Monday, January 30, 2012

Stupid wastes of money


Part 1 in this never-ending series:

The 57 bus travels from Watertown Yard through Brighton, Allston, and down Commonwealth Avenue until Kenmore Square. The penultimate stop on this route is at Blanford Street on Boston University's campus. It is also the site of the nicest bus stop on the route.

Not only does it have a new sign (showing the Stop ID number!) but it also gets a brand new shelter. This would all be wonderful except for the simple fact that the bus route terminates one block further, in Kenmore Square. In the past, this stop used to be listed as "drop-off only" but that disappeared at some point. Why did the MBTA have a bus shelter built here, instead of at heavily used stops such as Harvard Avenue or Packard's Corner? How did such a waste come about?

About the only reasonable explanation I can come up with is that this might be used as a shuttle bus stop for the Green Line during substitute busing service. But that's a rare occurrence and they haven't shown the same consideration at other more popular stops nearby.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The narrowest street in the South End

Ghost sign
It was a nice day today, and as I was wandering around past Back Bay station I noticed an old painted billboard on the side of a building. Not being in a hurry to get anywhere, I decided to poke around the South End some more in search of these so-called "ghost signs." I don't normally find myself in the South End much these days. It's a curious neighborhood in some ways. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about it is the omnipresent red brick. The second impression is that of overly wide streets laid out on a regular, grid-like scheme. Historically, much of the South End is built on landfill and was planned like the Back Bay, in the 19th century. That explains why the character is so much different than "Boston Proper."

Something different

I did end up finding a few more ghost signs, and I'm sure there's plenty of others too. I even spotted one of the "controversial" new street signs. But I ended up turning away from the broad arterial streets and poking around some of side roads. You have to be careful when walking around here. The red bricked sidewalks are quaint but bumpy. The neighborhood is fairly pleasant to walk around but the monotonous red brick gets tiresome after a while. I did stumble on some unexpected sights however. One person decided to cover their front entry with curious little statues. I hope they weren't harassed too badly for it by the neighborhood association around here.
Taylor Street

Then nearby, I spotted a real outlier: a narrow street! Almost as narrow as the famous Acorn Street in Beacon Hill. Not too shabby. Shame that about half the length of the street is taken up by a park that isn't open to the public (currently, at least). I wonder how this street came to be. It's fairly close to Washington Street, so it is possibly one of the oldest in the area. There were a few more relatively narrow streets close by, as well, though they had at least one lane of street parking on them. Quite a few parks or playgrounds in the immediate vicinity, and they were pretty popular on this warm winter day.

The narrowest street in the South End!
I thought I'd have to do some more combing to see if any other streets were narrower in other parts of the South End. But then I walked past this little gem, which I doubt can be challenged at all. It's so small that it doesn't even get graced with a name, not even something as generic as "Public Alley" like in the Back Bay. But there's entryways, connecting "alleys" and even a streetlight on it. And no cars. Maybe it's too small. But it's a nice change of pace. Most modern regulatory regimes would forbid the creation of these small streets, even ones wide enough for a car like Taylor Street. That's a shame.

I walked back along Washington Street. I've been past here several times, but never noticed this particular view of the Hancock buildings. The parking lot makes a big contrast with the rest of the neighborhood, although it is sadly typical of Washington Street, which is strangely desolate in this part of town.
New and Old Hancock buildings from Washington Street

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Improving the Green Line: Fare Collection

Coolidge Corner on the "C" line (source)
One of the issues that came up in the recent MBTA public hearing was fare evasion. There's three major categories of evasion on the Boston system: fare-gate piggy-backing (see 00:38), rear-door boarding on the surface and fraudulent tickets. At the hearing, one person complained of seeing 25 tourists board a trolley without paying, at the Fenway surface station. Anyone who rides the Green Line knows that this kind of thing happens all of the time. The "B" and "C" branches are especially notorious for this, due to a combination of crowded, tiny platforms and harried operators.

