Weekend excursion: Stations of the B&A/MBTA Worcester Line

In the past few months, the MBTA has announced emergency closures of two commuter-rail stations, and emergency construction (without closure) on a third. The most recent station to be closed due to unsafe conditions was the Providence Line station at South Attleborough—which I visited a year and a half ago and noted then was in extremely rough shape, despite being only 30ish years old. (All of the structures at South Attleboro were built new for the Amtrak Northeast Corridor Improvement Project to extend electrification north from New Haven to Boston.) I remembered that all of the stations on the outer Worcester Line, except for Worcester Union Station, were built new when the line was re-extended from Framingham to Worcester as a part of Big Dig mitigation—which means that those stations are only a decade newer than South Attleborough. And considering that Winchester Center, on the Lowell Line, was closed for safety reasons before I ever managed to see it, I thought I would get out of the house for a change and take some pictures of commuter rail stations before they are closed for safety reasons, starting with the line that serves my home town.

Obviously, with two-hour headways on the weekend train schedule, there was no way I could do this while actually taking the train, so I instead drove. This allowed me to visit a couple of station sites that are no longer served; when service to Worcester was resumed, the MBTA built huge new park-and-ride stations and abandoned the historic downtown stations in Ashland and Westborough, despite these being much denser and more activity-rich areas. In Westborough it’s easy enough to understand why: the railroad runs through downtown Westborough on an embankment; the historic station is far from a cross street and the MBTA would have had to build a great deal of vertical circulation to get passengers between the station and the westbound platform. The historic stations on this line are part of a group of stations designed for the Boston & Albany Railroad by the firm of famed Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, although some were completed by Richardson’s former partners after his death, and some were designed in-house by the railroad in the same style. The surviving Richardson(ian) stations include Wellesley Farms (gutted), Wellesley Hills (converted to a restaurant), Framingham (converted to a restaurant), Ashland (converted to a medical practice), and Westborough (converted to a civil engineering firm); other such stations survive on the B&A’s Highland Branch (today’s MBTA Green Line “D” branch).

I chose not to go to Worcester Union Station, since that would involve going into a city and finding parking, and even on a Sunday I was loath to do that during the pandemic. I started in Grafton and went as far east as Newtonville, the easternmost station outside of Boston on the line; I expect to do the two new-build stations in Boston at a later date. Along the way, I was passed by two trains: first, the Lake Shore Limited in Westborough, and then a regular eastbound MBTA train in Auburndale. (There were several other trains over the course of the four hours I was driving around, including a CSX freight, but I was not actually in a station for any of them.)

Rather than duplicate the photos on WordPress, you can see the full gallery in my SmugMug portfolio. (Ignore the meaningless “BA” tag on all the photos; it’s an interoperability bug between Adobe and SmugMug.)

Overall thoughts: the vertical circulation ranges from terrible (Westborough, Ashland, all three Newton stations) to nonexistent (all three Wellesley stations, West Natick). The only station with good vert. circ. is Framingham, with its two elevators, and even the stairs there are corroded in places (although in better condition than most of the others); pity they couldn’t have built full high platforms when they put the elevators in. Honorable mentions to Grafton, the only new-build station where the station site has favorable topography for the ramp system, and West Natick, which at least has nice new departure displays even if you have to walk a quarter mile down the platform to get to the mini-highs. (Coincidentally, West Natick is the most recently renovated station on the line.) Hopefully the replacement for the Boden Lane bridge will allow for better vertical circulation at the station end of the platforms there. The three stations in Newton are irretrievably awful, and it’s difficult to fathom why anyone would voluntarily use these stations; luckily, they are all planned to be reconstructed with at least one full-length high platform (hopefully two) and better vertical circulation within the next six years, and the Transportation Bond Bill includes enough state money to do the job.

It’s tough to know what to do about Wellesley. Wellesley Square serves a walkable downtown, with promises of some multifamily residential development in the future. Wellesley Hills less so, but it’s still better than any of the stations on the Fitchburg Line in Weston. Wellesley Farms is not easy to get to, although it does have a great deal of parking, and it’s not really clear to me that its 270 boardings a day in 2018 really justify much investment (even if there is money in the bond bill for it). On the other hand, the parking lot is at the west end of the platforms, so adding a ramp system there would seem like a no-brainer for both safety and passenger convenience, and if you’re going to do that, you have to build full-high platforms, mini-highs are no longer considered adequate. (None of the Wellesley stations are accessible at all at the moment, and the MBTA’s unwillingness to spend money on vertical circulation at less-busy stations likely has a great deal to do with that.)

Posted in Transportation | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Parsing the bond bill sausage

As the 191st General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was in its final hours before the end of the legislative term last week, the transportation bond bill that I wrote about last July was finally reported from conference committee, and was passed with almost no scrutiny by both houses. As I write this, it is sitting on Governor Baker’s desk, and under the state constitution, he has until January 17 to sign it, or else the bill fails. Because it is a bill making appropriations, the Massachusetts item veto amendment applies, meaning that Baker can sign the bill as a whole while striking out specific “items or parts of items” that he disagrees with — and because the 191st General Court has ended, there is no possibility of overriding his vetoes if he should choose to make any. (The bond bill passed unanimously in the House and with a single nay in the Senate, which would ordinarily be a veto-proof margin, if only the conference committee had reported eleven days sooner.) Since the compromise text and the old House and Senate bills differed by some billions of dollars, and since this was apparently a fairly unprecedented act of late-in-the-term sausage-making, I wanted to go over my post from six months ago and the text of the bill that was eventually enacted, and get some idea of what the legislature actually did.

By the time the MBTA board meets on January 25 to hear reports on the major “transformation” programs including Rail Transformation, we will know how much funding the MBTA actually gets from this bond bill and which programs are being given the green light by the legislature. (Conceivably even if the governor vetoes some of the earmarks the authority can still spend money on those programs if they advance the high-level purpose of one or more of the non-vetoed appropriations in the bill.)

First off, here’s a high-level comparison of the appropriations made in each of the three texts (amounts in millions of dollars):

Subject House Senate Conference
§2 federal-aid highways 5900 5600 4400
§2A federal-aid highways 2200 2500 1250
§2A Cape Cod Canal bridges 350 350 350
§2A non-federal-aid highways 100 100 100
§2B small bridge program 70 90 70
§2B bottlenecks program N/A 50 25
§2B municipal pavement 100 100 100
§2B complete streets 50 45 50
§2B transit-supportive infra N/A 50 25
§2C state bridges 1250 1250 1250
§2D rail improvmements 400 400 400
§2D RTA general capital 330 330 330
§2D intercity bus/intermodal 60 60 60
§2E MBTA general capital 2600 3260 3000
§2E MBTA state of good repair 500 300 300
§2E MBTA South Coast Rail 825 825 825
§2E MBTA Green Line Extension 695 695 595
§2E MBTA §Station goofiness 400 400 200
§2E rail enhancement 175 225 175
§2F aeronautics 89 89 89
§2G MassDOT planning 475 475 450
§2G Allston Multimodal 250 250 250
§2H MassDOT IT 50 50 50
§2I COVID-19 public realm N/A N/A 20
§2I TMA grants 25 N/A 25
§2I bus priority 100 50-x 25
§2I muni grants/sta. access 50 N/A 25
§2I transit station access 50 N/A 25
§2I earmarks kitchen sink 1860 675 2016
§2I ferry terminals 30 30 30
Totals 18984 18249 16510

(x) funded as an earmark in a different section of the bill

The most obvious positive here is that the compromise bill reduces spending in the two principal highway sections by a total of nearly $2.5 billion from the House text. Since these are primarily federal-aid highways, some of this reduction in spending can be made up with a more generous allocation of federal funds by the new (Democratic) Congress and the Biden administration, although like many activists my sincere hope is that the federal government changes the allocation formula to favor public transportation over private.

On the negative side, there is a lot more money in the earmarks item than before, and Baker could just veto that whole item (which runs over several pages), or zero out any of the individual earmarks, and the legislature would be unable to pass a new earmark until it finishes work on the fiscal year 2022 budget. The way the item veto works in Massachusetts, the governor can veto any “separable fiscal unit” in an appropriations bill (including a bond bill), which includes any outside sections and any language requiring money to be expended for a specific purpose; he can’t veto a provision restricting how money may be spent, unless he vetoes the entire appropriation. What that means in practice is that budget provisions that are worded as “may expend not more than $X”, or that do not appropriate a specific amount of money, cannot be item-vetoed, but “shall expend not less than $X” provisions can be.

The House bill included new revenues, including tax and fee increases, to support the bonding authorized. The Senate bill did not include any new revenues. The compromise bill includes an increase in TNC fees (paid for by customers of Uber, Lyft, and any similar companies as may exist), which the Senate had previously rejected in its consideration of the bond bill, but had approved in its version of the FY 2021 state budget (and subsequently dropped in conference). I don’t know where the governor stands on this provision. The compromise bill directs the MBTA to use its share of the increased TNC revenue to support a low-income fare program, as had been required in the Senate budget bill. Both the tax-increment financing provisions from the House bond bill and the regional transit ballot initiatives language from the Senate bond bill were dropped, replaced with another study onn the question. This effectively puts off any new revenue from either structure until fiscal year 2023 at the earliest, more likely 2024.

Two municipal grant programs that the Senate bill had included and the House had not made it into the final text, at a reduced level: a traffic bottleneck program and a transit-supportive infrastructure program, both of which include the language from the Senate bill giving preference to municipalities that support transit-oriented development. The transit-supportive infra program includes the positive language for trolleybus wiring which I called out in July.

The meat of the bill is in sections 2E (the main MBTA capital authorization) and 2I (the big pile o’ earmarks, which includes a large number of MBTA and some RTA projects mixed in with innumerable random municipal road and highway projects). The main MBTA appropriation calls out specific projects without earmarking funds (thus not subject to the item veto, since the amount of spending is at the governor’s discretion anyway); these include:

  • “a feasibility study to establish transit improvement districts” (which is useless, we already know it’s feasible and two different versions of it passed the legislature in July)
  • Blue Line signal system improvements
  • Commuter rail station at Wonderland (with “an enclosed pedestrian connection to the Wonderland station intermodal transit facility on the blue line”)
  • Red–Blue Connector
  • the same goofy language as I discussed in July about Red Line and Orange Line vehicles being assembled within the state (which has already been procured so this language is a nullity)
  • the same goofy language requiring more frequent service on the 714 bus
  • “to purchase rolling stock for use on the commuter rail system that reduces the overall environmental and emissions impact of the rail network to the greatest extent possible” (is this new?)
  • the same goofy language about “dual-mode service” and requiring a useless “pilot program” on the Worcester Line

There are some actual dollars-committed earmarks in this item as well:

  • $100 million for general improvements to the Western Route (Haverhill Line)
  • $15 million for level boarding at Lawrence station on the Haverhill Line
  • $5 million each for level boarding at Andover and Ballardvale stations on the Haverhill Line
  • $5 million for “additional train service” on the Haverhill Line
  • $60 million for double-tracking the Haverhill Line in the vicinity of Ballardvale
  • $25 million for level boarding on the Haverhill Line
  • $200 million for electrification of the Fairmount Line and the Stoughton branch of the Providence Line (should be feasible to complete on this budget even without additional federal funding given the small number of stations required to be upgraded and the relatively small number of EMUs required to operate these lines — potentially allowing the T to avoid Buy America and purchase more cost-effective European-built EMUs)
  • $200 million for electrification and station renovations on the Eastern Route between Boston and Beverly (more challenging due to length and the number of stations requiring upgrades, but see below for additional funding)
  • not more than $3.165 million for improvements to Worcester Union Station
  • $600,000 for accessibility improvements at the Worcester Line stations in Wellesley
  • $6 million for an ADA-compliant commuter rail station in Ayer on the Fitchburg Line
  • $300,000 for expansion of parking lots at South Acton, Shirley, and Southboro
  • $2 million for elevator and escalator replacement at Route 128 station
  • $2.5 million for improvements to Beachmont station
  • $1.5 million for “study and design of major improvements at JFK, Andrew and Broadway stations”

To which I can only say, whoever represents Lawrence and Andover must be quite powerful in the Senate hierarchy. Pretty much all of these earmarks were in the Senate bill, and they are mostly good even if excessively concentrated on the Western Route (which gets $215 million out of the $3 billion appropriated, if the governor does not veto any of the earmarks). I am confident that a competent project management team can accomplish the electrification projects within the $400 million budgeted, although the MBTA’s recent history leaves me a bit less sanguine about the agency’s ability to hire or supervise such a team.

The compromise bill retains language from the original bills “authorizing” $100 million for “GLX Phase II” (the completion of the Medford branch of the Green Line to Mystic Valley Parkway, the originally planned terminus), but requires environmental review to be completed by December 31, 2020 — which, astute observers will note but the conference committee apparently did not, had already passed before the conference report was even published. Since the funds are “authorized” but not actually required to be expended, I’m not sure Baker can veto this, but presumably the legislature will take another crack at getting the EIR completed (given the MBTA staff’s lack of access to time-travel).

The weird “South Station improvements” item is still there. This was the item that I advocated in my July post to be turned into a general Rail Transformation line item at a significantly increased budget. Instead, the conference committee cut it in half, down to $200 million. It still includes a $25 million earmark for the South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan, but the general language here and in several other sections allows the rest of the funds to be used to support Rail Transformation by piecing together multiple appropriations.

One non-MBTA item in section 2E provides funding for various statewide passenger rail projects, including a $25 million earmark for “Berkshire Flyer” service between Pittsfield and New York City via Albany.

Section 2G includes a couple of MassDOT items, including the Allston Multimodal project, which has been widely reported elsewhere; the bond bill authorizes $450 million for it, and imposes even more conditions than the House and Senate bills did. These aren’t earmarks and can’t be vetoed by the governor unless he vetoes funding for the whole project, which seems unlikely. That said, West Station still can’t be built in a year, and the Worcester Line still won’t be able to support 20-minute headways that early in the construction process, since 20-minute headways will require a change in rolling stock as well as track and signal improvements and reconstruction of most stations. MassDOT is given until July 1 of this year to submit a comprehensive mobility plan for the project. All that is to be done for $50 million of the $250 million allocated, which even a competent agency would struggle to accomplish. (If I were the governor, I would veto this item and immediately ask the new legislature to come back with more practical language. At worst, they would re-enact the same language in a standalone bill and have to whip votes for an override.)

