MassDOT Takes Pretty Pictures as Green Line Extension Gets Underway

A train passes a crew driving piles to prepare widening of the roadway for the new Green Line tracks.

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.

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.


Boston’s Transit Network Shuts Down in Regional Manhunt – Confusion, Frustration Ensues

MBTA GM Dr. Beverly Scott (left) and MassDOT Rich Davey (right) sit in the meeting room in downtown Boston that looks into the MBTA Operations Control Centre.

In coordination with local and state officials, all MBTA services were shut down early morning two Fridays ago,  to facilitate efforts in the manhunt for the remaining suspect responsible for Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings.

The ease of digital broadcasts helped the MBTA communicate the shutdown to its customers, but left those without a persistent digital connection in the dark. That morning, the Globe found riders were still confused and frustrated by the closure and lack of visible notice at stations:

Jonathan Cruz of Dorchester was on his way to his apprenticeship at Youth Build Boston, a program that teaches young people construction skills. An acquaintance stopped him on his way to the JFK/UMass Red Line station, warning him service was cancelled, but Cruz kept going, hoping to get more information at the station.

He arrived at the station at about 6:30 a.m. and found no signs about service [cancellation] and no employees, he said. His program has a very low tolerance for tardiness, and he was supposed to be in Roxbury by 7 a.m.

“I think they should have put signs up but the problem is, we have the Internet and we watch TV all the time, so they thought we would know,” he said.

This further highlights the need for non-digital information dissemination, accommodating those on the other side of the digital divide. Service notices need not be vinyl wall wraps that are planned weeks in advance, but the advancing deployment of advertising displays from Titan can certainly be instrumental in making it easier to inform those who otherwise arrive at stations:

Xheni Kurdari walked up the stairs at the JFK/UMass station and tried to open the station’s doors. No luck. She could not make the short commute to her job at State Street Bank and Trust Company in Quincy.

Kurdari said she went to bed early the previous night and did not hear the news of the police chase and shoot-out with the bombing suspects. She heard some sirens in the morning, but did not think much of them.

“I was wondering why there were no people around,” she said. “I’m gonna call my husband, I’m gonna wake him up, probably, and I’m gonna have him drive to work.”

Digital notifications are still one of the least effectively advertised customer information features in stations that can prove useful outside of it. I’m still surprised daily the number of passengers I encounter who don’t realise that they can sign up for text-based ‘T-Alerts’ to their phones via SMS that don’t require a smartphone. Even fewer people realise they can go to sites like NextBus.com for realtime bus arrival times and HowsTheT.com for realtime train arrival times from their PCs before they ever leave from home or work.

The MBTA's web site very prominently features the system's closure.

The MBTA’s web site very prominently features the system’s closure.

Of course, the MBTA website continues to be an indispensable resource, granted you can and know how to get there. Reaching out through the press in papers, television, and radio, can help circumvent the digital divide that still very much exists, even in Boston.

Signage in and around stations remains the most effective means of communicating with the public – that’s why advertisers will pay to put signs in our stations


Has MassDOT Reached the End of the Road for Internal Reform?

Governor Deval Patrick delivers his presentation of the new transportation funding proposal.

Two Fridays ago, Governor Deval Patrick stated that he would unveil a proposal later this month to raise the necessary money through taxes or fees to fix the financially beleaguered transport network. Today, the details of where the money would be coming from and how much were revealed by the Governor and MassDOT.

The original Globe article on the issue highlighted that the annual gap between actual needs and what is actually raised and spent amounts to nearly $1 billion annually. This comes even after many years of reform that have consolidated a number of state agencies under MassDOT and produced efficiencies that have saved the state countless hundreds of millions of dollars over the years.

As temperatures dip far below freezing once again, it becomes painfully clear to many commuters that our aging transit system is in dire need of investment that no amount of structural reform will provide. MBCR spokesman Scott Farmelant notes, ‘There is only one way to prevent cold-weather delays: increased capital investment into the infrastructure, in particular signals, switches, and bridges.’

Likewise, there are many transit, commuter, and even high speed rail agencies that operate in similar climates in Europe that have overcome[PDF] sub-zero temperatures. By investing in weather-resistant infrastructure that is engineered to anticipate winter conditions and maintaining a modern fleet of trains, service impacts remain low. Sometimes, even the older equipment gets pulled out to help battle snow, much less extreme cold conditions, as happened in Sweden in 2010. Read the rest of this entry »


MBTA Steps Closer to Corporate-Sponsored Station Names

Corporate sponsorship is about to take advertising within the MBTA a step farther but at what cost and how effective will it be? [Photo by Flickr user nic221]

Corporate sponsorship is about to take advertising within the MBTA a step farther but at what cost and how effective will it be? [Photo by Flickr user nic221]

I’ve been fairly preoccupied with life lately, so this story (and many others) nearly flew right under my radar, but not before I had a chance to catch the original posting on the Boston subreddit.