Many times, the trolley driver will give up on collecting fares because the demand is so enormous that it would take too long to process everyone waiting. As it is, trolleys on these branches tend to fall behind and bunch up because boarding procedures are too slow. The MBTA instituted a Show'n'Go policy for monthly pass-holders, where they were expected to wave the pass as they boarded in the rear.
Monthly pass-holders boarding the rear doors (source)
Naturally, this is easy to subvert, and doesn't work for CharlieCard holders anyhow. They also tried issuing handheld validators to employees posted at the busiest surface stations, allowing people to pre-pay using their CharlieCard. This is a rather expensive "solution" however. Some operators have taken up a habit of refusing to open the rear doors -- but of course this just winds up trapping the riders wishing to disembark, and slows down service even further. Nowadays, standard procedure seems to be simply to issue a call for people "to come up front and pay your fare" if they spot someone sneaking onboard.

As seen at the meeting, people tend to have strong feelings about this issue. Slogans such as "It's only fair to pay your fare" and general sentiment seems to be tilted towards a matter of justice for those who do pay. Personally, I have a cold economic view towards fare evasion. Nobody seems to really know what the true costs of fare evasion on this system are, though it is estimated at millions. Meanwhile, there is a cost to enforcement that is also rarely considered. Constructing fare-gate restricted stations is expensive. The Green Line Extension stations will be $13.4 million each because of this. Even if you don't have fare-gates, forcing the driver to handle fare collection also incurs costs operationally. Increased dwell times due to slow fare collection hurts headways, and ruins the supposed core product of the agency: "rapid" transit. These issues, among others, are why some people advocate for free public transit.

The problem is that when people's emotions run high on an issue of "fairness" they neglect to consider such bloodless items as cost/benefits analysis. Seeking 100% enforcement of fares is insane and a negative value proposition in any realistic scenario. The proper way to do this is to choose fares, evasion penalties, and collection mechanisms to maximize expected value based upon practical experience, and to accept that no system is perfect. The marginal cost of a single fare evader is extremely low because the operational costs are fixed -- the trains are going to run regardless of whether that one person is riding it. If allowing the fare evader takes a car off the roads, that would be a net benefit. But almost none of this is ever considered when people get upset about fare evasion, and it turns into a political circus instead.

Waiting for the SF Muni N (Judah) in mixed-traffic (source)
Having written all of that, I think that the pragmatic "optimal" solution is based on the idea of Proof-of-Payment (POP). It is used successfully by SF Muni light rail, among others. When I visited I got to observe their system up close. Muni operates light-rail vehicles which branch out into surface street-running trolleys in the outer neighborhoods, then combine into the central Market Street subway downtown. Sound familiar? While riding I noticed several things: multi-car trains have only a single operator, people can board at any door, if you pay with cash you must take a receipt with you, and transfers are free for up to 2 hours. The result was a much more smoothly operating system, despite the fact that most of the trains operate in mixed-traffic, unlike the MBTA which seems to be deathly afraid of dealing with that.

Advantages:
  • Operator is not stressed by responsibility of collecting fares.
  • All doors boarding -- much faster.
  • Single operator per train is a major cost saving measure.
  • Transfer system is simple and easy to understand.
  • Easy to tweak: if fare evasion is too high, then increase patrols and/or increase fines. If fare evasion is low, then cut back and save money.
Disadvantages:
  • Might be confusing to newbies (good signs are crucial).
  • Requires occasional patrolling fare enforcement officer (already exists, though).
  • Penalties must be stiff, which may be politically difficult.
  • Relies on expected-value to recoup costs. The probability of getting caught may be low, but the fines should be set to recover that value. However, this tends to trigger a psychological backlash in the people who do get caught (the "why me?" effect).
I think the advantages easily outweigh the disadvantages, but it is also easy to underestimate the difficulty of getting any public agency to change its ways in Massachusetts. I do foresee the possibility of increased fines in the future, which may bring about a kind of half-hearted POP system where enforcement officers target people they observe sneaking onboard, as they do today, but with more teeth than the current laughable $15 ticket.

