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.)

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