Section 2I includes a few new programs, including grant programs to municipalities for bus “prioritization and enhancement” (which includes trolleybus wiring! and bus shelters!), to transportation management associations, and for a municipal “last mile” program, each $25 million. A state “last mile” program also gets $25 million (presumably for the MBTA at its stations, although the language does not call out a specific agency.) The “Shared Strets and Spaces” municipal grant program authorized as a part of the state’s pandemic response gets another $20 million under the rubric of “public realm improvement”. There’s a $25 million grant program for vehicle electrification investments that is shared by municipalities and RTAs. Finally, there is an enormous laundry list of earmarks, of which I’ll only hit the highlights. This is where the legislative sausage really gets dicey:

Mainline rail, including station access and commuter parking

  • $150 million for electrification of the Eastern Route from Boston to Lynn (note that this is in addition to the $200 million appropriated in a different section above — see what happens when you try to make legislative sausage at the very last minute? — but with five separate earmarks for station construction and other infrastructure, that ought to be enough to see the whole project through to completion)
  • $67 million for commuter rail accessibility in Newton (a good project but both tracks need accessible platforms at all three stations, and $67 million is only enough to pay for the estimated cost of single platforms)
  • $60 million to construct high-level platforms on the Franklin Line (this is in addition to the appropriation below which funds studying constructing high-level platforms on the Franklin Line
  • $50 million for unspecified projects on the Framingham/Worcester Line (obviously this should go to high platforms)
  • $35 million “to the City of Peabody for the design, reactivation, and implementation of a transit system on the existing rail from Peabody Square to the Salem Commuter Rail Station” (I think this is a good project albeit too expensive)
  • $25 million for an intermodal station in New Bedford at the site of the to-be-constructed South Coast Rail station
  • $25 million to build a South Salem station on the Eastern Route
  • $20 million for mainline freight rail track improvements to increase weight limits
  • $10 million “for all-day service on the MBTA commuter rail system” (there should not actually be any capital investment required for this; to the contrary, it would obviate some planned but counterproductive capital projects for midday train storage)
  • $10 million “to upgrade rail infrastructure from North Falmouth to Buzzards Bay to accommodate commuter service” (a very low value project that should be vetoed)
  • $8 million for “a downtown parking structure in the city of Framingham”
  • $5 million for parking improvements near Framingham station on the Worcester Line
  • $7.5 million to the town of Natick to build a parking garage in Natick Center (sigh, this is a bad bad project)
  • $7.5 million to the town of Natick to expand parking at West Natick by building a garage (this is a less bad project because the neighborhood is already auto-dominated, but it would be much better if the town found a private developer to build housing instead)
  • $7 million for superstructure replacement of the bridge carrying St. Mary’s St. over the Mass Pike in Brookline and Boston (this also crosses the Worcester Line)
  • $4 million for “improvements to the roadways and parking” at Sharon station on the Providence Line (pity they were so specific; the money would be better spent on building high-level platforms there — although this can probably be fudged because the handicapped parking setup will need to be changed to accommodate ramps)
  • $5 million for redesign and construction of Canton Junction station on the Providence/Stoughton Line (this is what the Sharon earmark should have said)
  • $4 million to design and construct high-level platforms at Fitchburg Line stations in Waltham and Concord
  • $4 million for unspecified improvements to West Medford station on the Lowell Line
  • $3 million to reconstruct the Boden Lane bridge over the Worcester Line at West Natick
  • $3 million for a commuter shuttle while Winchester Center station is being renovated
  • $2.5 million for “parking improvements” at Ashland station
  • $2.5 million in improvements to traffic and parking at Walpole station on the Franklin Line
  • $2 million for ADA-compliant platforms at Roslindale station on the Needham Line
  • $1.8 million for quiet zones on South Coast Rail
  • $1.5 million for “the Beverly depot mobility hub”
  • $1.5 million for unspecified capital improvements at Franklin and Forge Park stations on the Franklin Line
  • $1 million for a ped/bike connection from Anderson RTC to the former Woburn Mall
  • $500,000 to study accessibility improvements at Lincoln station on the Fitchburg Line
  • $500,000 for infrared heaters on the platforms of the Stoughton branch stations
  • $500,000 to study and design satellite parking and local shuttle bus service for the Fitchburg Line east of I-495
  • $300,000 to expand parking at Westborough station on the Worcester Line
  • $300,000 to expand parking at Littleton/495 station on the Fitchburg Line, with a pasted Unicode replacement character just to liven things up a bit
  • $100,000 to study constructing high-level platforms on the Franklin Line

Rapid transit and Green Line

  • $100 million for Alewife garage repair, reconstruction, and multimodal access
  • $30 million to make Hynes station on the Green Line accessible
  • $10 million to connect Assembly station on the Orange Line to Draw Seven Park and the Encore Casino
  • $4 million to improve bus access to Alewife station (in addition to the big Alewife garage appropriation above
  • $3 million for feasibility and design studies to restore rail service to Nubian Square, possibly running through to Mattapan, with a big long list of study deliverables
  • $2 million to increase parking at Orient Heights station on the Blue Line
  • $1 million “on a study of red line train station conditions”
  • $1 million for increased access to Braintree station
  • $500,000 to study extending the E Line from Heath Street to Hyde Square
  • $420,000 to study extending the E line from Heath Street to Hyde Square (same paragraph, but a few pages later)
  • $225,000 for safety improvements at Heath Street station

Bus, bike, trails, and streetscapes

  • $10 million for zero-emissions buses (well, maybe, a zero-emissions bus?) and a BRT corridor along Blue Hill Ave in Boston
  • $7.5 million to construct the Belmont Community Path
  • $5 million in improvements for the SL4/SL5 bus routes
  • $3 million for the “Dot Greenway”, over the Red Line tunnel in Dorchester
  • $3 million for “improvements to the Clinton Railroad Tunnel and expansion of the rail trail route in the town of Clinton” (this is part of the Central Mass. Rail Trail)
  • $2.5 million for “evening and weekend shuttle bus service in … Worcester”, “provided further, that the shuttle loop shall travel through at least1 [sic] or underserved or underrepresented business corridor in low-income to moderate-income areas in the city of Worcester”
  • $2 million to reconfigure Egleston Square
  • $1.5 million for streetscape improvements in Mattapan Square
  • $1.1 million for fencing on the elevated section of the Somerville Community Path being constructed as a part of the Green Line Extension
  • $1 million for “study and implementation” of an oddly specific bus route between South Station and City Point
  • $750,000 for “costs associated with a multimodal transportation trail” connecting downtown Peabody and Salem”
  • $600,000 for a study of a pilot of BRT between Acton and Cambridge (because apparently a heavily used commuter-rail line is not enough?)
  • $300,000 for a BRT pilot along Broadway in Arlington and Somerville
  • $250,000 for a BRT study in Dedham
  • $200,000 for solar bus shelters in Winthrop

Other

  • $300 million for the reconstruction of the I-93/I-95 interchange in Canton (sigh; I advocated eliminating this earmark and I’d still suggest that the governor do so for the reasons I gave in July)
  • $15 million for parking garages in Needham
  • $10 million for unspecified transportation improveents in Winthrop (which maybe now that Bob DeLeo has resigned they could have just left out)
  • $5 million for “renovations and redesign of the pier and docks at Squantum Point Park in Quincy” (this is in addition to the earmark below for ferry service)
  • $5 million “for a competitive three year transit grant matching program for suburban communities that partner with Regional Transit Authorities or Transportation Management Associations and engage in Public Private Partnerships in support of commuter services linking to the MBTA”
  • $3 million to purchase a commuter ferry for the city of Lynn
  • $2.5 million for ferry service, including dock construction, “for transportation and tourism in the city of Quincy”
  • $2.5 million for WRTA paratransit vans
  • $2 million for “climate resiliency preparations” in Sullivan Square, Charlestown
  • “not less than $1,000,000 shall be expended to design and reconstruct East Street following bridge repairs” — any East Street, anywhere?
  • $1 million for new paratransit vehicles for the MBTA

The laundry list ends with a requirement for the MBTA to conduct a feasibility study for manual in-person parking payment, to report by December 1 of last year.

There’s enough money here, between the direct MBTA appropriation and the earmarks, to fully implement Regional Rail on the two lines the MBTA board approved 14 months ago, without additional federal support, if the T develops osme competence at cost control, and to make a major dent at the station and track improvements required (but not the electrification infrastructure itself) for the Worcester, Franklin, Fitchburg, and Haverhill Lines. Obviously it would be better if this was legislated as a coherent program of rail transformation and not dozens of individual ships-in-the-night earmarks, and some of the funding levels are clearly an accident of the way the bill was pulled together at the last minute. That said, I would strongly advocate that the governor not veto the seemingly redundant appropriations, because it will probably take the full amount in order to actually achieve any of the benefits.

The outside sections in the bill include:

  • the language about “job order contracts” that was in both bills in the summer
  • the TNC fee language noted above, with a segregated fund designated the “Transit Authority Fund” to receive part of the revenue, and a further appropriation of that segregated fund to be split equally between the MBTA and the RTAs
  • a requirement for vehicles involved in a crash to move off the travel lane, and a liability exemption for law-enforcement agencies and towing contractors if they have an immobilized vehicle moved out of the path of travel for safety reasons
  • MassDOT is not required to conduct an engineering study when establishing work-zone speed limits
  • MBTA fare evasion decriminalized; fines reduced; non-police fare enforcement
  • Privacy of data collected for MBTA fare collection; warrent required for law-enforcement acccess
  • No right of adverse posession in land held by the MBTA
  • Revenue received from the Transportation and Climate Initiative shall be deposited in the Commonwealth Transportation Fund and subject to future appropriation by the legislature
  • Fast-charging electric vehicle tariffs to be filed by investor-owned electric utilities
  • Low-income fare program to be implemented by the MBTA in cooperation with EOHHS; report on implementation costs to be filed with the legislature by October 15; EOHHS to assist RTAs in implementation of low-income fares or fare-free programs if that would be cheaper than means testing
  • “Special commission on roadway and congestion pricing” established, to report by the end of the calendar year

That’s a lot of legislating! Now we just have to wait another week to see how much His Excellency the Governor decides to veto. (Since the MassDOT board meets on Monday, the 11th, I expect to find out sooner, perhaps as early as tomorrow morning.)

Posted in Law & Society, Transportation | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Parsing the bond bill sausage

The Democracy Crayon

In the transportation community, especially rail and transit enthusiasts, it is common for people to publish maps of imagined future routes and services that one believes would be interesting or worthwhile to build, if money were no object. These are (somewhat derisively) called “crayons”, on the theory that a serious planner or engineer who was actually charged with designing or building something would use “proper” tools and have a whole suite of institutional support behind them to create something that looks “professional” and has a 300-page regulatory filing full of statistics and model data to accompany it. (The derision may in some cases be justified, as hobbyists are prone to drawing lines on a map where they would like there to be service, and not so much where a route is either justified or physically feasible. Sometimes, “what if?” really is just for fun.) But there are many other arenas of public policy where a member of the public who is not already a government official (or an academic) can legitimately have opinions and perhaps even contribute to the public debate by raising ideas and options that are not receiving their due consideration. We might well have laws, or constitutional arrangements, that we’d like to see, that arguably would be an improvement over the status quo. There’s been a lot of talk over the past few months about the state of democracy in the United States, and some of the barriers (insularity and “American Exceptionalism”) that cause us to be bad at building trains also cause us to be bad a building a functioning twenty-first-century democracy. So here is my “What if the United States actually cared about democracy?” crayon. (It’s also a bit of wordplay on “the democracy canon”, the legal theory advanced by some scholars that when the law is unclear, courts ought to choose the interpretation that advances democratic participation — e.g., allowing more people to vote rather than restricting the franchise.)

1. Everyone votes

The law should make clear that everyone has the right, and indeed duty, to vote. There must be no barriers, such as registration requirements or felon disenfranchisement, that that restrict the voting rights of any adult citizen. (And there are arguments to be made for striking both “adult” and “citizen” from the requirements as well.) In Australia, “attendance at the polls” is mandatory, enforced by a civil fine: no one is required to vote, but every citizen is required to cast a ballot (even if it’s blank). Compulsory attendance would also provide some direct accountability for local election officials who fail to provide sufficient polling places or other resources that are necessary to ensure that voting is not burdensome.

2. Abolish the Senate

The United States Senate is a uniquely anti-majoritarian institution, born of an 18th-century compromise that has long since passed its expiration date. As a mechanism to convince small states that their interests would be respected by a national government in which they were outnumbered five-to-one, after two centuries it gives a tiny number of voters in mostly empty states inordinate veto power over the majority. While the Senate could be reformed, by “one man, one vote” as in the 49 state senates, or by limiting the upper chamber’s powers as in the German Bundesrat, any reform likely requires unanimous consent of the states, and if we’re going to presuppose that, we might as well just abolish it entirely. The Senate serves no useful purpose and it’s not worth reforming. (And before you say “but it represents the states!”, no, it does not. It represents rural white people, and rich rural white people at that.)

If we’re going to get rid of the Senate, we need to find a replacement for some of the things the Senate currently has exclusive power to do. To a first approximation, that is ratifying treaties and confirming presidential appointments. We’ll need a multi-pronged approach.

First off, repeal the Appointments Clause. How executive-branch offices get filled should not be set in the difficult-to-amend Constitution; it should be by whatever means the President and Congress (i.e., the House) can agree on. But there are overall far too many political appointments in the federal government: a new president has to appoint about 4,000 people, and all but a few hundred of these jobs should instead be filled by career civil servants. One sticking point may be judicial appointments; most countries have a non-political judicial appointments commission or similar body to do this job; simply requiring an appointments commission to propose a candidate acceptable to both Congress and the President would serve the purpose better than the system we have today (where interest groups and senators associated with the sitting president’s party do much of the work). I would use the same body to handle judicial promotions, ending the practice of appointing law professors and politicians directly to the courts of appeals.

One other thing that the Senate does is hear impeachment trials. I would replace this function in two different ways: first, I would require heads of executive departments to maintain constructive confidence of the House. (“Constructive” here refers to the specific sense that it’s not permitted to just throw someone out of office, a “vote of no confidence”, you actually have to get a majority vote for a replacement. This is how the German chancellor (equivalent to a prime minister) is chosen, and disciplined.) For other officials that are currently subject to impeachment, the trial should be held in a regular court in front of a panel of regular judges, chosen by lot for the assignment.