One thing everyone agrees about: the "B" and "C" lines are too sluggish and must be improved operationally, somehow. Following the advice of "Organization before electronics before concrete" it seems that the simplest thing to do is to open all the doors at every station stop. Whether this would result in too much fare evasion is a matter of contention that unfortunately becomes more emotional than economic. But I believe that Proof-of-Payment is a mature and reasonable fare collection strategy that has significantly lower implementation costs than fare-gates, and is easily suitable for medium-traffic transit such as the Green Line.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Response from MBTA

I sent my comments by e-mail on January 5th. Today, I received this response:
Dear Matthew, 
Thank you for your comments on the proposed fare and service changes for the MBTA. We have reviewed your comments regarding the proposed fare increases. In FY2013, the MBTA is facing a budget deficit of more than $161 million. To balance our budget, the MBTA has proposed a combination of fare and service changes. In crafting these changes, our goal has been to find the best solution for the most people. 
The MBTA has not raised fares since 2007. In both of the proposed fare and service change scenarios, MBTA fares would remain below transit prices at other major US transit agencies such as New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC. 
Your comments will be considered as we determine the final proposal for fare and service changes. We also welcome you to attend one of the more than 20 upcoming public meetings on fare and service changes. For meeting times, locations, and updates on proposed fare and service changes please visit mbta.com/jointhediscussion
Sincerely,
Jonathan R. Davis
General Manager
I wonder what took them so long to send out this obviously canned response. The biggest meeting was yesterday. Did they wait until now to open their mailbox?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rally at MBTA Public Hearing

Rally in front of the State House

I attended a rally today to protest the MBTA's plans to cut service and raise fares. This was organized by the Transit Rider's Union and Students Against T Cuts. There was a fairly diverse crowd of about 50 or so people at the rally, and several members of the media including Boston Globe online and a local TV news crew. They handed out some posters to carry and buttons to wear and led the crowd in several chants (admittedly, I had a hard time understanding some of what they were saying). This was followed by some short speeches from various organizers. A couple state representatives showed up to give their support as well. Then we headed into the Common and over to 10 Park Plaza for the 1pm public meeting.


Going to the MBTA public hearing at 10 Park Plaza
When we got there it turned out it was already quite crowded. It looked like they had anticipated a sizable group and the conference room was fairly large, but they ended up needing an overflow room. If you wanted to speak you got a number, so I picked mine up and found a seat.

First Deputy General Counsel Gerald Kelly explained that this was a Public Hearing and there would be no Q/A session as a result: it was to satisfy a particular Federal Transit Law, and all comments would simply become part of the public record to be reviewed later. He pointed out several individuals who would be conducting discussions and answering questions, outside the event. Then he introduced the first speaker, Josh Robin, Director of Innovation. I remember that I've spoken to Josh on a previous occasion, about adding the Stop ID to bus stop signs so that it was easier to use NextBus. He is also the guy behind the MBTA's twitter feed. This time, he was apparently supposed to give a PowerPoint presentation about the MBTA and its budget woes. He got a few slides in, talking about how the sales tax revenue did not meet expectations when he was interrupted by a lady up front. She protested that they were wasting time and they should move onto the public comment period, since there were so many people, and the slides weren't telling us anything new. There was a bit of an awkward moment as Josh attempted to continue giving his presentation, while the crowd sided with the lady. Eventually Gerald stepped in and opted to end the presentation and started the comment process.

