MUNI. 13 of those were put to consideration this morning.
Aside from the desired qualities listed in the posting on the MBTA web site, the committee repeated its desire for candidates with good on-the-ground, operational expertise balanced with well-rounded experience across organisation operations and strong leadership experience.
Through all of this, will we end up with a GM who can lead the MBTA and continue with the internal organisational reform started by Rich Davey almost two years ago? Unlike in New York, where there has been enough political conflict to lead their last and most qualified CEO to resign, Governor Patrick strongly supports both MassDOT and the MBTA and we rarely see him bash either of them. Does it help that the Governor's office is not more than 850 metres away from both the Secretary's and General Manager's office, just across the Commons?
Suffice it to say, the upcoming MBTA GM will be managing the 6th most used public transport system in the US with the greatest debt of them all. S/he will need to work closely with the Governor, Secretary, and legislature in not only securing the funds necessary to operate the economic engine of the Commonwealth, but also show competence in affecting effective reform in the nation's most organisationally flat public transport operator. With little political friction to deal with (compared to that of the MBTA's closest neighbours in the US), the next GM will be able to focus on actually running the system and the search committee will be able to look for a candidate who has more public transport operations experience than New York's new MTA CEO, who is more known for his political and financial management savvy than his (nonexistent) transit experience.
The position remains open to applicants until the end of this year and the search committee will continue to filter candidates as they come in.