A busy week for transportation legislation

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and in Massachusetts that means two things: the state legislature is debating the budget and the state’s draft Capital Investment Plan has been published for comment. In Washington, the Biden Administration has published its official budget request for Congress (which will go right in the trash; Congress writes its own budget), but the administration’s so-called “American Jobs Plan” is being debated (and torn to shreds) by Congress, and in addition, the five-year surface transportation authorization — which was given a one-year extension last year because of the pandemic — is also being debated.

As a result, the transportation funding situation for the coming year is even less clear than it usually is. The US Department of Transportation released a glossy brochure attempting to explain the President’s budget request, which called out some worthwhile initiatives but largely failed to clarify which programs were associated with which funding requests. Amtrak released its own glossy brochure, explaining to congressional delegations what sort of service enhancements it was thinking about (if only Congress would appropriate more money) — largely devoid of HSR or any particularly compelling program for capital investment or frequent service.

I pointed out on Twitter a few weeks ago that Joe Biden is both the first and last president of his generation — the Silent Generation. He took the oath of office as a United States Senator just a few days after I was born; his political formation is quite different from both the G.I. Generation who preceded him in birth and the Baby Boom Generation who preceded him to the presidency. This is reflected in his speechmaking, in his non-confrontational approach to governing, and especially in his approach to policy: he is going to defer to Congress, and while he will privately jawbone Manchin and Sinema, ultimately he is going to sign whatever Congress passes, and he isn’t going to make a big deal of it if some of his major legislative initiatives founder in the Senate.

While I do not doubt the sincerity of Biden’s support for the proposals his administration has put forward, I believe he values the appearance of bipartisanship more than he values livable cities or indeed an inhabitable planet, and fundamentally, when the autoists in Congress finish chewing up and spitting out his infrastructure proposals, turning them into more of the same polluter-subsidizing climate arson, he will acquiesce without protest. His only “red line”, so far as I can perceive, is his refusal to increase taxes on polluters — who by and large make less than $150,000 a year and drive a light-duty truck. The rich are simply not numerous enough for any taxes aimed at changing their behavior to have any meaningful effect on the existential crisis of our time. We need more and heavier sticks, like a carbon tax, like a national VAT, that would actually be paid by the vast majority of people (myself included), in order to incentivize a meaningful amount of behavioral change.

OK, enough about the situation in Washington — what’s going on on Beacon Hill?

This past week, the Senate unanimously passed its version of the state budget on Thursday. I believe there is one more procedural vote to come, this Tuesday, and then it will go back to the House, which will take another procedural vote, and then both houses will appoint members of a conference committee to hammer out the numerous small differences between the chambers. (Of course, the conferees know who they are already, even though they haven’t been formally appointed, and through this whole process, the staff of both chambers has been tracking the points of disagreement so they know what they need to hammer out.) This whole process might take a week or two, then both chambers will vote again to accept the conference report (by a veto-proof majority) and then deliver the final engrossed text to the governor’s desk, at which point he will veto a bunch of items, and then both chambers will have a day-long vote-a-thon to override most or all of the individual vetoes. Hopefully they can get this all done by the end of June, at which point the legislature will have to take up the FY21 close-out supplemental budget (to reconciles the budget that they passed back in January with what the state actually spent).

The budget as passed by the Senate does not include any revenues from the Biden administration’s “American Rescue Plan”, for the simple reason that the Baker administration doesn’t yet have guidance from Washington on how the state is allowed to use the money. This is also an issue for the Capital Investment Plan, which I’ll discuss next. (The MBTA budget assumes the availability of ARP funds to cover operating expenses, but is not itself subject to legislative approval.) It does include a significant drawdown of the state’s “Rainy Day Fund”, which will presumably be reversed in a supplemental budget once the federal guidance is received on eligible expenses. (ARP funds are generally available for allocation through the end of calendar 2023, but cannot be used to reduce state tax rates, fund pension obligations, or various other things state legislatures might want to do, so each federal agency charged with disbursing ARP money has to go through a rulemaking or similar procedure to issue official guidance about which expenses are or are not eligible and what the state must certify in order to access the funds — the previous Coronavirus relief bills, “CARES” and “CRRSSA”, had similar administrative complications but subtly different requirements.)

Without debate, the Senate adopted an amendment by Sen. Joe Boncore, chair of the Transportation committee, which restructures and increases the fee charged for TNC (i.e., Uber and Lyft) rides, adds additional reporting measures, and creates a trust fund into which the state portion of the fee revenue is paid. Most significantly, the Boncore amendment creates a “public transit access fee”, an additional twenty-cent charge for trips that both begin and end within “the fourteen cities and towns”, and paid into a segregated account to support a low-income fare program to be established by the MBTA. (Which are “the fourteen cities and towns”? They are the communities in the original, inner-core MBTA district, which still receives the majority of bus and rapid transit service.) The amendment passed 37–2 on a non-recorded standing vote, but it remains to be seen whether this language will survive the conference committee; if it does, expect the governor to veto it. (It’s likely that the legislature will override the veto if it gets that far.) Unlike with the bond bill back in January, the legislature will remain in session after the budget is passed, so there is no possibility of a pocket veto.

