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.

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.

Could Historic Trolleys Bolster Civic Pride?

With the holiday season imminent, the MTA, operator of New York City's subways, buses, commuter railroads, bridges, and tunnels, has announced their nostalgia trains that have now become an annual holiday treat. These nostalgia trains offer tourists and natives alike the opportunity to step into the subway's past by riding in well-preserved retired rolling stock, like vintage Lo-Vs and R1s. For a few Bostonians, every commute is a nostalgia ride on the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line, one of the last lines operating with original PCC streetcars in true revenue service. A couple of historic streetcars also sit unceremoniously at the unused northbound tracks at the Green Line Boylston Street. I suggested opening this up as an active museum exhibit to the GM at the round table the day before his appointment and he expressed interest in the idea.

Could opening a transit museum/exhibit in the heart of Boston and/or running one or more nostalgia trains be the key to raising civic pride in the system? It'll definitely fill in another piece of Boston's history, add another weekend activity for residents and tourists alike, and provide the MBTA with another revenue source.

However, it's unlikely that it will assuage the many frustrations expressed daily by riders on Twitter (and in real life). Only better service through capital and operations improvements can solve the negative rider experiences that haven't already been 'solved' with the availability of realtime information the MBTA has recently begun to offer. After all, the primary function of the MBTA is to transport people quickly, conveniently, and efficiently.

Ultimately, running nostalgia trains, offering tours of their facilities, and opening a museum shouldn't be high on the MBTA's agenda, but these would be valuable contributions to the greater history and culture of Boston, an aspect that is sorely lacking. As Brian Kane of the MBTA Advisory Board noted at the GM round table back in March, the MBTA has a story to tell and they could tell it better.

Update: An audit in 2007 actually found that the MTA operated the nostalgia trains at financial loss, though the MTA maintains that the maintenance and operation of the historic vehicles is important to the State's heritage. No doubt the MBTA would face the same dilemma with the added operations and the MBTA's tight budget would require serious evaluation of the financial benefits from those operations.

Call for Writers

The past couple of weeks have been a bit quiet and this being one of the few blogs covering transit issues in the Boston area, I'd like to keep it more active than I have as of late. I admire Benjamin Kabak of the Second Avenue Sagas blog for his ability to single-handedly keep SAS active with at least one or two posts a day - I should also note that the MTA in New York City, as well as the state of New York itself, suffers from innumerable transit-related issues that generate news stories daily. (Alas, Mr. Kabak is also a law student at NYU and has been blogging for years over at SAS, so he has no doubt mastered the art of news blogging.) I would like to have Transit on the Line as active as SAS, but the reality is that my full-time job leaves me little time to compose daily or even bi-weekly posts. With that, I'd like to open up TotL to any and all writers who would like to contribute to this blog, as well as contribute to responses on Twitter through TransitMatters. All those interested should contact me via email at marcDOTebuna*AT*gmailDOTcom.

It's important that Bostonians find a blog willing to cover transit and general transportation issues  in the Greater Boston Area with the frequency and depth it deserves because transit and the economic vitality of Boston is on the line.

One Story, Two Lessons

How the Red Line came off the tracks and how commuters and the MBTA dealt with it. Last week on 22 December around 16:00, immediately before the evening commute, a train set of 01800 series Red Line cars (as reported by the Boston Globe) began heading southbound from the Alewife terminal. Initial sources, including a conductor I had asked at the Harvard platform that night, noted that the derailment actually happened as the train passing over a set of points (the crossover switch) just yards south of the station. This, with the cracked wheel, brings to mind the fatal accident that happened in Eschede, Germany in 1998 with the high-speed Inter City Express. The Boston Globe placed the derailment at just a few feet out of the station, before the crossover switch.

Nonetheless, the northernmost crossover tracks were rendered unusable and trains were forced to terminate at Harvard since the next set of crossover tracks are located just yards south of Harvard station. This led to one incredibly slow rush hour commute for two reasons: the MBTA was not using Harvard station as it should have and buses can hardly replace the throughput of 6 full Red Line cars, the longest and widest cars in the system, running on its own right of way every 9 minutes (ideally) through each station.