One by one, people came up in order of their numbers and gave comments. There were many, some spoke too quietly, some too fast, but I attempted to record the gist of what they were saying. Here is what I heard, and I apologize for not getting people's names, it was hard to hear most of the time:
  • E-line and Mattapan HSL are serving environmental justice communities and will be cut.
  • The 39 bus has higher operating costs than the E line.
  • Several seniors with disabilities from revere, living on SS check / fixed income, will be stranded with cuts
  • A lady from The Fairmount Indigo line organization says 90,000 people live in that corridor, many transit dependent. Why cut service after building $160mil of station expansions? Also, zones make no sense - up by $4 to go to Hyde Park even though it's all within the borders of the city.
  • Handicap accessibility is important, many route cuts affect hospital service.
  • Arlmont Village will be cut off from transit.
  • People can't get around, they don't have cars.
  • Assembly Square losing almost all service, and still several years to go before subway station.
  • The T never fixed a programming bug in the CharlieCard system with regard to bus-subway-bus transfers costing double, and that will be made even worse by changes. e.g. Traveling from Somerville to Southie.
  • Dudley operations are mismanaged - buses pull in, park and leave riders out in the cold instead of leaving immediately or at least letting people board.
  • Big Dig alleviates traffic for people who drive cars, why are transit riders paying for it? Commuter Rail cuts on weekends lead to more drunken driving. Ask drivers to pay for the Big Dig.
  • Fellow was born in Boston, lived whole life here, never bought a car because of T. He asks: What about Bruins and Celtics games? Lots of people use North Station for those.
  • Cost $1.5 billion to build Old Colony CR recently. Now cutting service? Kingston has empty parking lot on Wednesday afternoon - re-examine parking policy?
  • Eastern Service Workers Association: T's debt because of Bechtel/Parsons-Brinckerhoff failures. The $2 billion price became $22 billion on Big Dig. Recover some [more] of the cost from B/PB.
  • Seniors fares cannot be raised so much (100%). Not enough E line service currently - often cannot board as it is too crowded already.
  • This is not a solution, it is another problem. If we were trying to destroy public transit, this is the way. Work with us, not against us. Marblehead is losing 3 of 4 routes.
  • Someone says their rep from Somerville has a plan. [NB: Maybe Rep. Provost?]
  • Sat/Sun E-line is packed on weekends, why cut it and replace with polluting 39 bus?
  • Natick needs CR on nights and weekends. Sports fans driving will just lead to more cars on the roads. Green line needs to stop fare evaders.
  • Unfair for Worcester, getting fare raised because of Big Dig. Meeting not listed on MassDOT calendar, was hard to get people from Worcester informed. Where is Rich Davey, why isn't he here?
  • When she heard the RIDE increases from $2 to $12 she nearly fainted.
  • Rep. Gloria Fox sent statement to be read: She cannot support this proposal to raise fares. Her district has some of the lowest subsidized, highest ridership routes but will be affected badly, and is in a disenfranchised section of Boston.
  • This proposal shuts off Weymouth from transit.
  • Legislature needs to provide funding including raising gasoline taxes, it's been 20 years. Losing $400 million a year due to lost value from inflation.
  • PowerPoint is not a good educational device. $5 billion in debt on MBTA, $3 billion in interest. $2 billion is Big Dig related. Need transportation financial plan so benefits don't just go to bankers.
  • Alienating lots of people by raising fares - lost ridership.
  • Transportation for America: these scenarios are not acceptable. Scraping it out of the hide of riders is like asking Varitek to split the uprights [NB: Boston sports reference]. We need to talk to our elected officials. There are problems across the board.
  • MassPIRG: these proposals are bad public policy. Reduction in ridership: 30% of bus riders lose out. Short term fixes won't help in the long term.
  • Millions of people shaped lives around public transit. Sympathy votes don't win bills. Need pragmatic solutions. Real lack of creativity when it comes to cuts. [Shows schedule with penciled changes] Convert Rockport expresses to locals and eliminate 3 trains without losing service. Early Sat. morning trains are packed with service industry workers. Tourists ride Rockport on the weekends to see towns on the north shore. Many late night trains have drunk Celtics fans. Snow days see increased ridership, that makes it easier to clean roads.
  • TransitOnTheLine blogger spoke about importance of transit. [See also http://twitter.com/transitmatters]
  • MBTA Ridership Oversight Committee: It's asinine to build expansions and cut service.
  • Orange Line falling apart. Stop fare jumpers.
  • State can borrow cheaply. State of MA should deal with this.
  • Liveable Streets Alliance: this is a backwards plan. Boston won't attract young people. Are there any state reps in the room? [NB: Nobody answered]
  • This choice is like shooting ourselves in the head with a .38 vs a .25. We need debt forgiveness.
  • Raise taxes on income and gas to pay for Big Dig debt.
  • This plan won't work. We'll be here next year. May as well call it "Jan 3rd, MBTA Fare Increase Day."
At this point, they were trying to get as many people to speak as possible, so they asked everyone to keep it under a minute and a half. Then it was my turn to speak, and I also submitted them to the written record later on outside the conference room.
In 2007, the TFC report found that $1.8 billion dollars in MBTA debt was due to the court-ordered Big Dig mitigation projects. They formally recommended that this debt - which is the responsibility of the Commonwealth - be taken off the MBTA's books and given back to the Commonwealth where it belongs. This action alone could save up to $120 million a year in debt service costs.
The forward funding legislation in 2000 made predictions about revenue which turned out to be almost completely wrong, in addition to putting the Big Dig debt on the T. It is time to go back and fix forward funding first, before considering fare hikes and service cuts - and put the Big Dig debt back where it belongs.
I also tracked down Josh outside and asked him what he thought of the whole ordeal. He said that they must try to find some way to balance the budget within these constraints, and that these proposals would technically do the job. I asked him why they did not pursue the removal of the Big Dig debt, and he said it was out of scope for them at the T. At this point he had to leave, but I also asked if they were trying to get the public involved to do something about the Big Dig debt, but he didn't have anything to say about that except a shrug.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Drinking and Parking