I should note here that neither House nor Senate budget includes provisions for an MBTA board of directors, to replace the current five-member, unpaid Fiscal and Management Control Board, which expires at the end of June. The governor’s budget as filed included such language, but it was dropped from the budget by House Ways & Means, and it was also left out of the Senate budget. (Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr proposed an amendment to restore the governor’s language, but it was “bundled” with several other amendments and rejected on a voice vote.) There are companion House and Senate bills in the Transportation Committee which would establish a new board, but thus far, with only five weeks left of the FMCB’s legal existence, the committee has not chosen to advance either one. The bills are H.3542 by Rep. Meschino and S.2266 by Sen. Boncore; the language in both looked the same on spot-checking but I did not do a line-by-line comparison. In addition to expanding the board to seven members, S.2266 would provide for some local representation, by giving the existing municipally-appointed Advisory Board the right to appoint one MBTA board member, and would authorize an annual stipend of $12,000 for each board member except the Secretary of Transportation. While this is not the exact structure I would prefer, time is of the essence and I would like to see one of these bills reported out of committee within days to allow for a smooth transition from the old board to the new.

Finally, on to the state’s Capital Investment Plan (CIP), which the MassDOT board and the FMCB voted to release for public comment last Monday, six weeks before the deadline for it to be adopted and generally much too late for any public comments to make a significant impact. As with last year, significant uncertainties related to the aftermath of the pandemic and the availability of federal support have been used to justify a one-year “maintenance of effort” CIP rather than the five-year CIP the law requires. These uncertainties do not get the state out of its federally-mandated five-year State Transportation Improvement Plan, through which all federal grant programs flow, so we still have some idea of what might be funded in the out years simply because it has to be programmed in the STIP; the Boston Region MPO will meet on Thursday to endorse its FY22-26 TIP, which is the largest regional contribution to the STIP, and this will then flow through to the state CIP, which both the MBTA and MassDOT boards must formally adopt at their joint meeting at the end of June. The state and the federal government operate on different fiscal years (the state’s is July to June and the feds use November to October), which means the exact alignment of the two plans depends on the exact scheduling: some SFY22 projects are funded with FFY21 obligations.

One thing we do know about the Rescue Plan is that it includes an additional $175 million of funding to recipients of Federal Transit Administration capital improvement grants in fiscal year 2019 which have not yet entered revenue service. Up to 40% of this could go to the Green Line Extension — except that the GLX project is running under budget and may not need any more money. The text of the act makes the distribution of funds non-discretionary, but the agency will have to determine what Congress intended by this provision in the case of funds to be distributed being in excess of obligations. The MBTA and FTA are in discussions to see how the GLX money could be reallocated — the original funding agreement includes a clawback provision for Cambridge and Somerville if their local contributions turn out not to be required, but if the surplus comes in beyond that amount, after all contractor claims are resolved, the MBTA would like to use the money for other priorities. This should be resolved by the time the boards vote on the CIP in four weeks, so it’s likely that there will be some transfers of these funds in the final CIP that aren’t shown in the draft.

Having said all of that, and in the knowledge that my comments will have no meaningful effect on the process, I still chose to email the state with my comments, which will probably get a formal reply from the staff some time in September. Here is what I said, lightly edited for presentation here:

I will begin my comments with some process issues.

  • While the “accessible” PDF version of the draft is definitely more accessible than the “story map” (which has undocumented requirements for computer hardware and is difficult to navigate or resize), it is still lacking in some basic information, such as the actual location (at least city or town) of projects in the MBTA section of the plan. Many of the “project descriptions” are quite cryptic, even for someone who regularly attends/watches the board meetings, and need a more complete explanation. That said, the breakdown of programmed expenditures in the last four columns of Appendix A is an appropriate and helpful way to present the status of a project in the absence of an itemized plan for the out years.
  • To repeat my comments from previous years, the schedule for comment is far too rushed. Anyone who has followed this process over time knows that all of the important decisions have been made by the staff already, sometimes months ago, and as a result there is almost zero chance that public comment will result in any changes to the draft before the boards vote to adopt it in a few weeks. The capital planning process needs to be open and transparent, and that starts with publishing the universe of projects and assigned priorities well before the end of the fiscal year so that members of the public can develop reasoned arguments about which should be advanced or delayed.
  • While I am sympathetic to the desire to do a short-term capital plan given the uncertainties over whether Congress will pass an infrastructure bill, it is unfortunate that the draft CIP only shows one year, and does not show projects in the out years that might have an opportunity to be accelerated if additional funding is made available. This is important information and citizens deserve to have at least some details so that we can make a case to our representatives and before the various boards. Many agency priorities have changed and numerous projects have been accelerated, so it is not possible to refer back to the FY20-24 CIP for information about FY23 and FY24 projects.