Obviously, treaties can be ratified by the House. In practice, this is often what happens already, because most treaties are not self-executing, and require ordinary legislation passed by Congress to implement their terms.

3. Campaign reform

The Constitution should be amended to explicitly allow Congress and the states to regulate spending in, and the conduct of, their respective elections, in a politically neutral way, and to place reasonable limits on the duration of election campaigns. Campaigns for federal office should be exclusively publicly financed.

4. National popular vote for president

Some would argue that we should just get rid of the office of president altogether, or limit it to a ceremonial role like Ireland’s. But the US federal government is a very large and disjointed institution, and I don’t believe it can be effectively administered in a parliamentary style. This implies having a head-of-government with independent political legitimacy, and that implies having a popular vote. By preference, such a vote should be held by instant-runoff voting, rather than by a two-phase system (whether primary/general or general/runoff); this reduces the participation tax on voters’ time and also limits the length of the campaign. (Yes, I know about Arrow’s theorem, and I don’t accept that all of his desired properties are in fact desirable, so it doesn’t bother me that there might be strategic voting in such a system.)

Note that one of the side benefits of a national popular vote is that it reduces incentives for restriction of the franchise. In the current electoral college system, states are represented in rough proportion to their entire population, regardless of how many people are either actively or passively disenfranchised. With a national popular vote, every state’s incentive is for the greatest number of its citizens to vote, because this maximizes the state’s say in the outcome of the election. A state where a million people are unable to vote is a state that casts a million fewer votes in the ultimate total that determines the presidency. And of course this makes IRV for the presidency conceivable.

In order to make nationwide IRV actually feasible, there must be national ballot access standards for the presidential election, one rule for all 50 states, with no special exceptions for favored political parties or candidates. Every voter would have the same set of presidential candidates to rank, and states would report the number of votes for each observed ranking. (As little as two decades ago this would have been infeasible in storage and communications resources, but it’s trivial by the standards of modern computing systems.) Special protocols will need to be developed to audit and authenticate the totals, since recounts will not be feasible at the national level.

5. Enlarge the House

Ever since the Permanent Apportionment Act, the size of the House of Representatives has been stuck at 435 — with a very short period of a slightly larger House after Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states, which immediately snapped back two years later. Before the Permanent Apportionment Act, Congress would pass an explicit Apportionment Act after every decennial census, generally increasing the size of the House to ensure that no state would lose any seats even as other states grew much faster. That practice was unsustainable: a House in which Vermont had three seats would be unmanageably large, much larger even than the British parliament (650 seats) although still not approaching the size of the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress of China (nearly 3,000 seats). But the so-called “Wyoming Rule”, requiring that the House be large enough for each member to represent the same number of people as the member for the least-populous state, would result in a still manageable 580-seat House and reduce the malapportionment that is due specifically to the minimum-one-seat-per-state rule. That rule itself could in theory be thrown out, but that would require creating some national body with the authority to draw House districts across state lines, and it seems reasonable to have states be the minimum granularity if we’re going to keep states as political entities at all.

6. Eliminate districts

The system of “first past the post” plurality elections in single-member districts inherently underrepresents minorities and minority views. Even when a minority is geographically compact, there are more minorities than districts and few minorities are both compact and numerous enough to be guaranteed a “majority-minority district”. Even when specific protected minority groups do manage to get a district drawn in which they can “reasonably expect to elect the representative of their choice”, that group may comprise distinct populations with diverging political interests and thus be unable to have their views and their identities represented simultaneously.

There is a straightforward solution to this, which is practiced in most advanced democracies (the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom are notable exceptions): get rid of the districts and elect representatives by proportional representation. Under PR, minorities of a sufficient size are ensured the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice regardless of their geographic compactness or dispersal. There are a few different schemes for this, and I propose two different ones, depending on the number of seats each state has in the House.

For very small states with only a single at-large seat (after expansion, that’s Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming), use instant-runoff voting as in the presidential election. This isn’t proportional, because you can’t elect fractional representatives. (Other countries solve this by not having small states or by allowing multi-state constituencies.)

For all other states, the default electoral scheme should be Open List. For those who are not familiar with Open List, it is the system used in much of northern Europe at all levels of government. All parties and independent groups nominate a list of candidates (usually but not necessarily one for each seat). Voters vote for the candidate of their choice. The available seats are apportioned among the lists in proportion to the total number of votes received by all candidates on each list. (There are a few different ways to do this, and I’m glossing over the technical details, but it’s similar in principle to the way House seats are apportioned among the states by population, using a rule known as the d’Hondt count.) If a list receives fewer seats than it has candidates, then the seats are assigned to candidates in order of the total number of votes each receives. (Note that this works well with the “fusion” party system seen in New York and a few other states, because the same candidate can appear on multiple lists, and the votes for the candidate are counted separately for the purposes of list apportionment but can be totaled for the purposes of assigning seats within a list.)

For very large states, I would allow legislatures to create compact districts of ten or more seats, allowing some differentiation of representation between disparate regions of the state (e.g., north/south/west Texas, or upstate/downstate New York, or northern/central/southern California) while still maintaining enough seats to provide for proportionality and minority representation. A medium-size state like Massachusetts (12 seats under the Wyoming Rule) would not have this option, being too small to create multiple ten-seat districts.

Small states that are large enough to have between two and five seats (Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota, again under the Wyoming Rule) would have the option of filling those seats via the Single Transferable Vote — the multi-member analogue to instant-runoff voting, and the system used to elect members of the Irish parliament, the Dáil Éireann. The option is offered for small states because preference-based systems like STV are better at reflecting public opinion than list systems when there are only a small number of seats to be elected and individual candidates are much better known to the electorate.

There’s nothing to require states to adopt these reforms, but the 49 states that aren’t Nebraska should in fact abolish their upper houses, and should adopt proportional representation in multi-member constituencies as well. Some states might well be able to do this by citizens’ initiative today, although some states’ initiative process for constitutional amendments allows a veto by the sitting legislature.

Those are my proposals; what about yours?

Posted in Law & Society | Comments Off on The Democracy Crayon

Macaroni and cheese, again

It’s getting into the chilly part of the year again so I decided to make some traditional macaroni and cheese. I didn’t bother to take any pictures (well, one phone picture of my mise en place to post to Twitter) or any of the other things that I have done for recipes in the past, but I figured I would write down what I did in case I hadn’t published it before (I probably have but you’re not going to search the history, are you?) Be prepared for an idiosyncratic mix of US customary and metric measures, because I’m like that.

Ingredients:

  • 375 g fusilli
  • 7 g Parmigiano Reggiano (actually, you should use more, probably about 30 g/1 oz, but 7 g is what I had), grated on the weird star-shaped holes of a box grater
  • 225 g (8 oz) of firm melting cheese (I used half each of Le Gruyère AOC and Kaltbach Emmental, because that’s what I saw in the store), shredded on the large holes of a box grater
  • 1 small yellow onion, grated on the large holes of a box grater
  • 3 cloves of garlic, crushed in a garlic press or minced at the last minute
  • 2 cups of lowfat milk, hot
  • 1 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1 oz unsalted butter
  • whole nutmeg, a pinch grated on a rasp at the last minute
  • ½ tsp fresh grated white pepper
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • 1½ cup frozen peas
  • 300 g cooked ham, ¼-inch dice

First cook the fusilli in boiling salted water according to package directions (don’t stint on the salt), and drain in a colander. Rinse out the pot and wipe dry, then return to the stove.

The rest of the recipe proceeds as a bog-standard sauce Mornay, except that I didn’t have any shallots so I substituted the grated onion and garlic. Melt the butter over medium-low heat, then add the grated onion and cook until disintegrated and any water has boiled off. Add the salt and pepper and the crushed or minced garlic and stir, cooking until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the flour and cook about a minute to form a roux. While whisking constantly, add hot milk. When the Béchamel sauce begins to boil, the roux has reached its maximum thickening power (if you think it’s too thick at this stage, add more milk). Grate in a pinch of nutmeg (it’s traditional). Reduce heat to low and add shredded cheese a handful at a time, stirring between each addition until it is fully melted. Stir in frozen peas and ham, making sure that the sauce returns to a simmer after both additions. Stir in cooked fusilli and mix until completely coated with sauce.

Pack the pasta and sauce mixture into a 20 cm×10 cm round ceramic soufflé dish and let cool slightly while preheating the oven to 375°F. Immediately before putting the dish into the oven, top evenly with the Reggiano. Bake for 15–20 minutes or until hot all the way through and the cheese on top is melted. (Give it a few minutes under the broiler if you like; I didn’t, because I don’t really like crunchy pasta.) Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 6; approximately 540 kcal per serving.

Posted in Food | Tagged , | Comments Off on Macaroni and cheese, again

Massachusetts’ transportation bond bills: an analysis and recommendation

This month, I’ve spent rather more time than I would like to admit digging through the Massachusetts state legislature’s web site to try to figure out what the heck they have done with the transportation funding (and MBTA governance) measures they were considering before the pandemic caused everyone to suddenly go into self-preservation mode. The General Court kicked the MBTA governance can down the road by extending the current board for another year. The House-passed revenue bill has apparently gone nowhere in the Senate, so we are not, for the moment, looking at any additional revenue from the traditional state sources, although it is sorely needed. I read through both of the bills that did pass and extracted the highlights, most of which I posted on Twitter.

Since the main transportation bond bill has just gone to conference committee, I wanted to put the two bills side-by-side and come up with something that I could communicate to my legislators and to the members of the conference committee as a superior synthesis of the two bills. In general, my preference is for the Senate text, but there are some significant areas in which the House version is superior, and there are also significant issues with provisions that are common to both bills.

Executive summary

Both House and Senate bills can support a reasonable transportation capital program. In the matter of bridge, highway, and municipal roadway investments, I see no important differences between the two. While fewer earmarks would be desirable, most of the earmarks are dedicated to projects that would likely be funded through the state CIP or federal STIP anyway. As a matter of general principle, I would move funding from highways to transit, but with one exception I am not suggesting that here.

My greatest concern regards the unsystematic mish-mash of appropriations for the MBTA’s capital program, and in particular for commuter rail projects. These appropriations and earmarks should be combined into a coherent program of rail transformation, of the sort the MBTA control board approved at its November 4, 2019, meeting. Some of the common language between the two bills references obsolete technologies that should not be written into law lest MassDOT or the MBTA actually implement it.

I totaled all of the regular appropriations and earmarks in the two bills relating to commuter rail. H.4547 includes $1.01 billion in explicit funding for a range of commuter rail projects, not counting South Coast Rail or the Allston Multimodal project. S.2813, by contrast, includes only $715 million in funding for commuter-rail projects. However, even the smaller amount in the Senate bill is sufficient to implement Raiil Transformation phase 1, assuming funding is available in the next federal surface transportation bill at a better than 75% match. Below, I suggest replacement language that would significantly improve on what is there now.

General comments

  • The Senate version of section 2B, with additional grant programs and preference for municipalities that encourage transit-oriented development, is preferable to the House version.
  • In section 2E, trolleybuses should be explicitly mentioned alongside battery buses, since trolleybuses are more energy efficient and generate less pollution than battery buses.
  • I strongly approve of call-out for the Red-Blue Connector, although an explicit dollar amount ought to be attached to this project.
  • Delete the language about Red and Orange Line cars since that contract has already been executed and no cars beyond the current procurement will be purchased before 2035 at the earliest.
  • South Salem station is a necessary down payment on commuter rail transformation; I think the Senate’s earmark is a more realistic estimate of its cost.
  • The House version of section 2G is preferable, but it’s probably impractical to implement 20-minute headways on the Worcester Line within one year. Require MassDOT to consider reducing the Turnpike by one lane to reduce the size and intrusiveness of the highway structures.
  • Delete the $300mn earmark for the I-93/I-95 Canton interchange from the House bill and let that project compete for STIP funding through the usual process.
  • Don’t pay Natick to build commuter-rail parking garages; the town should find a TOD partner to build development near the stations which is compatible with the desired parking structures.
  • Include both the local/regional ballot initiatives from the Senate bill and the TIF districts from the House bill — these funding mechanisms work best for substantially different communities and can and should coexist.
  • Include Senate section 21 to decriminalize MBTA fare evasion; this is a necessary part of the T’s ongoing Fare Transformation program to convert to proof-of-payment fare collection.
  • Include the Senate language on low-income fare programs, including the earmark of TNC fees to fund it. (TNC fees should be increased.)
  • Just direct MassDOT to implement congestion pricing, as in Senate section 41, and don’t bother with the commission in section 40.
  • Drop Senate section 43 and allow Metropolitan Highway System user fees to be used to pay for the Allston Multimodal project. If need be, restrict this to the toll gantries on either side of the project limits.
  • Drop House section 30, no need for additional studies of East-West Rail.
  • My language below replaces House section 36.

Replacement text

This is relative to S.2836, and fits within the fiscal envelope of the both bills with respect to commuter rail spending, assuming all earmarks for commuter rail projects are struck and the funding reassigned to the 6622-2183 account as described below.