A local music venue and bar wants to increase capacity by about 150 people. They are located in the heart of one of the most densely populated and busy neighborhoods of Boston. Management from the business came to a community meeting to talk about their plans. After having a discussion about the changes they made to satisfy fire and building codes, an older gentleman posed the question: "But will there be enough parking?"

The response: "The vast majority of our customers don't drive to get here." And that settled it. But it is amazing to observe how people think about parking. Even in this part of town - dense, walking and transit-friendly - the discussion quickly shifts to parking. At a bar, of all places.

Perhaps we need a companion campaign: "Drinking spaces and Parking spaces - they don't mix!" Just don't hire me to write the slogan.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Roads and highways are heavily subsidized

Interstate highway I-93 in Boston, part of the Big Dig (source)

Many people who own cars believe that they "pay their way," through the gas tax, when it comes to road construction and maintenance. That impression is a myth. To begin with, every single state in the country receives more highway funds than they contribute in gas taxes. Congress has appropriated an extra $30 billion to build and maintain interstate highways since 2008, taken from general funds. Many toll roads run deficits. The United States has one of the lowest gas taxes in the world. The Federal gas tax has not changed from the early 90s, it is a flat 18.4 cents per gallon. It is far too low to cover costs. According to the BLS inflation calculator, the buying power of the original tax has diminished by about a third, to 11 cents.

The situation at the Massachusetts state level is just as dire, if not more so:
The Finance Commission estimates that there is a funding gap of approximately $9 billion between what will be needed to bring the road and bridge system to a state of good repair and expected state and Federal funds.
Some have proposed a pay-per-mile tax (or VMT tax). As I've discussed before, this is a somewhat creepy and overly intrusive solution. It is much more reasonable to require only that commercial vehicles pay for VMT. Since commercial vehicles (trucks, buses) are already tracked by their operations managers, and they are not private passenger cars, it should be much easier and less objectionable to implement. Long-haul large trucks are already restricted to certain roads. Also, trucks and buses do the most damage to the roads, while passenger cars do relatively little.