In short, the MBTA is one step closer to making corporate-sponsored station names a reality in a last ditch and fairly ineffective attempt to grasp at straws for new revenue. No doubt the MBTA is having to continue pursuing this as a means of proving to state leaders that they are doing what they can to resolve the internal financial problems at the T to the best of their ability.

Either way, it turns out that the study by IMG Worldwide found a market for station naming rights and would bring in a potential $18.4 million a year to sell rights to 11 key stations throughout the system, leading to a total $147 million over eight years, according to the MBTA report to MassDOT. According to Mark Boyle, Assistant General Manager for Development and the representative of the MBTA who briefed MassDOT on the proposal, this could be good to go by mid-summer as sponsors line up to have their brands share sign space with historic Boston subway station names.

The unfortunate reality is that this tactic has historically failed to bring in the revenues promised here in Boston and elsewhere. It is a considerably less solid deal with corporations than encouraging developers to build on MBTA property and invite corporations to lease space within those well-situated, innercity developments to bring long-term revenue in as they have been doing for decades in Japan.

This is yet another short-term, short-sighted fix. In the 8 years these contracts would run, a well-designed contract that gives the MBTA a way out of deals that go sour and holds developers accountable for delays could build thousands of housing units (hopefully less stratified than what we already have and actually addresses the glaring housing issues plaguing Boston) and square feet of commercial office and retail space over, in, and around stations. This would further ensure sustained ridership levels, possibly increase non-rush hour ridership, and provide the sustained funds from real estate leasing to maintain and even improve our ailing system.

At the same time ridership growth threatens to overload the system in coming decades, it would be beneficial for the MBTA, Boston, and Commonwealth to create mixed-use neighbourhoods around transit (not at the far flung suburban stations) where people can walk to work and alleviate increasing uni-directional rush-hour traffic volume while still providing new revenue for the T through value capture policies.

There are precedents for doing that here in the US already and many municipalities are adopting these long-term plans to provide additional funds for further improvements from the initial investments (e.g. new light rail lines, subway extensions).

Most importantly, transit-accessible office space is far more valuable to any of these potential investors than the relative pennies they’re throwing at the MBTA to slap their name on a station. We have the potential to create new neighbourhoods, strengthen existing ones, provide housing for thousands, and bring back tax revenue from companies that have long since fled Boston proper because of its lack of accessible, modern, and affordable office space. Boston is low on the list of world-class cities playing host to Fortune 500 companies, Liberty Mutual being the only company to call Boston home. Two others, Raytheon and TJX, apparel and home fashion megachain, sit just outside of Boston in outlying suburban office parks accessible by I-95/Route 128, but hardly walkable from any commuter rail station.

While we deliberate and the MBTA/MassDOT continues to insist on calling suburban islands of development around massive commuter parking garages at its fringe stations is ‘transit-oriented development’, the Boston Metro region will continue to flounder as residents struggle to commute to work in suburban office parks only accessible by car as traffic increases and gas prices soar. Now more than ever does transit matter.


Mayor Menino Weighs in on Draconian MBTA Cuts, Fare Hikes

Menino has weighed in on MBTA cuts, fare hikes, but is long-term relief on its way from legislators on the hill? (Photo via Flickr user Dan4th)

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.


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.

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.


On the T with MBTA GM Rich Davey

I don’t often travel on the T after 8 for various reasons, all unrelated to the number of notices I get via the T-Alerts emails about delays. Last Thursday evening it was an unavoidable affair, but it was certainly  fruitful. MBTA General Manager Rich Davey, another person, and I were all heading home after the joint MBTA-MassDOT Developers event, Where’s The Bus? 2.0 and we got stuck on a southbound Red Line train at Charles-MGH due to a broken down train at Park Street. Our idle chatting turned into an impromptu interview with the new GM nearly 11 weeks into his appointment. Read the rest of this entry »


Medford Mayor Weighs in on Green Line Extension

Pic via Flikr (milantram)

Today, the Globe picked up on a letter by Mayor Michael Glynn of Medford. The mayor has expressed his concerns about some of the details over the Green Line extension past Lechmere, through Somerville, and ultimately through Medford (hopefully). He writes:

…due to the lack of detailed technical analyses, the inability of the State’s Project Director to deliver promises made during this planning process and the insufficiency of mitigation to ameliorate anticipated negative impacts on both residential and commercial properties and therefore the citizens of the City itself, I am prevented from fully embracing the project as proposed at this time.

He then goes on to echo that he welcomes the Green Line extension and dives right into the meat of his comment, namely the weakness of the original Draft Environmental Impact Report with respect to the extension beyond the College Avenue stop to the Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford. Additional concerns he raises echo those of so many others who have also commented on the DEIR since its public release: property acquisition and resident relocation; parking, auto accessibility, and traffic management around stations; construction effects on residents; stormwater management; and the location of a controversial storage and maintenance facility much like those located at Riverside and Resevoir. Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,128 other followers