In s. 2E, strike text beginning “provided further” on line 190 through “passenger enhancements” on line 200, and all commuter-rail earmarks throughout the remainder of the bill. Further in s. 2E, strike all after “6622-2183” through the end of the paragraph and substitute the following text:

For the purpose of modernizing the commuter rail system, reducing greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions, improving travel times and reducing delays for commuter rail passengers, improving rolling stock reliability and utilization, supporting non-traditional commuting schedules and access to employment from environmental justice communities, and ensuring full access to commuter rail services for mobility impaired riders; provided, that funds may be expended for projects that support Phase 1 of Rail Transformation as resolved by the fiscal and management control board on November 4, 2019; provided further, that the authority shall prepare a plan describing capital investments and schedule sequencing necessary to provide bidirectional, all-day train service on all commuter rail lines at least every half hour by December 31, 2026, and identifying potential sources of additional funds including private partnerships and federal grants, such report to be submitted to the clerks of the House and the Senate by June 30, 2021; provided further, that funds may be expended for projects, including without limitation, planning, engineering and acquisition of zero emission multiple-unit commuter rail vehicles, infrastructure improvements, technology and equipment necessary to provide such service; provided further, that funds may be expended for capital costs associated with infrastructure and equipment to leverage innovative financing and partnership approaches; provided further, that funds may be used for planning and feasibility studies; provided further, that funds may be used for transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, acquisition of rights of way and interests in land, construction and reconstruction of stations and other facilities; provided further, that funds may be used for construction, reconstruction, retrofitting, resilience, efficiency improvements and modernization of stations, platforms, signals, tracks, power and electrical systems; provided further that two new stations shall be constructed on the Newburyport/Rockport line, at Wonderland in the city of Revere and at South Salem in the city of Salem; provided furher, that the stations on the Framingham/Worcester line in Newton shall be reconstructed to have platforms serving both tracks; provided further, that the authority shall study the restoration of service to Newton Corner; provided further, that not less than $25,000,000 shall be expended on the expansion of parking facilities which are consistently full before 9 a.m., with priority to such stations on the Framingham/Worcester line; provided further, that the authority shall prioritize station and infrastructure improvements that reduce dwell times at intermediate stations and turnaround times at terminal stations, including but not limited to construction of level boarding platforms, signal system improvements, and higher speed switches; and provided further, that not less than $25,000,000 shall be expended on the design and engineering of transportation improvements along the waterfront in the South Boston section of the city of Boston taking into consideration the recommendations of the South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan, as amended from time to time ………………$715,000,000

That’s it. The extra $315mn for this line item is to be taken from the other line items containing the deleted earmarks. This doesn’t touch any of the highway earmarks, but I would strike the $300mn for the I-93/I-95 Canton interchange and add that total to this line item as well, making it $1,015,000,000, which — with a potential 90% match in the next federal surface transportation bill — is sufficient to complete the full Regional Rail program, although not the North-South Rail Link.

The weeds

A comparison of S.2813 (the bond bill that passed the Senate) and H.4547 (the bond bill that passed the House) shows strong similarities but also some important differences between the chambers. I believe the similarities can be put down to the basic structure having come out of the Joint Committee on Transportation; each body then proceeded through its own Ways & Means committees and floor debate with a host of amendments. H.4547 was passed by the House on March 5; the Senate did not take up its bill until June, well into the coronavirus pandemic, and after floor debate and amendments, adopted S.2813 as a substitute amendment for H.4547 in mid-July. A conference committee was appointed by both bodies with the intent of reporting a compromise bill before the end of the current sitting, currently scheduled for next Friday, July 31. Both versions have an emergency preamble and would take effect immediately on the governor’s signature.

Some of the sections in the bills are substantive amendments to the general laws, and others are appropriations and bond authorizations. There are several distinct bond authorizations, with slightly different terms, one for each of the appropriation sections in the bill. All bonds are general obligations of the Commonwealth, unless the governor determines that they should be special obligations. The Senate version came to $16.9 billion in new bond authorizations; no such tally was present in the House bill and I did not try to total them myself.

Both versions of the bill are full of earmarks and requirements for planning exercises and reports to the legislature; the conference committee will have to reconcile these, as well as the top-line totals. I went through both bills to identify the differences between them and language that I consider to be problematic. I’m going to mostly stay away from discussion of the highway earmarks, although I believe there are far too many of them and most of those projects should be funded through the normal STIP and CIP process using the large programmatic appropriations in both bills. The transit appropriations, including elements common to both versions, are a mess.

Here’s a (mostly) section-by-section summary of the provisions in the two versions:

Section 2 is the main MassDOT Highway appropriation, $5.6bn for federal-aid highways. The House version has an additional $300mn in general spending on municipal ways; the Senate deleted this and reallocated the funds in the next section.

Section 2A is also MassDOT Highway, covering a variety of state-owned, non-federal-aid facilities; it appropriates $2.2bn (House) or $2.5bn (Senate) for non-federal-aid state roads and bridges, $350mn for the Cape Cod Canal bridge approaches (the bridges themselves are to be replaced by USACE and then turned over to the MassDOT after completion), and $100mn for non-federal pavement (basically road resurfacing). The Senate adds another $250mn for state highways and bridges, $50mn for pavement, and $7.5mn for park-and-ride facilities in Barnstable and Sandwich.

Section 2B is MassDOT Highway grants to municipalities, $220mn in the House version and $335mn in the Senate version. The Senate increases funding for the municipal small bridge program ($90mn vs. $70mn), but holds municipal pavement grants steady ($100mn) while reducing complete streets grants from $50mn to $45mn. In addition, the Senate creates several new programs, including a $50mn “bottleneck” program and a $50mn program for “transit-supportive” infrastructure, which includes municipal funding for trolleybus wiring, bus amenities, bus stop accessibility, and transit signal priority. The Senate adds a grant award preference for most of these programs to communities that encourage transit-oriented development; the compete streets grant reserves $16.5mn for low-income communities.

MY VIEW: keep the Senate version with expanded programs and TOD preferences.

Section 2C is the same in both bills, $1.25bn for state bridges. Section 2D is also the same, $790mn for MassDOT Rail and Transit; it includes $400mn for rail improvements (including the Industrial Rail Access Program), $330mn for RTA buses and facilities, and $60mn for “regional intercity bus and intermodal service”, which I guess can be interpreted pretty broadly.

Section 2E is the main MBTA laundry list, although in the bill it’s placed in the office of the Secretary of Transportation. This is where many but not all of the MBTA earmarks landed in both versionss. The total cost is $5.2bn in the House version and $5.7bn in the Senate version, with a lot of projects given the green light and only some having specific earmarks. I’m going to go through them in some detail.

First off, what the bills both have in common. The main line item is for MBTA rapid transit and bus modernization, $2.6bn in the House bill and $3.26bn in the Senate bill. It recites a whole list of purposes to which the money can be put, across the whole area of the rapid transit and bus systems, and calls out the Better Bus Project by name. The bills specifically call out bus garage modernization to service battery-electric buses, but don’t mention trolleybuses.

Both bills fund the Red-Blue Connector as well as Blue Line signal system improvements for the rest of the line, and both fund construction of a new station on the Eastern Route at Wonderland along with an enclosed pedestrian connection to the existing Wonderland station. The House bill requires renovation of Suffolk Downs station, but the Senate bill does not; also unique to the House bill is a requirement for increased service on the 714 bus (which runs from the Hingham waterfront to the very tip of Hull).

Both bills have a weird provision requiring Red and Orange Line cars currently being assembled in Springfield to be assembled in Springfield. I’m not sure what the point of this was, because this procurement is already subject to Buy America and CRRC can’t easily set up a new factory elsewhere in the US before this order is due to be finished.

The bills differ somewhat in their language regarding modernization of the commuter rail network. The general provision for “rolling stock for use on the commuter rail system that reduces the overall environmental and emissions impact of the rail network to the greatest extent possible” is the same in both bills. Both also have weird language requiring “a pilot program and related capital improvements to implement dual-mode service on the south side of the commuter rail system, with priority given to dual-mode service on the Framingham/Worcester Line”, and both have a requirement for the MBTA to consider in-state economic development when it evaluates proposals for rolling stock.

Both bills also allow “the procurement of electric multiple units, infrastructure improvements, technology and equipment necessary to support new or modified commuter rail service models, safety features and passenger enhancements; provided further, that funds may be used for construction, reconstruction, retrofitting, resilience, efficiency improvements and modernization of stations, platforms, signals, tracks, power and electrical systems”, although the text is in different places.

The House bill requires a feasibility study for “transit improvement districts”; the Senate bill simply authorizes them (in a separate section).

Now comes a big long list of earmarks, starting with the biggest-ticket item: The House bill appropriates $200mn for electrifying the Fairmount and Stoughton lines, whereas the Senate bill appropriates $200mn for electrifying the Eastern Route — but only as far as Beverly. The House also includes electrification of the Eastern Route, in a different section of their bill, only as far as Lynn, and only appropriates $150mn for it. Both bills allow, but do not require or otherwise earmark, funds to be used for EMU procurement and other facilities and equipment necessary to support “new or modified commuter rail service models”.

Other House earmarks: $100mn for Haverhill Line — and it’s not clear whether that includes the following, $50mn for Ballardvale double-tracking; $30mn for level boarding at Haverhill, Ballardvale, and Andover; and $5mn for additional train service on the line.

The Senate bill has far more earmarks, several of which are funded under a different section/bond authorization in the House bill (marked with an asterisk); italicized earmarks were included in my tally of commuter-rail earmarks:

  • $2.5mn for accessibility improvements at Beachmont
  • $25mn for a new South Salem station (*)
  • $3mn for Worcester Union Station improvements
  • $6mn for an accessible station at Ayer
  • $1.5mn for parking expansion at South Acton, Littleton, Shirley, Southboro, and Westboro stations
  • $0.6mn for accessibility improvements at the Wellesley stations
  • $1.5mn for “major improvements” at JFK, Andrew, and Broadway stations
  • $2.5mn for parking at Walpole station (*)
  • $2mn for elevators and escalators at Route 128 station
  • $4mn for high-level platforms at Waltham and Concord (*)
  • $100mn for improvements to Alewife garage and related access improvements

The second line item in section 2E funds state-of-good-repair projects for MBTA customer and maintenance facilities; the House funds it at $500mn, and the Senate at $300mn. In both bills there is language directing that SGR projects that would replace existing assets should seek to modernize them where appropriate (rather than like-for-like replacement of obsolete assets).

The third line item funds South Coast Rail, which is the feds determined was not cost-effective and chose not to fund. Both bills fund SCR at $825mn, as I believe the administration requested, and both bills cap mitigation costs at $100mn, but the Senate bill earmarks $25mn of the total to an intermodal station in downtown New Bedford (the House funds this through a separate earmark).

Both bills also fund the state share of the Green Line Extension at the full $695mn, and earmark $100mn for “GLX Phase II” — the remaining Medford extension to Mystic Valley Parkway which was left out of the federal grant agreement as a cost reduction. The T is required to complete an EIR for Phase II by the end of this year.

The next line item is “For the purpose of implementing South Station improvements”, for $400mn in both bills, but nearly the entire text is Rail Vision/Regional Rail and has nothing to do with South Station. Both bills earmark $25mn for the unrelated South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan. I have a suspicion that this is an elliptical way of referring to South Station Expansion, which is a bad project, a waste of money, and should not be funded.

Finally, there is a line item for “rail enhancement”; the House gave it $175mn and the Senate allocates $225mn. Both bills call out a variety of passenger rail projects, including expanding service to Cape Cod and in the Pioneer Valley, but the Senate specifically earmarks $50mn for East-West Rail and another $25mn for a service connecting Pittsfield to New York City. The Senate bill also calls out commuter rail service to Buzzards Bay, intercity passenger service on the PAS main line between Fitchburg and North Adams, and service between Pittsfield and Albany. The Senate graciously allows MassDOT to “consider” its own East-West Rail report in building East-West.

MY VIEW: This section is a mess. See my amendment above.

Section 2F funds MassDOT Aeronautics airport improvements at $89mn. Nobody cares about MassDOT Aeronautics (the only important airports belong to Massport), so this line item contains no earmarks and nobody even tried to amend it on the floor of the senate.

Section 2G is for MassDOT central activities, including statewide planning programs and the Allston Multimodal project. Both bills allocate $475mn for all-modes planning, asset management, and compliance activities, and earmark up to $100mn to implement the state bike and ped plan. Both bills allocate $250mn to the Allston project, but differ significantly in the strings attached:

  • The Senate requires a cost-benefit analysis on “throat” alternatives, including a no-build option, as well as “a detailed description of … mitigation measures, including … efforts to maximize commuter rail travel, including rail and signal improvements, fare strategies, third track options, raised platforms and parking”. Not less than $50mn is allocated for a combination of mitigation measures and transportation demand management.
  • The House requires early construction and opening of West Station — “20 minute peak headway commuter rail service” and local bus connections within 1 year from *start* of construction — a buffer park along the south edge of the project, a bike and ped bridge connecting the Paul Dudley White path to Agganis Way, and various improvements to the Grand Junction Path in Cambridge and Somerville. The department must submit a plan for Worcester Line improvements including third track, level boarding, additional peak trains, etc., by the end of FY21. I wasn’t sure if the language also requires MassDOT to build a new bike/ped bridge to connect the PDW with the Cambridge-side Grand Junction Path, parallel to the existing Grand Junction railroad bridge.

MY VIEW: the House version of the language is better, but the bill ought to require MassDOT to consider lane reductions on the Turnpike and on Soldiers Field Road to reduce the impact of the highway structures on the parkland and the river.

Section 2H appropriates $50m for IT, identical language in both bills.

Section 2I is a dumping ground, technically going to the Secretary of Transportation’s office. I don’t know why all this crap is here rather than in the other sections where it would seem to be more at home, but that’s how they did it. The House bill appropriates $1.86bn in total, and the Senate version is much cleaner at only $675mn. Some of the highlights and big-ticket items:

In the House bill:

  • $25mn in grants to TMAs
  • $100mn in municipal grants for bus priority, trolleybus wiring, and bus amenities (funded at $50mn by the Senate bill under section 2B with some additional conditions)
  • $100mn to improve access to transit stations and bus stops, split 50-50 between grants to municipalities and state projects
  • $0.5mn to study accessibility improvements at Lincoln station
  • $1.8mn for quiet zones on South Coast Rail
  • $4mn for improvements to roadways and parking at Sharon station
  • $2mn for repairs and ADA platforms at Roslindale Village station
  • $2.5mn for commuter parking and traffic improvements at Walpole
  • $300mn for the I-95/I-93 (Route 128) interchange in Canton
  • $0.5mn for infrared heaters on the platforms of the Stoughton Branch
  • $0.5mn for satellite parking and shuttle buses along the Fitchburg Line east of I-495
  • $30mn for Hynes station accessibility
  • $3mn to replace the crash-damaged Boden Lane bridge over the Worcester Line in Natick
  • $15mn to the town of Natick to build parking garages at commuter rail stations
  • $5mn for a competitive matching grant program for RTA and TMA “commuter services linking to the MBTA”
  • $10mn for a Blue Hill Ave. BRT (28X redux) using zero-emission vehicles
  • $4mn for “improvements” at West Medford station
  • $3mn for a Lynn commuter ferry
  • $150mn for electrification of the Eastern Route as far as Lynn
  • $7mn for superstructure replacement of the St. Mary’s St. bridge over the Turnpike and Worcester Line in Brookline
  • $67mn for Newton commuter rail station replacement
  • $5mn for Framingham commuter rail parking
  • $2mn for intersection improvements near Framingham station
  • $10mn for all-day service on commuter rail
  • $25mn for an intermodal station in New Bedford (the Senate bill funds this in section 2E)
  • $50mn for unspecified investments on the Worcester Line
  • $4mn for bus access and congestion reduction at Alewife station
  • $10mn for a new South Salem station (funded by the Senate in s. 2E)
  • $4mn for high-level platforms at Waltham and Concord stations
  • $100mn for Alewife garage reconstruction and traffic improvements
  • $60mn for high-level platforms on the Franklin Line
  • $2mn to expand parking at Orient Heights
  • $3mn to study restoration of light rail service to Roxbury, including reopening Tremont St. tunnel, with service alternatives to replace the SL4/5 to Nubian Sq. and the 28 from Nubian to Mattapan
  • $5mn for Silver Line Washington St. improvements including shelters and TSP
  • (unfunded): MBTA to study Red Line extension to Arlington

In the Senate bill:

  • $60mn for double-tracking Ballardvale (funded by the House in s. 2E)
  • $25mn for level boarding at Haverhill (funded by the House in s. 2E)
  • $2.5mn for ferry service in Quincy
  • $2.5mn for parking improvements at Ashland station
  • $8mn to buy, build, or rehab a downtown parking garage in Framingham

In both bills:

  • $30mn for landside ferry facilities and boat acquisition
  • $108mn for a relocation of the westbound lanes of Storrow Drive
  • $20mn for a PPP to upgrade freight rail tracks for heavy loads
  • $0.4mn (House) or $0.5mn (Senate) to study restoring the E Line from Heath St to Hyde Sq.