I have one comment regarding Highway Division programs: I am disappointed that the Weston Route 30 reconstruction and bike/ped safety improvements project was not programmed by the Boston Region MPO and said so in comments on the draft TIP. Should additional funding become available before the end of FY22 I urge that consideration be given to programming this important project.

My remaining comments are all regarding the MBTA section of the draft.

  • Should the Green Line Extension come in under budget (as suggested at last Monday’s board meeting), and should FTA allow the MBTA to reprogram the FFGA funds, I strongly support funding the Red/Blue Connector and/or advancing the bus facility modernization program by replacing Arborway garage.
  • However, I remain unalterably opposed to the destruction of the North Cambridge trolleybus network as currently proposed by MBTA staff. Trolleybuses are inherently more efficient than battery buses, do not require supplemental diesel heaters, and are already zero-emissions vehicles; North Cambridge has been a trolleybus carhouse since it was converted from streetcars in the 1950s (when most Mattapan carlines were dieselized, contributing to today’s environmental injustice in that neighborhood). The Transportation Bond Bill specifically authorized “transit-supportive infrastructure” program funds to be used for trolleybus infrastructure, including electrification, and the MBTA should be making plans to expand North Cambridge trolleybus service to other nearby bus routes such as the 68, 69, and 77, by extending the trolley wire and/or acquiring battery-trolleybuses with in-motion charging.
  • The continued progress on making commuter rail stations fully accessible is laudable. However, I continue to be concerned that upgrading stations to full high-level platforms is being approached solely as an accessibility issue, and thus being advanced piecemeal, rather than as a significant constraint on operations, staffing rationalization, and competitive rolling stock procurement — as was obliquely pointed out by Alistair Sawers in his presentation before the boards last Monday. While I strongly support completion of the current platform accessibility projects (all of them on the Worcester Line), future investments in platform upgrades need to be done more strategically.
  • In particular, given the response of the FMCB to Mr. Sawers’ presentation — specifically, endorsing the idea of proceeding with a traditional procurement for EMU rolling stock — construction of high-level platforms on the remaining Providence and Fairmount Line stations needs to be prioritized, packaged as a single unit of design to control costs, and put out to bid ASAP, preferably in FY22, to ensure that these lines will be able to use standard rolling stock purchased in a competitive marketplace rather than bespoke trains with nonstandard multi-level boarding. Platform upgrades on other lines should be prioritized on a line-by-line basis, so that remaining diesel lines can be converted to remote door operation and the reprocurement of the operating contract can go to bid without the burden of unnecessary assistant conductors.
  • The placeholder commuter-rail project labeled “future fleet” should obviously be reprogrammed as an explicit EMU procurement. The General Court has made it quite clear that it is the policy of this Commonwealth to electrify the commuter rail network, using overhead catenary electrification and EMU rolling stock, and has authorized nearly a billion dollars in bond issuance over the next decade to put it into practice. It is time for the MBTA and MassDOT to get in line.

Project-specific comments:

  • P0170: station design for full access to both platforms should be advanced.
  • P0261: the description says “3rd track feasibility study” but other MBTA documents and presentations have implied that the third track was actually going to be progressed to design and eventual construction. Please clarify.
  • P0650 and others: since coach availability has been an issue recently, even during the period of pandemic-reduced schedules, I support continued lifetime extension and overhauls of legacy rolling stock to keep this equipment running while electrification is being pursued at the greatest practical speed.
  • P0863: strongly support construction of a south-side maintenance facility, but caution that the design needs to be able to accommodate articulated EMUs which are several times longer than legacy coaches, so as not to constrain rolling stock procurement.
  • P1009: what FTA compliance actions are these? For a $57mn program this needs to be spelled out explicitly.
  • P1011: GLX hasn’t even finished constructing the maintenance facility, and you’re already looking to spend $12m to modify it?
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1 Response to A busy week for transportation legislation

  1. Small correction: the Green Line Extension qualified for a different provision of the ARP capital grant bonus, which worked out to more than $103 million. (I finally found the Federal Transit web site with the allocations and a presentation with additional guidance for agencies.) This is “100% federal match”, which means the state doesn’t need to contribute any matching funds, but the assumption seems to be that this extra money could be used as a replacement for some of the state and local matching funds which were specified under the original GLX grant agreement, which would then allow the state money to be reprogrammed. (The original agreement provided for 43% federal match.) What’s still unclear is what happens if the GLX really does come in under budget: can the T swap out the remaining authorization on the original grant agreement for a new New Starts or Core Capacity project?

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