Rocky Mountain Double (source)
Arguably, it should be car owners who have the most interest in this kind of proper taxation. The damage done to the road appears to be approximately proportional to axle load raised to some power between three and four. That means trucks and buses do extreme amounts of damage to roads compared to passenger cars. Only a few states even care about truck weight, and none of them come close to recovering the costs proportionally. So, ordinary drivers are paying much of the costs of trucking.
Modern freight rail container shipping (source)

There is a wider benefit to having roads. I'm not opposed to using public funds for road projects, I'm opposed to people who pretend that we don't do that. Roads are not free, and they are heavily subsidized by state and federal governments. To claim otherwise is dishonest. The gasoline and diesel fuel taxes must be brought into line with year 2012 costs, and set on a solid track for the future. States should strongly consider recovering the true cost of supporting heavy freight trucking on their roads through a commercial VMT tax, instead of putting the burden on the ordinary taxpayer. Businesses that need to transport freight long distances would go back to more appropriate modes, such as the railroads, which have improved their operations tremendously in the last 30 years. Not only would this reduce the cost of maintenance on our highways, but it would increase safety and reduce congestion at the same time.

The current, nearly 20 years old, Federal gasoline tax rate should be indexed to inflation, and raised from 18.4 cents per gallon to 28.8 cents per gallon (38.2 cents per gallon of diesel). This data on trucks and VMT in 2002 suggests that the majority of trucks are in the 60,001lb to 80,000lb range, traveling about 77 billion miles on our roads, out of approximately 145 billion truck miles overall. Presumably, these numbers have only gotten larger in the last ten years. Still, at those rates, an average tax rate of 10 cents per mile would recover over $14 billion that would be directly correlated with road damage. To be fair, lower weight trucks should pay significantly less than higher weight trucks - perhaps even following the power law to some extent. For example, if 80,000lb trucks pay 20 cents per mile, then 10,000lb trucks could fairly pay 0.04 cents per mile, given some simplifying assumptions. Of course, to get a real idea of the effect of VMT fees, it will be necessary to model the reduction in truck traffic (and reduction in road damage) that would result, as well as the costs of administration.

Update:
Do Roads Pay for Themselves?:
Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called “user fees” by $600 billion (2005 dollars), representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.
Rank hypocrisy on 'subsidies':
Today, over-the-road heavy trucks pay approximately $14,000 per year in combined fuel and other highway taxes. This amount does not come close to paying for the damage to roads and bridges caused by trucks, let alone the capital cost of the highway system or for new or expanded road and bridge construction.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Open Public Comment Letter

Regarding the plan to raise fares and cut services on the MBTA:

The public transportation services provided by the MBTA are crucial to the region's economic success and quality of life. Yet, the Commonwealth's plan for handling the funding of this agency has failed. In 2000, the legislature attempted to put the agency on its own financial footing through the passage of "forward funding." This plan was to provide 20% of state sales tax revenue to the agency, and in return, the agency would henceforth manage and discharge its own debt. The newly reborn agency was handed the responsibility for its existing debt -- but was also forced to takeover $1.8 billion in Central Artery/Tunnel commitments.

Since 2000, the predictions that "forward funding" was based upon have turned out to be wrong. Sales tax growth was conservatively estimated at 3% a year. In fact, it has been approximately 1% a year. Energy costs to run the system have sky-rocketed, as well as health care costs for employees. The legislation that was supposed to make the agency independent has instead hamstrung it with an unsustainable debt load.

In 2007, the Transportation Finance Commission issued this following recommendation:
The MBTA has over $5.2 billion in outstanding principal debt and paid $351 million or 27 percent of its operating budget on debt service in FY 2006 – more than the total of all fare revenue collected. About 35 percent of the principal amount of the outstanding debt ($1.8 billion) is directly attributable to carrying out Central Artery/Tunnel commitments. That debt is rightly the responsibility of the Commonwealth, not the MBTA. Level-funded over a 20-year period, this would shift about $117 million in debt payments from the MBTA to the Commonwealth. It should be emphasized that this debt must still be paid. The substance of this recommendation would transfer this obligation from the MBTA to the state budget.
This $1.8 billion in Central Artery/Tunnel debt was incurred by court-mandated projects that the Commonwealth was required to fund, in order to receive approval for the Central Artery/Tunnel in the first place. It is time to enact the recommendation of the Transportation Finance Commission, and put the Big Dig debt on the Commonwealth budget where it belongs. This action alone would go a long way to closing the budget gap for the next fiscal year.


