History & Culture

Mayor Menino Weighs in on Draconian MBTA Cuts, Fare Hikes

Boston's longest serving mayor, has now joined the pool of politicians to opine about the cut and hike proposals and put forth his recommendations for political and financial action. He joins Middlesex and Essex Senator ClarkWoburn State Representative Dwyer, Somerville State Representative Provost, Somerville State Senator Jehlen, and Governor Patrick himself, all of whom have essentially expressed interest and intent to raise the gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1991, to solve the Commonwealth's growing transport funding problem.

Menino is clear in his support for the MBTA and the search for a better funding solution in his letter to MassDOT Secretary Davey and Governor Patrick:

As an alternative to fare increases and service reductions, I am eager to work with you, Governor Patrick and the legislature to identify solutions that will address the long-term fiscal debt at the MBTA. Transportation Reform has allowed the Commonwealth to operate much more efficiently, but we also need targeted investment in our entire transportation infrastructure. Despite the severity of the current proposal, it represents a one-year band aid. We are in desperate need of a dedicated revenue source and immediate action is needed to identify sustainable funding for the MBTA. I have long supported efforts to increase the gas tax and am very willing to discuss other revenue options as well. I also hope you consider efforts that may help relieve some of the Big Dig-related debt load that has been unfairly saddled on the MBTA.

Menino has thus far been very hands-off about an official stance on transportation, but has supported it through various initiatives that enable walkability and better health in Boston, including the build-up of bike lanes, support for the introduction of the HubWay bike rental system, and parking freezes within the city of Boston.

While I laud Menino for voicing his support for transit, I also hope he is also willing to offer raising the transit assessment for Boston for the City of Boston to pay more for the transport system that provides its citizens the mobility that enables it to not only be one of the most walkable cities in the US, but also enables it to exist in the first place.

Also on his agenda should be true parking reform and better cooperation with the MBTA to properly allocate road space to higher throughput transit services that force buses packed full of riders to compete with single-occupant vehicles during rush hour.

The current leader in parking reform has been San Francisco's SFPark program, which has enabled San Francisco to maximise the revenue from its municipal lots and reduce the estimated 30% of city traffic that results from drivers circling the block looking for parking with market pricing of all off- and on-street parking.

Further, many cities like New York are reallocating portions or entire lanes of their roads to enable buses to make them more effective at moving people and keep them on schedule. Perhaps the road planners in the Boston Transportation Department need to expand their road design vocabulary and learn how to use the tools available to cities to squeeze more people moving capacity (not car moving capacity) out of their roads through this handy transport game.

We will soon find out if any of these politicians can put their money where their mouth is. Will they actually raise the gas tax and how far behind will public support be?

I will soon be posting a long overdue MBTA service cuts and fare hikes summary post in order to provide an easy, well-collected primer on the issue at hand, where this should go, and how to take action.

Tear-Inducing Rail Advertising of the Day - The Humans in Transport

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leG1I8GOW1Y] Amtrak today released a video on their YouTube channel for their 40th anniversary, which shows different Amtrak trains across the country running smoothly and majestically over American landscapes to a gushing voice over describing the salient experiences Americans have had on these different trains.

This contrasts greatly with the lead video from Japan Railways, which surfaced yesterday on Reddit and rippled through my corner of the Internet. The video shows the reaction of many excited Japanese to the inaugural run of the newest extension of the Shinkansen high speed rail line through Kyushu. On 20 February 2011, well before a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and the official opening of the line on 14 March, people lined up along the line to greet the train and celebrate a rail link that provides greater mobility for the 13 million people in the region and millions of those who live directly in the service area of the line.

It is an overwhelming show of humanity that can drive one to tears and makes one wonder why we in urban areas of the US don't also rally to celebrate the transit and commuter rail networks that move us to work and leisure, enabling the very places where we live to even exist. It's true there are many contrasts between Japanese and American culture, particularly that Japan has more than a passing 'affinity' for rail systems, but is does this contrast exist because the Japanese have collectively seen the efficiencies afforded by transit and decided to properly invest in transport networks so that they do provide fast, on-time service?

Amtrak's third annual National Train Day is coming up on 7 May, which makes me wonder how we can extend that to a further appreciation for and celebration of the transport networks we use and appreciate the people who operate them. Many European cultures and the Japanese highly regard their train and bus operators in a similar way we do police, firemen, and teachers, because they acknowledge these people are integral to the functioning of society. In America, the job is usually thankless and stressful. There are those of the riding public who greet, thank, and otherwise acknowledge the human behind the controls, but often the attitude is that these people are grumpy because all of them are simply bad, angry people.

Also, how can we each and encourage others to fight the temptation to feed our inner troll, taking part in the largely unproductive bashing of our service agencies and instead engage others in meaningful discourse that really talks about why our buses or trains are late, missing, infrequent, or inconvenient.

Look for some updates in the few days or throw some suggestions in the comments or on twitter.

Transit Construction During the Great 'Recession'

I'm currently killing some time before heading off to a discussion at the Museum of the City of New York on the challenges facing ongoing and planned transit construction projects in the New York City metro region during these trying economic times. Boston has it's own projects that have been stalled (or in an extended design and environmental review process) for quite some time until this most recent MassDOT/MBTA Board of Directors meeting: the Orange Line infill station at Assembly Square, the Green Line Extension to Route 16 (the current project only extending to College Avenue, one stop shy of the legal requirement for the project to reach Medford), the Blue Line extension to Charles-MGH, further Blue Line extensions beyond Wonderland, drafting and design of new Red and Orange Line cars.

Thinking on that and a political comic from 1938 on the then titled 'recession' that I came across at the MCNY, infrastructure investment has always proven to be a means of driving economic recovery by putting people back to work and providing improved mobility for commerce during down economic times and after economic recovery.

The Obama administration is two years late in offering such a solution, instead having opted to deal first with the politically unpopular healthcare reform he initially promised during his campaign. Nevertheless, the Obama administration, the Federal DOT, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have outlined a budget for a more 'balanced' transportation budget, improving the budget ratio between transit and roads from 20:80 to 24:76.

Even more unfortunately, the mass transit funding debate often gets overshadowed by the high speed rail funding debate, the latter of which is currently being played out on the national political stage with sweeping action and unfortunately dramatic rejections of funding. Within mass transit funding, there are significant issues between expanding service and improving network access within cities, the former enabling more suburban settlement farther from city centers and the latter strengthening networks within cities and making them more resilient to network failures (i.e. medical emergencies, police activity, and disabled trains).

Will we 'win the future'? Maybe. But we've already lost a lot of time and money propping up companies rather than the physical infrastructure that enables us to live, work, and play.

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.

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.