MY VIEW: The Canton interchange (House bill) is at the junction of two Interstate highways; it should be funded through the main section 2 appropriation for the state share of federal-aid highway improvements and programmed through the TIP and the STIP accordingly; just delete the earmark. The town of Natick should be expected to find a commercial development partner to build a TOD project that will include parking garages, so don’t fund those. The rest of this is a mess. See my proposal above.

At this point, the content and section numbering of the two bills diverges significantly. Section 4 in the House bill creates a legal framework for tax-increment financing to fund transportation improvements; section 5 in the Senate bill creates a legal framework for local and regional transportation ballot initiatives. The TIF structure is more beneficial to cities, and the local ballot initiative structure (which is exempted from Proposition 2½ limits on property taxes) is more beneficial to suburban towns and rural communities that don’t expect property values to increase significantly as a result of transportation projects.

MY VIEW: There’s no reason not to allow both; we need all the revenue sources we can get, and both of these structures are local-option, they don’t obligate any state funds.

All references below to the remainder of the Senate version of the bill…

Sections 7 and 12 through 16 amend the rules of the road to make explicit provision for e-bikes of various capabilities and electric scooters.

Section 21 provides for non-criminal treatment of MBTA fare evasion, including for designated non-police to issue citations.

Sections 22 through 24 provide for additional data collection from TNCs. Section 26 provides for confidentiality of personal data collected by the MBTA in the course of fare collection and enforcement.

Sections 36, 38, 39, and 64 create programs for low-income fares on the MBTA and on RTAs. The MBTA is required to implement, in cooperation with EOHHS; the RTAs are only required to report, and the RTAs are permitted to consider whether going fare-free would be more cost-effective. Section 36 dedicates the Commonwealth’s share of TNC fees to fund the MBTA low-income fare program, and section 64 sets a deadline of January 1, 2022 to implement the program.

MY VIEW: The Senate language for the above sixteen sections should be sustained.

Section 40 creates a commission on congestion pricing, to report by the end of CY21, and section 41 requires MassDOT to seek federal approval to implement a Value Pricing Pilot in consultation with this commission.

MY VIEW: Can the commission, just proceed directly to implementation.

Section 42 demands a feasibility study of VMT taxation, to report by the end of next March.

MY VIEW: Something will have to be done, as EV adoption will eat into the gas tax revenues if we manage to meet our climate goals. A VMT tax might be one such something. Or we could have more tolls, now that the state has demonstrated a capacity to collect them electronically.

Section 43 forbids MassDOT from raising tolls to finance the Allston project.

MY VIEW: dumb dumb dumb.

References below are to the remainder of the House bill:

Section 30 requires another study of East-West Rail.

MY VIEW: Why? What benefit is additional navel-gazing?

Section 31 requires a traffic study of the Southeast Expressway HOV lane.

Section 34 requires the MBTA to restore service to the Danvers campus of North Short Community College.

Section 35 requires MassDOT to study the impact of traffic-related noise.

Section 36 requires MassDOT to study the cost of full accessibility at commuter rail stations.

Section 38 requires the MBTA to establish “an office of transit parking and access” and develop a long-term plan for parking.

Posted in Law & Society, Transportation | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Massachusetts’ transportation bond bills: an analysis and recommendation

Quote of the day

From Harvard PhD student Jake Anbinder, in Democracy Journal:

We need not defend the specific works of the midcentury master builders to recognize that the model that has replaced them—where some planners spend their evenings being berated by neighborhood busybodies and others bill governments rather than work for them—has produced its own undesirable outcomes.

Posted in Law & Society, Transportation | Comments Off on Quote of the day

Commuter rail schedules for the Plague Year

At a couple of recent MBTA board meetings, the authority’s staff have made it clear that they expect the passenger volume on MBTA commuter rail to remain depressed for significantly longer than that of the subway, light rail, and bus networks, as demand recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and related business closures. These conversations have been happening in the context of the MBTA’s financial situation and the fiscal year 2021 budget, which the authority is about to approve at a special board meeting on Thursday, because reduced income from sales of expensive commuter-rail passes and parking fees has an outsized impact on the operating margins of the service (much of the operating cost of which is set by the T’s contract with Keolis, which has another two years to run). Much of the discussion centers around how the commuter-rail service is built for 9–5 office workers who live in the suburbs and drive to a station where they park all day, and whether some significant fraction of those workers will continue working from home for the rest of the year, or their employers will otherwise arrange for them to no longer commute into the urban core, especially considering that suburban homeowners are more likely to be older. But all of the commuter-rail lines serve cities where a significant number of residents are service workers, work in research or medicine, or otherwise have schedules that the current commuter-rail service fails to address.

Currently, the commuter rail is running on the “reduced service” schedule, which is a modified Saturday schedule, but in the governor’s “reopening plan” announced on Monday, it was suggested that the commuter rail might not resume its previous operating schedule — and a lot of people raised some eyebrows about that. I want to argue that this is a good thing, and that this crisis provides a tremendous opportunity to fix the damn schedules at a time when ridership is already reduced.

What do I mean by “fix the damn schedules”? Well, we could start by looking at what the MBTA board voted in favor of last fall: all-day, bidirectional service on clockface headways, as proposed in the Rail Vision report. (What’s a “clockface headway”? In essence, it means that the train schedule at every station is the same every hour of the day: a train that arrives at 6:07 also arrives at 7:07, 8:07, 9:07, and so on. Having a memorable schedule all day long is important to reduce the cognitive load and stress for riders, regardless of what Stephanie Pollack may think, and is also key to the “Swiss model” of scheduling, because you only need to make the schedule for a single hour and just repeat that across the entire day.) Rail Vision proposed 15-minute and 30-minute headways, which are today a substantial challenge due to long-standing facilities constraints, garbage rolling stock, the lack of electrification, and the lack of full-length high platforms at many stations. This all takes time and money to fix (although not as much of either as the MBTA’s management is trying to make it take) — but the question naturally arises, in this pandemic year: What could we do now, within the constraints of the facilities and equipment that we already have, given that demand is substantially reduced?

The answer, as it turns out, is quite a lot.

For starters, nearly all lines (Old Colony excepted) could run all-day bidirectional service on 60-minute headways using significantly less equipment than is required for “status quo ante” schedules. The five two-track main lines can run all-day bidirectional service on 30-minute headways, with careful scheduling of meets on a couple of lines that have single-track sections. These are all local trains — no expresses or other non-standard service patterns — so they’re easy to schedule uniformly; some expresses would be possible but I haven’t run a constraint solver to actually see which ones. (As a practical matter, the MBTA currently only runs expresses on the Providence, Worcester, and Fitchburg lines.) I’m making relatively few assumptions beyond the availability of track slots from Amtrak and Pan Am on the various routes they control dispatching for. Here’s a table showing my thinking:

Route Cycle time Consists required
Status quo ante 60′ headway 30′ headway
Fitchburg 240′ 6 4 8
Lowell (NHML) 120′ 5 2 4
Haverhill (Western Route) 180′ 5 3 x
Reading (Western Route) 90′ * *
Rockport (Eastern Route) 180′ 4 3 x
Newburyport (Eastern Route) 180′ 4 3 x
Beverly (Eastern Route) 120′ * o
Worcester 210′ 8 4 7
Framingham 150′ * *
Needham 120′ 3 2 *
Franklin 180′ 3 3 x
Providence 180′ 7 3 6
Wickford shuttle 90′ 2 *
Stoughton 120′ 2 2 *
Totals 47 31 43

* Not studied.
x Service precluded by infrastructure constraints.
o Main line of the Eastern Route receives 30-minute service as a consequence of 60-minute headways on the two branches, although they may not be evenly spaced due to the need for scheduling the single-track through Salem.

Cycle times were calculated by taking the current reduced schedule, which makes all local stops, and adding at least 15 minutes turnaround time at each end. It turns out that for some services, like the Haverhill and Fitchburg lines, single-track sections restrict the feasible schedules such that the turnaround time is much longer at one end of the route than the other. (I assumed for the Fitchburg line that westbound trains would hold at Fitchburg until the eastbound train clears the Wachusett crossover, about five minutes on the schedule, to ensure that as few passengers as possible are inconvenienced; adjusting the schedule earlier in the trip would make the meet in Waltham much chancier and delay far more passengers. Unfortunately, both Wachusett and Fitchburg are single-platform stations, even though the Fitchburg Line is double-tracked all the way from Waltham.) Finally, implementing 30-minute headways on the Worcester Line might be impossible with the current configuration of Worcester Union Station; in that case, most of the benefit can be had by simply running short-turns to Framingham (which wouldn’t reduce the equipment requirement — note that cycle times have to be padded upward to make a multiple of the headway, and ideally you would like the extra padding to be at the out-of-town end of the line, except that you then need layover space that won’t foul the platform tracks, which isn’t always available).

What does this give us? Well, obviously, it provides “less” service than the status quo ante as the MBTA would normally measure things. But it provides vastly more service at times when non-office workers are more likely to be traveling, and serves the state’s public-health goals by supporting a more spread-out, less peaky commuting pattern for everyone. And, of course, it completely eliminates the (false perception of a need for) midday layover facilities. On the other hand, it does potentially increase staffing costs; I have not studied this and don’t know what the actually required staffing levels are, particularly if trains can run with shorter consists (meaning fewer conductors per train, but balanced out by the overall increase in trains per day). I’ve completely ignored the Foxboro pilot service. I also haven’t seriously looked at scheduling optimizations that could be done, such as running all Franklin service via the Dorchester Branch or running all Haverhill service via the New Hampshire Main Line, or other low-cost interventions that might reduce cycle times and improve equipment utilization such as increasing speed limits or eliminating some very lightly used and inaccessible stops.

But if we did do this, then we would establish a different, in my view superior, baseline — call it a “new normal” — to which commuter rail passengers could grow accustomed and expect to see maintained or improved as passenger volumes return and we move forward with the “Rail Transformation”.

Posted in Transportation | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Commuter rail schedules for the Plague Year

Giving away some ebooks

Long time no see, blog fam!

I wish I could blame the COVID-19 situation for my lack of posting so far this year, but in fact I’ve had very limited energy at all this whole year, and indeed going back into most of 2019 as well. The pandemic did cancel my trip to Montreal, where I was going to attend the World Figure Skating Championships (at least I got my money back — those tickets are not cheap). But even before that, I had a fairly long thing I was trying to write back in mid-January about how we can take the next steps to fix our transportation system. That post has, as we say, been overtaken by events, and now it’s going to be a struggle to get people back onto public transit, and the state legislature has completely failed to demonstrate leadership in the face of cratering oil and gas prices, just as they failed to do in the 2008–9 financial crisis.

I’ve posted twice before (both posts in 2016) about the Canadian fantasy writer Graydon Saunders’ “Commonweal” series. I’ve been trying to get more people to read these books, which have a lot of big ideas, ever since I first read the first two titles (The March North and A Succession of Bad Days) three and a half years ago. Since then, three more books have come out: Safely You Deliver, Under One Banner, and released just this past January, A Mist of Grit and Splinters. I have a great deal of difficulty writing about literature in the best of times (have some sympathy for my high-school English teachers) and these books are particularly difficult to describe: they’re all secondary-world — or perhaps post-apocalyptic, it’s unclear — fantasy, but March, Banner, and Mist are all military adventures told from multiple perspectives (principally senior officers’), whereas Bad Days and Safely are sorcerer-school stories told mainly from the perspective of the students. That is not the interesting part, but it may influence which books are interesting to which readers. (It’s all one contiguous story, but books 1, 2, 4, and 5 are all reasonably entry points.)

The interesting part is an exploration of an egalitarian alternative to the traditional, feudal or at least strictly hierarchical social structure of most secondary-world fantasies. How does such a society defend itself from outsiders who would enslave them? How can the needs of military discipline be compatible with strict equality? How does any society deal with the prospect that some people may, through innate ability or experience, have several orders of magnitude more productivity than others, while maintaining adherence to the principle of “no fixed hierarchies”? There’s a lot there for people to engage with, and I’ve been pushing people on Twitter to do so. Obviously there are many differences between the world of the Commonweal and our world today, notably the fact that we don’t have working sorcery and they do, but these are definitely books that are trying to engage with issues present in our world, not just wish fulfillment.

So a week ago I launched a book giveaway on Twitter. I promised to give up to 50 copies of either The March North or A Succession of Bad Days away to anyone who responded. Sadly, only three people responded, and one of those turned out to be in a territory where the book was not licensed for sale. So I’m inviting my blog followers to do the same. If the description above made you think you might be interested in reading this book, send mail to book.giveaway@bimajority.org before 11:59 PM EDT on April 30 (0359 UTC on May 1) and tell me which book you’d like to get, and I’ll send you a Google Play gift code which can be redeemed for a downloadable copy.

Terms and conditions: limit one book per recipient, and you must have a Google account activated in a territory where Google Play Books is available and this book is licensed for sale. Not responsible for email delivery delays.