(mailed to the public comment address found in the MBTA news article)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fix Forward Funding First!

The MBTA has over $5.2 billion in outstanding principal debt and paid $351 million or 27 percent of its operating budget on debt service in FY 2006 – more than the total of all fare revenue collected. About 35 percent of the principal amount of the outstanding debt ($1.8 billion) is directly attributable to carrying out Central Artery/Tunnel [Big Dig] commitments. That debt is rightly the responsibility of the Commonwealth, not the MBTA. Level-funded over a 20-year period, this would shift about $117 million in debt payments from the MBTA to the Commonwealth. It should be emphasized that this debt must still be paid. The substance of this recommendation would transfer this obligation from the MBTA to the state budget.

It's abundantly clear from many sources that the Forward Funding legislation of 2000 has been a failure and needs to be revisited before considering fare hikes and service cuts. In 2009, the MBTA Advisory Board published a review of the MBTA. This report explained, with excellent charts, how the Forward Funding failed to live up to expectations. In short,

  • Sales tax revenue was far more anemic than ever imagined in the 1990s.
  • Energy costs have increased dramatically more than expected.
  • The Finance Plan inexplicably did not predict any increase in health care costs.
  • Paratransit expenses increased due to growth, increased vendor fees, and fuel costs.

The granted portion of state sales tax revenue was supposed to make up for the debt obligations that were shoveled onto the agency. As the debt was paid down, the MBTA could manage its own finances "forward" from there, independently from any further state support. Instead, the plan backfired on all parties, and the MBTA began digging itself into a hole just to pay for maintenance and operations on top of the existing debt service. More from the review:
The only major long-term operational success of Forward Funding is the fact that the riding public paid three fare increases in the last eight years. That resulted in a cumulative $95M gain. Asking that same public in 2010 for yet another fare increase because Forward Funding did not work defies credibility. The riding public deserves to have tangible evidence that the MBTA is improving safety and service—not deteriorating further.
It is now 2012, and the MBTA is formally proposing a fare increase as well as service cuts, to cover a $163 million deficit. It is time to follow the Transportation Finance Commission's recommendations and fix forward funding first, by moving the Big Dig debt commitments back to the state budget where they belong. This could cover approximately $117 million of the projected deficit, leaving a much more manageable $46 million shortfall to be addressed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

MBTA plans service cuts and fare increases

The big story today is that the MBTA has published their proposal to cover a $161 million budget gap by cutting service and raising fares. They have put forth two scenarios: the first one raises fares higher, and the second one cuts back buses further. Both will end weekend and late-night service on the Commuter Rail, as well as weekend service on the "E" branch and the Mattapan line, among other things.

The broken forward funding legislation, from over ten years ago, continues to put the squeeze on public transportation in this state. There will be 20 public meetings, and opportunities for the public to comment on this proposal. It's time to get the Big Dig debt off the MBTA. Please try to write to the MBTA and attend these meetings if you can, and also write your state representatives.