Reduced Throughput at Harvard

The night of the incident, the MBTA was not only using just the southbound platform for loading and unloading of passengers, it had no form of crowd control to expedite the process of loading and unloading the trains. This meant people waiting to load the trains were slowing the egress of passengers on the trains and holding trains at the platforms longer than necessary - and we all know how I feel about door blockers and generally those who stand to hold trains at stations.

As far as only using the southbound platform, this meant slower service and longer delays because of how block signaling works and the simple fact that doing so reduces the throughput of trains through the station. Let's not forget that Harvard station itself used to be the northernmost terminal for the Red Line up until the extension nearly three decades ago. The MBTA has not yet released why they were not utilizing both northbound and southbound platforms - it is unlikely they were reserving the northbound platform for moving equipment to and from Alewife.

Reduced Throughput with Shuttles

If there's one thing transit advocates have been trying to repeatedly voice to the powers that be, it's that buses can never replace the capacity and timeliness of heavy rail transit. Now, 'timeliness' may not be a word Bostonians have come to associate with any of the subway lines operated by the MBTA, but it's certainly something many people who normally ride the Red Line should have noticed. Shuttle buses that replaced Red Line service were paralyzed by the normally heavy traffic on Massachusetts Ave turned absurd from the number of people who called spouses and friends to pick them up at Harvard and the added traffic from several shuttle buses occupying most of one lane.

Transit-progressive cities like New York and Portland have begun deployment of specially dedicated bus-only lanes, often opting to redesignate a lane of traffic or parking as well as redesigning the boulevard with pedestrian amenities and bump-outs [pdf] for bus stops if preserving parking lanes. Doing so to Mass Ave may not be practical if the parking lane is reserved, but there are arguments for maintaining parking lanes as a means of insulating pedestrians from otherwise harmful traffic, much like the trees that used to line boulevards before we threw out the urban road design vocabulary to turn everything into a high-speed thoroughfare (read: highway).

In any case, the lesson is that buses can't replace trains, especially if they're sharing the road with auto traffic. With that, I'd like to treat you to a rare 'extension' of the Silver Line into Somerville:

Commuter Response and MBTA Communications

Based on the NECN news report on the derailment, riders mostly took the whole thing in stride, but as I've come to know Bostonians, they're much more likely to complain quite rabidly in the digital space of the interwebs. On many news pages and on Twitter, there was a severe backlash and outrage by riders. Many claimed the MBTA should step up its inspections and maintenance operations to prevent such things as the Green Line derailment that happened just weeks before.

Admittedly, some of this chatter comes without the transit common sense that comes with years of railfanning and understanding train operations - some wheel and track failures are near impossible to detect before failure and it is impractical to inspect a train while it is in service - this last incident was next to impossible to prevent. That isn't to say that the MBTA shouldn't step up their maintenance practices and do what they can to raise awareness of the situation at hand: we have a crumbling system, there are billions of dollars of stimulus infrastructure money floating around, Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have stated their support for transit, but the oldest transit agencies in the country aren't getting the money they need to both keep it operating and keep the trains on the tracks - roads by far are getting most of the stimulus money despite the fact that transit carries millions more riders each day and by far has a much safer running record as well as a higher return on investment in terms of throughput, traffic relief, and longevity of components.

Now, more than ever, is a time to ask more of our transit agency and even more of the Commonwealth's political leaders because not only is transit on the line, but so are our lives.

Service Changes, But Where?

Service Changes, But Where?

A new design for service change notices is needed to improve communications from the MBTA

Yet another daily struggle straphangers encounter is that of finding information about service changes. As transit systems age and regular (and irregular) repairs must be conducted, service will occasionally be rerouted to accommodate those repairs. Most transit agencies choose to do these repairs on the weekends when service disruptions will affect as few riders as possible.

The Epic Struggle Continues

The Epic Struggle Continues

Transit faces a long road ahead as it strains under booming ridership

Welcome to TransitMatters. The genesis of this blog comes in part from my recent move to the Greater Boston Area, influence from transit blogs like Second Avenue Sagas, and the daily frustrations I see and hear expressed through tweets and on my commute. Like most other transit bloggers, I'm a huge transit and rail buff. I've loved trains for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I consumed Thomas the Tank Engine on television, the Long Island Railroad trains that ran behind our apartment building, and the New York City subway through the daily shuffle with my parents as one would go on shift and the other off. Today, transit is an integral part of my daily life and I've become a staunch advocate for the transit systems of America.