Posted in Books | Tagged | Comments Off on Giving away some ebooks

Upgrading FreeBSD from 11.3 to 12.1

Now here’s something more like what I was originally expecting the content on this blog to look like. I’m in the process of moving all of our FreeBSD servers (about 30 in total) from 11.3 to 12.1. We have our own local build of the OS, and until “packaged base” gets to a state where it’s reliably usable, we’re stuck doing upgrades the old-fashioned way. I created a set of notes for myself while cranking through these upgrades and I wanted to share them since they are not really work-specific and this process isn’t very well documented for people who haven’t been doing this sort of upgrade process for 25 years.

Our source and object trees are read-only exported from the build server over NFS, which causes things to be slow. /etc/make.conf and /etc/src.conf are symbolic links on all of our servers to the master copies in /usr/src so that make installworld can find the configuration parameters the system was built with. The first phase, because this is a major version upgrade, is to install the new kernel:

# zfs snapshot -r tank@before-12.1
# mount /usr/src
# mount /usr/obj
# cd /usr/src
# make -s installkernel
# shutdown -r now

(If this were a minor version upgrade, it would be a lot simpler.) We then boot single-user and get the server back on the network:

OK boot -s
# mount -u /
# /etc/rc.d/zfs start
# sysctl net.inet.icmp.icmplim=50000
# /etc/netstart
# /usr/local/etc/rc.d/unbound start

I might stop here and do some tests to ensure that /etc/netstart has actually brought the system back up with full connectivity — and if we’re using CARP, to down the CARP interfaces so that we don’t unintentionally become a non-functional CARP master for whatever service would normally be running. IPv6 can be a sticking point, because the build server has AAAA records but not all of the other machines have IPv6 connectivity. Now time for the userland part of the OS upgrade:

# mount /usr/src
# mount /usr/obj
# cd /usr/src
# etcupdate -p -t /usr/obj/ref-12.1-etcupdate # much faster to use a tarball built once
# make -s installworld
# etcupdate -t /usr/obj/ref-12.1-etcupdate
# unset EDITOR                                # probably not necessary in single-user
# etcupdate resolve

Next we clean up old crap. This would be a lot simpler except that make delete-old wants to delete configuration files that are actually required by packages we install and managed by our configuration management (which we don’t put in /usr/local because we don’t want to have to hack our Puppet modules to figure out whether these services are running from packages or the base install). /etc/ssh is a symlink to /usr/local/etc/ssh in these systems, but make delete-old has no way to avoid traversing the symlink.

# make check-old-files | sed -e '1d; /^\/etc\/ntp\.conf/d; /^\/etc\/ssh/d' | \
  xargs rm -v
# make delete-old                            # (say "no" to /etc/ntp.conf and /etc/ssh/*)

This just cleans up the mountd database on the build server:

# cd
# umount /usr/obj
# umount /usr/src

Next we update the boot blocks. Our servers vary a lot in terms of which devices are the boot drives, but always use GPT and have the boot meta-loader on partition 1. The most typical case is mirrored SATA, but newer devices may have a single SSD for booting instead:

# gpart bootcode -b /boot/pmbr -p /boot/gptzfsboot -i 1 ada0
# gpart bootcode -b /boot/pmbr -p /boot/gptzfsboot -i 1 ada1

Next is to handle the package upgrades. Before doing the OS upgrade, all servers will have been upgraded to our latest package build for 11.3, so this should be a practical no-op other than switching from the 11.x ABI to the 12.x ABI, but in reality we’ve found a number of things that require manual intervention. In particular, if the python2 package is still installed, pkg upgrade -f crashes. We manually install the rcs package on systems where it’s likely to be needed (servers with some local data still managed in local RCS files) because RCS was removed from 12.x. Note that our pkg.conf has HANDLE_RC_SCRIPTS enabled by default, but in this specific case, since we’re still running single-user, it’s important that the startup scripts not be run because they would start services prematurely.

# pkg-static install -f -y pkg
# pkg remove -y python2
# HANDLE_RC_SCRIPTS=NO pkg upgrade -f
# pkg install -y rcs
# pkg query '%n %q' | fgrep -v :12:    # consider whether any of these outdated packages should be deleted

Finally, some minor configuration tweaks to handle features that were introduced in 12.x (or suppress misfeatures that were introduced in 12.x, as the case may be):

# pkg install -y devcpu-data
# sysctl hw.model
(check /boot/firmware to see if there is an appropriate microcode file
for this machine's CPU type; this is correct for current devcpu-data
on Intel processors)
# echo 'cpu_microcode_load="YES"' >> /boot/loader.conf
# echo 'cpu_microcode_name="/boot/firmware/intel-ucode.bin"' >> /boot/loader.conf

# echo 'kern.cryptodev_warn_interval=0x7fffffff' >> /etc/sysctl.conf
# echo 'ntpd_flags="-p /var/run/ntpd.pid"' >> /etc/rc.conf
# reboot

For jails, the process is much the same but with the appropriate DESTDIR or chroot flags to allow the updates to be installed into each jail from the jail-host side.

After a few weeks, I’ll go back into all the machines, delete the before-12.1 snapshot, run make delete-old-libs to clean up obsolete shared libraries, and zpool upgrade to enable the latest ZFS features.

I would really have liked this to be the point at which I set up ZFS boot environments for all the servers, but since the actual requirements seem to be totally undocumented, I was rather stymied on that and will have to do it in a year when we’re going to 12.2. Perhaps by then “packaged base” will be in a usable state as well.

Posted in FreeBSD, ZFS | Tagged , | 9 Comments

My decade, 2010–2019

Attention conservation notice: about 8,500 words about me and what I did for the past ten years, what I previously wrote about that, and how I feel in hindsight. Minimally edited, rather disjointed, and jumps around in time a lot to follow various threads of attention. If you are my father, please stop reading here, it’s extremely uncomfortable to have you looking over my shoulder like this.

It’s time for one of those big rollover-of-the-odometer New Year’s celebrations, and like a lot of other people, I decided that I would write an essay about what happened in my decade. This sort of introspective piece is something I’ve done before — one of my very earliest posts, back in January of 2014, was a musing about growing older as an introvert — but in all honesty, other than that one, these sorts of posts attract very little engagement and none of that especially helpful to whatever subject I’ve been trying to work out for myself. I feel very similarly about my Twitter presence: the things I actually want to engage with my followers on either pass unnoticed or receive entirely unhelpful comments, whereas I get decent engagement when I respond to the thoughts of someone else. So this is an attempt to sum up what’s happened to me since shortly after I turned 37, and parts of it are going to be very personal, but I’m now somewhat inured to the fact that the only people who react in any way are likely to be people I wish hadn’t read it.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good episodic memory; most of what I can remember distinctly as events is simply too mortifying then and now to relate in a public forum. However, I started this blog in the summer of 2013, so I have at least one good corpus of my own writing to help scaffold this post in some of the places my own memory is not so reliable. The first part of the decade, pre-blog, is really, really hazy: I know what was going on in the broader world, but events in my life are not necessarily so easy to connect to the real world. But as the decade opened, I am pretty sure about a few things.

In January, 2010, I had just turned 37 years old, and the country was nearly two years into the Obama presidency. There was still a sense of hope; we in Massachusetts heard about those “tea party” things, but after the 2008 elections it was clear that our fellow Americans weren’t that ignorant and racist, were they? I, on the other hand, was incredibly lonely and really fat, under medical treatment for pre-diabetes and hypertension. It was beginning to become clear that some of the choices I had made early in the millennium — to stay in the Boston area, yes, but to buy a condo out in the car-dominated suburbs far from anyone I might connect with socially and forty minutes’ drive from anything interesting — were really starting to hurt, and the suspicion grew that the lack of companionship might be permanent. My parents had moved to Massachusetts a few years previously (from California and Rhode Island; they had been living apart for employment reasons), but one Sunday dinner a week really does not make up for the lack of shared experiences.

One of my only friends was and is Scott Fybush, who is now fairly well known as a radio historian, consultant, and station broker. We first met shortly after I moved to Boston in 1994 — at the time he was a news writer for WBZ (1030 AM) — and while he got married and moved back to his home town of Rochester, N.Y., a few years later, we had stayed in touch and did nearly annual week-long road trips starting in 1998. By 2011, these trips were becoming more difficult to schedule; my work was becoming more tied to the MIT academic calendar, to reduce disruptions, and Scott had his own obligations to his growing family as well as professional obligations to attend various trade shows and conventions. It appears that the last time we did a “Big Trip” was in 2011, when we actually had two of them: one in February to see a Space Shuttle launch and Spring Training in Florida, and another in April before the annual National Association of Broadcasters trade show. In 2012, we had a few shorter trips but no Big Trip, but the tradition resumed just once, in 2013, when we did a trip to Minnesota in conjunction with a convention of one of the hobbyist radio clubs. I’m able to piece most of this back together by looking at old and mostly unpublished photo galleries, named at the time but never edited or described for publication. (I hope some of this material will eventually make it onto my SmugMug site because much of it is now of historical interest.) When I got back from that 2013 trip to Minnesota, I redecorated my bedroom, without a doubt the most expensive project I had done on the condo since I bought it twelve years earlier — and in more ways that than, the summer of 2013 seems to have been a real turning point for me — but I’m getting a bit ahead of the story.

Sometime in the early-to-mid-2000s, I had bought a low-end Vision Fitness stationary bike, and parked it in my living room in front of the TV. For the first several years that I owned it, I barely used it, and it just sat there, accusatory, while I continued to gain weight after my second hospitalization and the subsequent three months of recovery. But something snapped in the early part of this decade — I’m not sure what exactly did it, but I suspect it was the very real prospect of full-blown diabetes, a lifetime of medication and finger pricks, and eventual loss of my eyesight — and I somehow found the wherewithal to throw myself on the stationary bike for an hour a day, every day, and my weight actually stabilized. (Still in the “obese” category according to my physician, but 25 pounds below my historic maximum was something of a victory, although it wasn’t yet within the ballpark of “feeling good” either in the abstract or specifically about myself.) I wish I understood how I managed that, because I could sorely use some help in that regard now. (Again, there’s that lack of companionship — uninformed comments from strangers or even physically distant friends aren’t helpful.)

After a 15-year layoff (occasioned by my loss of access to Canadian TV), I had started watching the Olympics again in 2008. By the time of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, there were enough NBC-owned channels in my cable bundle that I could watch events that Americans weren’t expected to win, and for the 2012 Olympics in London there was even live streaming access to the unedited international feeds on my new laptop. These really helped to reinforce my time on the stationary bike: I could record events on my DVR or hook my laptop up to the TV and watch something interesting on the TV when the NHL took a break for the Olympics or the Red Sox were playing poorly. Granted that a lot of the interest was beefcake — especially for diving and gymnastics (OMG those hot, flexible, muscular dudes!!!) or beach volleyball (oh wow those tall sweaty women in bikinis!) — but I also revived my interest in a lot of international sports that I had deliberately put on the back burner when forced to endure NBC’s patronizing, jingoistic coverage. Comcast was an investor in something called “Universal Sports”, which was eventually discontinued but replaced in the cable lineup by a US version of “Olympic Channel”, so I could actually record these sports on my TiVo and watch them later, sometimes months later, as a reward for getting on the stationary bike. (The “reward” bit didn’t last, sadly.)

After a number of my colleagues left the group under rather acrimonious circumstances, in early March of 2012 I signed up for a Twitter account, initially with the hope of keeping track of those former colleagues and what they were up to when I no longer had them nearby to bounce ideas off of. I have always flatly refused to use Facebook or even have an account there, but Twitter’s publish/subscribe model seemed somewhat less Orwellian than Facebook (and so it was later revealed to be, but this was long before Cambridge Analytica and other scandals). I didn’t end up using Twitter in quite the way I had expected: I became a high-volume consumer and producer of tweets — thanks to a command-line client I can determine that I’ve received, although not necessarily read, nearly 10 million tweets, and after analyzing my personal Twitter data dump I can say with more specificity that I’ve actually made about 12,450 original tweets. (This count, unlike the public Twitter profile tweet count, excludes replies and retweets, which don’t count as “original” in my book.)

While the 2012 Olympics were going on in London — and wow did that seem hopeful to watch the Brits doing well in the aftermath of the financial crisis — my office had what I think was our first ever celebration for Sysadmin Day. The whole lab was invited, and I think we got about 200 people to squeeze down into our lunch/meeting space and eat cake and ice cream. I got to talking to a sporty grad student who I rather fancied about the Olympics and what events I was watching, and I managed to dreadfully embarrass myself. In the aftermath, I started to wonder, as I was approaching 40, if there was any way I could meet people outside of the office. I had learned that my then officemate had met her husband on OkCupid, so I signed up for an account, answered all the questions, but never had a mutual match with anyone and found the overall expectations to be well beyond what my introvert social brain was capable of enduring. (In particular, the expectation at that time — this was before Tinder was really a thing, and most mobile dating apps were intimately tied to Facebook — was that guys would send messages to thousands of women asking to meet at a bar or coffee shop, and maybe one would respond. I simply couldn’t endure writing to all those people, and apparently a lot of other guys had the same problem, because most of the women’s profiles had comments about how they would ignore thoughtless, copy-and-paste introductory messages.) I gave up on that within a couple of years, although I still occasionally log in to my account, to see how bad it still is.

In November, 2013, the USENIX Large Installation System Administration conference, the one industry conference I regularly attend, was held at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. I ran into another attendee who I didn’t recognize but who recognized me (which is the normal state of affairs, I have a very poor memory for faces as well as life events); I believe it was David Parter but that’s my mushy unreliable memory talking. In any event, he thought the reason people didn’t recognize him was that he had lost a lot of weight, and out of shame I went along with this explanation; I learned that he had been using a smartphone food-tracking app, MyFitnessPal, and had found it helpful in meeting his weight-loss goals, particularly thanks to its food database and flexibility (i.e., it wasn’t written for people who only eat standardized fast food and microwave dinners). When I got back home from the conference, I installed the app on my phone and started using it — and it was immediately clear that I was eating much, much more than I thought, and consequently, much more than I should have been to actually lose weight after accounting for the exercise I was forcing myself to do.