The Big Dig, part 3


Were the Big Dig cost overruns unpredictable, due to the tricky nature of tunneling through the heart of a city? Or was it something else? From A History of Central Artery/Tunnel Project Finances 1994 - 2001:
Records and interviews reveal a Big Dig cost history at odds with publicly disclosed information. Most significantly, records show that B/PB presented Big Dig officials with an excruciatingly detailed total cost forecast of $13.79 billion in November 1994, a figure close to the $13.8 billion revised estimate announced by Big Dig officials in October 2000. [...]
Anxious to avoid the sticker shock effect of B/PB's estimate, Big Dig officials undertook a nine-month initiative between June 1994 and March 1995 to decrease B/PB's total cost estimate from $13.8 billion to $8 billion. At this time, the Secretary of Transportation and Construction publicly announced that the on-time and on-budget figure would not exceed $8 billion. Documents cite a directive from Big Dig officials telling B/PB to "hit the target" of $7.98 billion. [...]
B/PB managers insisted that local FHWA officials be told about all deductions, assumptions and exclusions that had been used to reduce B/PB's cost projection. Records show that B/PB and Big Dig officials did so. [...]
Once local FHWA officials learned of, modified, and sanctioned the use of these multi-billion dollar accounting assumptions during the 1994-1995 CSU-Rev.6 budget review process, the accounting assumptions became a permanent, tacit feature of the budget. [...] 
Put another way, once local FHWA officials gave their approval to the use of these accounting assumptions in 1995, they became part of the "semantic" definition of the Big Dig's total cost. The accounting assumptions became a multi-billion dollar minimizing factor for every cost estimate that followed.
Starting in 2000, the Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General began investigating the cost cover-ups behind the Big Dig, and they published their findings in a March 2001 report. They found that state officials ordered Bechtel/Parsons-Brinckerhoff to arbitrarily cut $6 billion from the estimated cost, in order to meet a political goal.
Page 44 of the OIG report

The report concludes that since the FHWA was made fully aware of the reductions and their nature, it is responsible for accepting the bogus $8 billion number and giving respectability to it. Therefore, the Federal funding cap should be raised, since it was based on information the FHWA knew to be unrealistic, and that when the Massachusetts Legislature provided state funds, it did so "in the absence of critical information." (p. 16)

Frankly, although the Mass OIG report is revealing, I think it is somewhat self-serving by implicating the FHWA so heavily. Was the FHWA complicit in hiding the true costs of the project? Yes, it appears. But the duplicity was the direct result of orders from Big Dig officials. Shouldn't they be the ones held responsible for manipulating numbers for political reasons? As for B/PB, they did do the shady accounting they were ordered to do, they also provided all the information about it to the FHWA and investigators. Anyway, there is a whole sordid list of errors to charge B/PB with aside from this.

The OIG report was published over ten years ago. What happened? According to this report (pp.15-18), the Attorney General determined that the report was not sufficient to make a criminal case, and it appears that the remaining cost recovery effort was rolled into a larger lawsuit over a collapse in the I-90 connector. But at least we know that the cost overruns were largely just a return to B/PB's original prediction, which turned out to be pretty accurate.

See also: The Big Dig, part 2, part 4.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Don't Walk




There is an intersection along Commonwealth Avenue, at Babcock Street, which always puzzles me when I am walking there. At one corner, there is a pizza shop. Catercorner to that is a charter high school. The other two corners have bus stops. When you cross Commonwealth Avenue, there are pedestrian signals to guide you. But when you cross Babcock Street, there are no pedestrian signals. What's worse, there is a green arrow telling drivers that it is always OK to turn right -- next to the high school -- but no safe phase for pedestrians. Children are given the option of crossing against a green arrow, crossing against the light, or not crossing at all.



I figure that it is only a matter of time before a tragic accident occurs: when someone comes speeding around the corner, and doesn't slow down because they are given a green arrow. I finally got around to taking pictures and filed a Citizens Connect report about it last month. A few days later I received this response:
status: Closed. Case Noted. Pedestrian walk indications will be installed under a massachusetts department of transportation project which is in the final design stages.
That is interesting. They did not link the project, but I believe that they are referring to MassDOT #606284 based on the description: Improvements to Commonwealth Avenue from Amory Street to Alcorn Street. I haven't found any more information on this, and it doesn't look like much has happened yet. I know this intersection has already existed in this state for at least three years, and it looks like it will be awhile yet before it is fixed.

Update: I've heard that this project may be scheduled for 2015, so I suppose we have that to look forward to.