Over the next 18 months, I lost 115 pounds. By April, 2015, I was feeling self-confident enough that I was willing to be seen outside in athletic-cut garments, and I took my old Cannondale touring bike to REI to have it overhauled, so I could actually ride outside. On Sunday, April 12, 2015, I put on my brand-new outdoor cycling kit, got on my 24-year-old bike, and taught myself how to escape from my new clipless pedals without falling over in the middle of the road. Before long I was riding 10–12 miles nearly every morning, while still keeping up with my daily 70-minute workout late every evening. I bought a Garmin cyclecomputer early on, and with its help, developed a number of what I still think of as “my” cycling routes. Having built up my confidence doing local rides in the 25–40-mile range, on July 3 I rode all the way to the office, ate lunch in Cambridge, and then rode back home — a 42-mile round trip. If I could somehow figure out a schedule and find some place to shower other than the disgusting shower in the basement men’s room of our building, I could plausibly consider bike commuting. Meanwhile, my doctor gave me a clean bill of health, took me off all my medications and monitoring, and said he’d never seen a case like mine before.

My mother was working for a small bicycle manufacturer at the time (in a corporate finance role), and she responded to my progress by encouraging me to test-ride some of her company’s bikes so that I might buy one for myself using her employee discount; I went to one of the few local retail shops that carried them and fell in love with an exceedingly expensive racing bike, which I went on to buy when the next model year’s bikes were shipped from China. I got the new bike in August, 2015, and absolutely loved it, but I still wasn’t ready to bike commute — but I was, it seems, ready to stop devoting eight hours a week to the stationary bike. After I hit 160 that June, my weight started to go up and I’ve gained 20 lb/year consistently ever since. Now it’s maddening, dispiriting, but early on, I just figured I was actually putting on some muscle now that I was actually riding in a variable-resistance setting, not just my fixed-resistance stationary bike. There are so many confounds — I’ll get into another one in a moment — but I have to wonder to what extent going off the medication was responsible for the weight gain: my calorie budget never increased, and I at least thought I was being pretty disciplined logging food and exercise in MyFitnessPal, because comparing the activity records in Garmin Connect with the graph of my body weight it’s pretty clear that I started gaining weight almost immediately after I stopped taking the medication, whereas I didn’t cut back on my stationary bike until the spring of 2016, by which time I had already regained ten pounds.

I signed up with the MIT Cycling Club and joined a few group rides a year (although not from the official start point, which would involve getting up far, far too early), and even led a group ride once. During the spring of 2016, by asking around I was able to find out that the men’s shower facilities at the fitness center at work would likely be acceptable to me, and in May I joined MIT Fitness just for the ability to shower and have a locker near my office — the following month, I started bike commuting. It was very difficult at first, because even with Daylight Saving Time, sunset is too early to bike home safely at my regular hours — I had to figure out how to shift my wake-sleep cycle two hours earlier, and my work schedule one hour earlier, to be able to leave work 90 minutes before sunset. As the sunset receded after the solstice, I had to get up even earlier, and by late September determined to just leave work an hour early and finish up after I got home. This schedule worked out when the weather was consistent and predictable — I think the first summer I tried there was a serious drought — but the severe schedule whipsaw when weather was unsettled meant that there were numerous fine days when I just couldn’t wake up early enough to ride, and likewise wet days when it wouldn’t be practical to resume my stationary bike routine because I’d have to go to bed before midnight. Despite all that, in my first year of ownership, I rode the new bike 3,000 miles, with weekend rides even in the winter when it was warm enough for the roads to be snow-and-ice-free.

As for that other confound: somehow, and rather to my surprise, I became a food blogger in 2014. I started this blog in 2013, mostly because I wanted to publish opinion essays a lot like this one, which couldn’t fit in 140-character and as-yet-unthreaded Twitter, and as I explained in my very first post I had become convinced that outsourcing the administration was the only practical way to have a blog and maintain the interactive social features that were then still considered important without undertaking an enormous amount of pointless make-work. In the very beginning, I posted mainly about topics that were already significant focuses of my attention: books and publishing, computing and computer networking (which is, after all, what pays the bills), extended quotations from writing that really struck a chord with me, and broadcast media. But as an outgrowth of my book habit — I have more than 1,500 physical books in my personal library — I had ended up with a surfeit of unexamined cookbooks, close to a hundred in all, and I felt embarrassed that I had spent all this money acquiring food porn. Most of the books I had bought on the basis of their photography or their subject matter, but I almost never actually used any of them for proper food preparation.

So starting nearly from the beginning of the blog, I used WordPress’s “pages” feature to add static pages of what I called “recipe pointers” — the result of scanning every single cookbook in my possession for potentially interesting recipes and writing down the bibliographic reference so that I might be reminded to try them some day. I made these public because they might be useful to someone else, too. Around the same time, I started to write about recipes I was encountering online, and about cooking I was doing for the big holiday set-piece dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas. With my weight going down surprisingly steadily, I was becoming more and more confident that MyFitnessPal was working out, and while MFP’s recipe editor wasn’t exactly easy to use, I became comfortable with entering everything I cooked or baked into it. Having done the data-entry work, and with my camera equipment sitting otherwise idle when I wasn’t going on radio tours, it wasn’t much of a leap for me to start writing up my experiences as photo essays for the blog. And I had all these recipes that I wanted to try! As a result, in 2014 — while I was losing two pounds a week! — I was making, photographing, and writing a new recipe nearly every weekend. I began to organize these posts under the rubric of “Other people’s recipes” (always very clear to credit the original author and not to copy their instructions), and even started writing about some of my own recipes, not that I have many.

In the summer of 2014, I decided to organize a group chocolate tasting at work, with a different set of fancy chocolates every week and single-blind ratings by whichever panel members were able to meet; of course I wrote those up for the blog, too, although we also had a work wiki where I was keeping track of all of the products and the ratings. The success of that project — which broadened my limited social circle by quite a bit — led me to do a pumpkin-pie festival (with evaluations) in October of that year, and I followed that up two months later with a fun holiday baking event, both for the whole lab. In summer of 2015, I took a week off of work to ride every morning and then bake brownies every afternoon, with the result being the highly successful “Browniefest”. But after doing all the organizational work for the chocolate tasting and nearly all the baking for three major events, I was feeling a bit burned out on the format, and decided that I’d happily bake for the whole lab again if and only if someone else organized and found enough other participants to spread the load around. No one ever did (although quite a few people have asked “Are you going to do that again?”) and so these events have passed into both CSAIL’s and my personal rear-view mirrors.

I continued posting recipe write-ups at a rapid clip through the summer of 2016, but with very little evidence of interest or audience engagement, and with my weight continuing to increase without a clear explanation, I became demoralized and over time stopped cooking many new recipes, stopped buying cookbooks, and just didn’t have the enthusiasm to dedicate an entire evening to a photo essay about food. The series came to an end (at least so far) this year with a single write-up, published back in May. All told, after reviewing the data, I posted 206 articles about food — most of them recipe write-ups.

One of the other factors involved in my reduced baking activity gets down to that lack of companionship again. While my lab-wide events in 2014 greatly expanded my (very limited) social circle, the vast majority of people I ever meet are graduate students — who are in general a minimum of 15 years younger than me, often closer to 20. And of course grad students graduate and leave MIT; only very rarely can they get hired (for good ethics and diversity reasons) and even less frequently would they want to. Essentially all the people I met and stayed in contact with after those events are gone now, except research scientists Sue Felshin and Boris Katz, who were the most reliable attendees of my chocolate tasting series. I’ll still occasionally drop by Sue’s office and share a new chocolate I’ve found (and flame about the MBTA), and there are one or two people I’ve met since who can sometimes be enticed to try something I’ve baked, but it’s become much more difficult to reliably give away food to people, which is a necessary precondition to most of my baking projects. (Because most recipes make at least a dozen servings, and with my weight once again out of control I simply can’t have that much of anything baked at home where I could easily eat it, since I live alone and thus have nobody to either share or model good behavior.)

By 2016 it was becoming clear that my interest in and time for the radio hobby had waned substantially. At heart, what I found interesting was not the long days driving across cornfields in Iowa and wheat fields in the Dakotas, it was really the physical historic sites and artifacts of one of the 20th century’s most significant technologies. But the consolidation of the 90s and 2000s had greatly diminished the level of interest I could muster in current radio programming — my last airchecking for legal IDs appears to have been the Bay Area in February, 2016 — and the facilities themselves, except for the oldest stations under the most stable ownership, are now so generically modern as to maintain little interest. So as Scott’s travel schedule changed, I had less interest in adjusting my schedule to accommodate, and now we only see each other a few times a year, when chance or conspiracy brings us to the same city for a few days.

For my part, I was also becoming much more sensitive to the perilous position the world is in with regard to climate change, and I resolved to limit my “purposeless” travel: I was (and am) still willing to travel, long distances even, but not without a specific, perishable, external impetus to do so — a sporting event, or some major structure that was opening, or closing, or a conference or convention — a reason to travel to a specific place and time, not just travel for its own sake. As someone who is stuck living in the suburbs for the foreseeable future, cutting back on travel that doesn’t directly serve a specific, time-limited desire seems like the least I should do. I was willing to, and did, take overnight flights halfway across the country to see a hockey game, but a week driving around to see things that (a) weren’t especially interesting in their own right, and (b) would still be there some other time when I had a better reason to travel, didn’t seem to be worth the energy whether chemical or metaphorical. (In retrospect, Scott and I were extremely lucky — and Scott more than I — that so many historically important broadcast facilities, from Columbia Square to the Empire State Building, were still around and accessible to those who were interested enough to ask the right people for a tour, back in our decade-and-a-half of travels from 1998 to 2013.)

On my way into work in February, 2016, I passed a billboard which would make a lasting change in the content of this blog and how I would occupy much of my personal time. The World Figure Skating Championships were being held in Boston that March, and there were still tickets available for sale. I had been watching the skating at the last couple of Winter Olympics, but I really hadn’t watched any of the other competitions since I had lived on the mountain with my parents in the 1980s and watchws mostly Canadian television because we couldn’t get ABC or PBS. (I’m suddenly stuck trying to remember who did figure-skating commentary for the CBC after Toller Cranston, it was a couple of Canadian pairs skaters but I’ve forgotten their names and that’s really embarrassing. If I still had a working VHS transport, I have videotapes from the 1988 Calgary Olympics that I could probably play back and be reminded.) It took me a little while to make the connection between “hey, this is something interesting to watch on my tiny little television” and “hey, you should go and see this in person like you do baseball and hockey” — and by that time only a few of the events had any tickets left for sale, but I did take time off from work to go and see a couple of the events at the Garden. (I don’t recall which exact ones and I didn’t bring my camera to the arena, but I remember having a great time seeing those jumps and spins in person.)

I bought the printed program when I was at the 2016 Worlds, and I saw a full-page advertisement for the next year’s championships, in Helsinki. Because the Winter Olympics are held in February, before the World Championships which are in March, the 2017 Worlds were a qualifying event for the 2018 Olympics and would see more athletes from more different countries than usually travel to the world championships. I checked the terms and conditions, and it seemed that there were surprisingly few restrictions on fan photography — mostly just the usual prohibition on flashes — so if I went I could even comprehensively document my experience. (Onerous photography restrictions are what kept me from later attending the Gymnastics World Championships when they were held in Boston a few years later, although I understand with so many little girls competing they have a legitimate desire to prevent pervy guys from making photo galleries of underage athletes.)

I had ~complicated~ feelings about going to Finland. In 1988–89, I was an exchange student in Finland, mostly in North Savonia, attending a school in a rural area that has since been annexed to the city of Kuopio. It did not end well, and very nearly flattened my self-confidence, particularly when it came to speaking other languages. (It also practically demolished my former competence in French, up to then decent enough to carry on a conversation, thanks to a year off from study and practice.) But 2017 was the centenary of the Finnish Republic, and the state had offered generous subsidies to get major international events hosted in Helsinki that year. In addition to the World Figure Skating Championships in March, there was also the World Science Fiction Convention in August, which I had always wanted to try despite my embarrassment over my limited reading (and indifference to film and comics) in the field. At first I thought that I could only do one, and the skating would be a lot less uncomfortable since I could just go there and watch and take lots of pictures without having to really interact with anybody. So I went ahead and made plans for March, bought an all-event pass to Worlds as soon as tickets went on sale, and once advance bookings opened up, found a reasonable air itinerary (with a 20-hour stopover in Reykjavík) and a reasonably priced hotel with easy public transport access to the arena.

When I finally got to Helsinki, I found that — while my scattered remnant knowledge of Finnish helped decipher signs and menus — the overall level of English usage and competence in the capital had vastly increased since 1988. In shops, restaurants, public transport, and elsewhere, English had for all practical purposes overtaken Swedish (an actual official national language) as the country’s second language. There were far more immigrants, and more visible minorities, and I never had occasion to even attempt to speak a word of Finnish. (I was frankly fearful that doing so would give a much greater impression of competence than I actually had, and the vast majority of my vocabulary had long since fled — there’s not much need in day-to-day conversation for “Viisi kalaa ui vedessä” (five fish are swimming in the water).)

The skating was an amazing experience, even if I ended up spending nearly all of every day indoors and ate mainly fast food from the concession stands — I chronicled Worlds in a series of blog posts here, several published in real time, but was somewhat stymied by the poor fit of a WordPress blog to presenting photo galleries. But my experience of public transport in Helsinki was a true revelation. The hotel I had chosen to stay for the week was the Radisson Blu in Hietalahti, overlooking the west harbor and within a short walk of three tram lines. The public figure skating events took place at Hartwall Arena in Pasila, a commercial-industrial district centered on a former railyard that was rapidly being redeveloped. One of the tram lines went all the way to Pasila (and in fact terminated there) but I quickly realized that the commuter rail would take me there much faster, and thanks to HSL’s integrated fare structure, I could take the tram to Helsinki Central Station and transfer to the commuter train at no additional cost on my multi-day, all-modes transit pass. Even with the transfer time and having to walk from the tram stop across the street and through the train station, there were trains departing every five minutes or less and all I had to do was look at the departures display to see which track the next one was departing on.

When I got back home, I finished up my photos of the figure skating and started to figure out what I wanted to do with the other pictures I took. I had taken some broadcasting-related pictures as well — Finland’s state broadcaster Yleisradio and commercial channel MTV3 had major facilities in Ilmala, a short walk along the pedestrian paths east of the arena — but I continued to be struck by my experience of a high-functioning (extraordinarily usable by American standards) public transit system. This eventually left to a series of three blog posts, “Every American transportation planner should spend a week in Helsinki” (1 2 3), and I still absolutely believe that title with every fiber of my being. There could be few better uses of my state taxes than to send the entire upper management of the MBTA and MassDOT, for example, to Helsinki for a week with the proviso that they were not allowed to use a private car or taxi for the entire trip, and make them come back with proposed legislation to increase transit mode share.

The end result of that one trip was that I unexpectedly became a transit activist, and that has been the vast majority of the content on this blog since. I also took a look at the at-a-glance for Worldcon 75 (the 75th World Science Fiction Convention) and discovered that the venue for that event was the Messukeskus (convention center) immediately adjacent to Hartwall Arena and Pasila station — and my experience getting around Helsinki for Worlds made me feel comfortable enough that I decided to go back in August for Worldcon. I had never gone to any science-fiction convention, ever, so it’s a bit weird that my first one would be a Worldcon, and a Worldcon in another country at that, but sometimes things work out that way, and the fact that it was the 75th Worldcon gave it some interest above and beyond the usual. And frankly, Helsinki felt pretty comfortable — I was even beginning to feel like I could live there, especially after the depression and anxiety consequent to the 2016 elections, so long as I was independently wealthy or at least had a job at one of the universities — although I probably couldn’t manage it without actually marrying a Finn first, which seems like a tall order.

I also decided that the figure skating was fun enough in itself, and that my financial situation was robust enough, that I wanted to go to Worlds regularly — but it would be a lot more fun if I had some companionship on the trip. Unfortunately, I still didn’t (and don’t) know anyone who would fit the bill, certainly not to the extent of sharing a hotel room. But I decided that I would go to Milan in 2018, because at a minimum it would be much more affordable than attending the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and many of the Olympians would be ending their seasons if not their careers at Worlds. For lack of a better option, I decided to ask my by-then-fully-retired parents if they were interested in going, and they were. Even better, they had done a lot more travel in Europe than I had and were adept at finding lodging deals through vacation-rental services rather than hotels, so we could share an apartment rather than staying in a hotel. Given the lack of good airline connections to Milan from Boston, I decided for that trip that I would fly to Geneva instead and take the train to and from Milan — with a stopover in the car-free ski-resort village of Zermatt on the way back. The 2018 Worldcon was going to be in the Bay Area, and few things excite less than spending four days in San Jose in August, even if it’s mostly indoors. But Worldcon site selection is voted on and announced two years in advance, so while I was in Helsinki in August 2017, I learned that the 2019 Worldcon would be held in Dublin, and one of my favorite authors, the American-Irish fantasy writer Diane Duane, would be among the guests of honor — so I immediately bought a membership and started making plans to visit Dublin. Likewise, I knew that the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships would be in Saitama, Japan, which was muchfarther than I wanted to travel, especially alone, so I would be looking forward to the 2020 Worlds in Montreal. (The 2020 Worldcon is in New Zealand, which again is beyond my limit for traveling — I would have to take two entire weeks off to make it worth doing, and while I can can take that much vacation, August is not a good time for me to be gone that long. I’ve already bought a full membership for the 2021 Worldcon in Washington, D.C., which I can get to in under three hours and is in the same time zone.)

Anyway, my parents and I had a great time in Milan, despite the apartment rental they found being very inconveniently located relative to the arena where the figure skating was at, so we mostly had to take a hire car to and from. My parents were much more eager than I was to get out of the arena to eat “real food” — even in Italy the concession stand food isn’t good or healthy — and after I headed back to Geneva via Zermatt, they joined up with my Aunt Diane and Uncle Bob and spent another week in Italy doing whatever it is that retirees do in wine country. At some point, hopefully I’ll upload my photos from Italy and Switzerland to my new SmugMug gallery so other people can see them too.

Skipping back to 2017 for a moment, I decided to do a couple of other, less-travel-intensive, winter sports events — both in November. First was the IBSF Bobsled and Skeleton World Cup race at Lake Placid; like with the World Figure Skating Championships, this was an Olympic qualifying event so teams that didn’t normally make it to the North American stops on the World Cup would be sending teams in order to earn points towards the very limited Olympic athlete quotas in the sports. The second was the post-Thanksgiving women’s slalom at Killington, only a few hours’ drive away, and the first FIS Alpine World Cup event to be held in the eastern US in decades. I had a great deal of fun at the IBSF event, and as I’ve said here a number of times before (including last week) the atmosphere is really great and there’s a lot of close interaction with the athletes in a way that there isn’t with the more popular sports. The skiing, by contrast, was a lot less fun: tickets to sit and shiver in the stands were expensive and in any case sold out, so the only place to watch was standing and shivering on the bottom part of the hill — and for a whole bunch of reasons including the size of the crowds and the much greater fame of one American skier in particular, there is essentially no unmanaged interaction interaction between fans and athletes. I didn’t even try to take pictures of the skiing; it would not have served any purpose to do so. Ski racing thus goes on my list of “sporting events that are actually much better on television than in person”, even if I have to endure the endless “suck up to Shiffrin’s publicist” job on NBC for the next decade.

I really haven’t said a whole lot about what was going on at work over this decade, for good reason: nothing much has been going on. I saved the lab a lot of money by figuring out how to turn donated equipment into high-performance file servers, starting in 2012, and as a backhanded reward, nearly all of the interesting parts of my job have basically been crowded out by file-server operations ever since. I did a two-part series on the original server architecture here on the blog back in 2013 (part 1, part 2), and I’ve mostly avoided talking about it since then because it’s not actually interesting to me, never mind anyone else. (I’m in the process of retiring those original servers now.) Right at the beginning of the fall term in 2014, I had a badly designed “feature” of most IPv6 stacks cause a network meltdown; I had to pull an all-nighter and spend way too much time talking to Juniper technical support to figure out how to “fix” it, and I wrote about that, too — which has consistently been the most visited single post on this blog ever since, thanks to links from Hacker News and elsewhere. Somehow they continue to give me raises, although I’m basically topped out in my pay band now and have neither prospects of nor interest in moving into management, which would be the only advancement path so long as I stay with MIT.

My job, such as I would like it to be, really doesn’t exist anywhere else outside of maybe USC’s Information Sciences Institute in Marina Del Rey, so career prospects are pretty slim without a major change in direction (and probably a great deal of investment in training, because the Real World is no longer anything like the world I live in now — but it’s also a lot less interesting unless you work for one of the three-ish companies that now own all of everyone else’s infrastructure). I don’t really mind this that much; I’m not one of those people who looks at work as the defining aspect of my identity. Work to me is how the bills get paid so that I can do what interests me, and so if it’s a bit frustrating at times — or even if they’re trying to take away the interesting work to leave me more time for the boring parts — I try to take it in stride. During the prior decade, I invested way too much of my personal identity in my job, and I found myself both emotionally and financially disadvantaged as a result, so I resolved that I would take a healthier view and just do the job without getting so caught up in what the job actually was.

After more than a year of soaking in the stress hormones thanks to the despicable bigot my fellow citizens voted not to put in the White House, I decided in 2018 that my financial situation was sufficiently clear — especially with no travel planned after Milan in March — that I would start putting more significant money into political campaign contributions. With my personality, the last thing that I wanted to do was actually get personally involved in campaigns, which are clear “introverts need not apply” zones, but since I had money that I wasn’t planning to spend otherwise, I could certainly do my best to fight the fascist takeover of our federal government. I was particularly motivated by the efforts of Maciej Ceglowski, owner of the bookmarking service Pinboard, both to raise money for Democratic House candidates with real potential who had been dismissed by the national DCCC organization as “unwinnable” and to raise the level of campaign information security skills and awareness in light of the foreign intrusions into 2016 campaigns. I think I ended up giving a few thousand dollars in the 2018 cycle — far from “maxing out” but an order of magnitude more than I had ever spent before on any political activity.

At the same time, I was stepping up direct advocacy on transit improvements, particularly to our failing 1850s-era commuter rail service — because cutting back long-distance travel is one thing, but if I and my neighbors could actually stop driving to work every day that would be a much more significant effort to avert the climate catastrophe. The commuter rail service here is poorly managed and has entirely failed to learn the lessons of 1960s Japan and 1970s France and Germany, never mind the 2000s in anywhere with competent administration, and as a result it is simply inadequate to meet the needs of our region. It’s not really even fit for purpose in the one market it does attempt to serve, middle-class 9–5 office workers with jobs in downtown Boston, never mind shift workers, those who have children in school or daycare, or those who don’t work in the Back Bay or the Financial District. I began lobbying my state senator, Karen Spilka, but this didn’t seem to have much of an effect despite talking on the phone and exchanging emails with one of her aides. She was elected President of the Senate shortly thereafter, and I decided to concentrate my lobbying on other places: first and foremost the MBTA board, whose weekly meetings I began taking time off from work to attend and comment at, and more recently my state representative Jack Lewis. I’ve now amassed a fairly substantial record of testimony calling out the board and the MBTA management for their short-sightedness, some of which I’ve posted here. As a private citizen, when TransitMatters released their Regional Rail plan, I got on board immediately as it reflected many of the important lessons I had taken home from Helsinki in 2017, starting with 100% level boarding, full electrification, full fare integration, and frequency, frequency, frequency.

That brings me nearly up to 2019. Obviously, I was gratified with the 2018 midterm election results, although most of the candidates I supported did not win. I went back to the IBSF World Cup in Lake Placid, which for the 2018–19 season was in February, 2019, and did so again for the 2019–20 season jut this past month (although for reasons I only attended the skeleton races). After a budget shortfall at work in the spring, I pushed hard to get our group doing better long-term planning, especially since I’m the one responsible for poerating a majority of the hardware for which we need to budget replacement costs and on call if it fails.

But beyond that it was a very difficult year. I’m still lonely af, with no prospect for any improvement and more of the people I sort-of know and like from work either graduating and leaving town or preparing to do so, especially Marzyeh and Tristan who both left in the summer of 2018 (she’s now on the faculty at Toronto and he went to work for a Seattle tech company). My one sliver of companionship — just in the minimal sense of being able to sit with people in a no-pressure setting and talk about things other than work, not any real social or personal connection — is the weekly graduate-student beer night, and I don’t even drink. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to gain weight at 20 pounds a year, and the whole year I had practically no energy at all — I only managed to bike commute three days during the entire summer, and I barely did any more riding at home, either, a far cry from the 3,000 miles of a few years previously. Most of my cycling kit doesn’t even fit me any more, and after my first bike commute in late May, I got severe heel pain that after a week sent me to Urgent Care, where the doctor told me to stay off the bike for another two weeks and take a thousand milligrams a day of naproxen; while the pain went away, my will to get up early in the morning and throw myself on the bike never really recovered.

I could wish that my trip to the 2019 Worldcon in Dublin in August had been a bright spot, but between the travel disruptions and the logistical issues at the two Worldcon venues, about the best I can say was that I finally did get to meet Diane Duane, if only for a few minutes, and got her to sign a book for me. If there’s one real highlight of 2019, it was the MBTA Control Board finally voting in November to proceed with a “transformation” of rail service, based on a small part of the Regional Rail plan. It’s baby steps, and a number of elected officials are already downplaying the necessity of modernization, including our photo-op Republican governor, Charlie Baker, and, disappointingly, Democratic state senator Will Brownsberger, who had been a member of the Rail Vision committee.

What of the the new decade, now that we’re firmly in it? I’ll continue to lobby for a serious response to the climate emergency, including increasing fuel taxes, taking road space away from cars, and sensibly decarbonizing public transportation by electrifying bus and commuter-rail services using proven overhead catenary power distribution. I’ll advocate for restoring passenger rail service on the Agricultural Branch, too, because there’s a whole swath of this region that isn’t adequately served by commuter rail despite having an active rail line that could bring thousands more passengers out of their cars. And I’ll be making campaign contributions to the candidates I believe can best restore sanity after four years of the Orange Menace and his neo-fascist enablers. As for myself? I still need to figure out a way to lose weight again, so I can look myself in the mirror without disgust. I need to find a way to boost my energy levels, too, so that I can actually get back on the bike and enjoy myself outside again. It sure would be nice if I could meet someone interesting somehow, but the door on that has been closing for several years now and it seems as hopeless as ever.

Since I’m posting this here, I wanted to end this with a couple of summaries of the decade (well, six-plus years) of blogging on this URL. I got a WordPress export of all the blog posts, and used some scripts and a lot of manual effort to extract a few interesting bits from the data. (I wish I could do the same thing for my Twitter feed, but 12,000 tweets is way too much to analyze with the Mk.1 eyeball!) First is the posting frequency by year:

Year Posts
2013 (3 mos.) 32
2014 112
2015 137
2016 43
2017 54
2018 27
2019 8

The trend here is really clear: writing the sort of blog posts that I’m most interested in writing takes a lot of effort, and if it’s going to totally uncompensated — not even the minimal sort of “engagement” that the social features of WordPress.com allow for — then I’m not going to be much inclined to put that effort in. The slight bump in 2017 is almost entirely due to sporting events where I made the blog sort of substitute for a proper photo gallery, because I still hadn’t found a photo gallery system that I was comfortable with. Much of what I posted in late 2018 and in 2019 was transit advocacy, and several of those posts were really just verbatim recitations of comments I had made to MassDOT, to the MBTA board, or to my state legislators.

I looked at my posts by category as well — mostly recategorizing on the basis of post titles rather than the WordPress categories you see below each post, because those have changed over time — and came up with the following:

Category Posts
Administrivia 33
Books & Publishing 5
Broadcasting 4
Cars 7
Computing 20
Food & Cooking 209
Language 2
Philosophizing 12
Law, Politics & Economics 5
Quotations 28
Self-reflection 5
Sex & Gender 3
Sports 32
Transportation planning / MBTA / MassDOT 29
Travel 7
 
Junk 12

The smallest categories are a real surprise, because they reflect the things I originally thought this blog was going to be about; those were the things that I had been interested in for much of the prior decade, and those were the subjects that I spent a lot of time editing Wikipedia (and Wikiquote!) to improve coverage of. But it turned out that, other than travel and electoral politics, they weren’t subjects that I’d be devoting a substantial amount of time to in this decade.

Finally, my book recommendation of the decade: read Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal novels. Seriously. Even if you think you don’t like fantasy, or don’t like military fiction.

Posted in Administrivia, Books, Computing, Food, sports, States of mind, Transportation, travel | Tagged , | Comments Off on My decade, 2010–2019