Weekend excursion: Stations of the Needham Line

This is the first of three posts about MBTA commuter-rail stations I went to see on the weekend of March 13–14: on Saturday I saw all of the Needham and Greenbush lines, and then on Sunday I saw nearly all of the Franklin Line. (My travels Sunday were interrupted by an unexpected snow squall that made photography of the last two stations untenable; I’ll get back to them at some point.) As with previous Weekend Excursions, I am deliberately avoiding the inner “zone 1A” stations, which are generally associated with busy subway stations, until the pandemic is over, so on the Needham Line I did not go all the way to Forest Hills, but I did see all of the other stations, and my photos are once again on my SmugMug site, which you might want to open in another tab to flip back and forth with this essay.

The Needham Line is actually a combination of fragments of two older lines, the nineteenth-century Charles River Branch Railroad, which ran from Newton Highlands to Medway and points west, and the early-1900s Needham Cut-off, which connected Forest Hills with the modern-day Needham Junction. The Cut-off reduced the travel time on the Charles River Railroad, which had used trackage rights over the Boston & Albany’s Highland Branch to reach Boston, by substituting a straighter and flatter route connecting to Boston over the New Haven Railroad’s Shore Line. A full wye junction at Needham Junction allowed commuter service in Needham to be provided via Cut-off, and passenger service was eliminated north of Needham Heights. The connection to the Highland Branch was severed when the MTA (as was) took over the Highland Branch from the B&A and made it the Riverside Line, and the section of line in Newton was eventually abandoned after losing its last freight customers; more recently, the Newton section has been rail-trailed as the Upper Falls Greenway. The remaining section in Needham is still intact, but the original Charles River Branch Railroad was always a single-track line there and in Newton. (I can remember when I moved to Boston in the 1990s the Newton section still had freight sidings connected, although the grade crossings were exempt and I never saw any evidence of traffic on the rails. The bridge over Route 128 connecting the Newton and Needham sections was demolished in the 2010s as a part of widening the highway.)

East of Needham Junction, the line was historically double-tracked, except for the bridge over the Charles River and associated wetlands, and a few narrow gaps in West Roxbury. (See Vansnhookenraggen’s track map.) The second track was lifted at some point, long enough ago that all of the stations and most of the overpasses are single-track-only; I haven’t been able to find out exactly when this happened. It’s clear that some of the stations were extended out onto the trackbed of the old second track, either to provide additional platform length (as I wrote about the Fitchburg Line, the T has been relatively inflexible about requiring 800-foot platforms so they can run infrequent 8-coach trains) or clearance for a mini-high platform. Unlike the Worcester and Fitchburg lines, all of the stations on the Needham Line have a mini-high for accessibility, although because of station layouts it is frequently very far up the platform from the actual station location.

Southwest of Needham Junction, the MBTA owned but never operated the remaining branch line to Millis and beyond, and this has now been rail-trailed through Dover and Needham to a point just south of the switch controlling that branch; although the wye proper is still in place it’s clearly not long for this world. There is a private business (a tree service) in the infield of the wye, but it does not receive rail freight, nor do any other businesses along the line; and freight sidings have been taken up in places where they once existed, except just south of Needham Heights, which the MBTA uses as a layover facility for the line. North of Needham Heights, track remains but grade crossings have been removed as far as Gould St., where the line used to pass north of the WCVB-TV (channel 5) studios before crossing Route 128.

The question then arises: what should be done with this line? The platforms are in terrible shape (except for the mini-highs), and will require some capital investment soon. The platforms are also much longer than would be necessary for operating frequent service with self-propelled vehicles of some kind. The single-tracking limits the frequencies that the line can support, and the grade crossings and station sites in Needham limit the choice of mode. There’s a substantial desire for better service, and regular subway fares, in West Roxbury and Roslindale, and people have batted around various options for as long as I can remember. A significant challenge is that all of the possible options require very similar, but incompatible, capital investments; doing any one of them would preclude any other type of service for thirty years or more. Most of these options would also involve closing the line for several years in order to construct new stations, signals, and power, as well as rebuild the trackbed. The most popular option would require full grade-crossing elimination in Needham, as well as significant construction of vertical circulation, which I believe to be a non-starter for both political and cost reasons. Any option that involves significant construction in the Charles River wetlands or adjacent parkland is likely to run into significant environmental objections, although it’s my hope that electrification alone, if done sensitively, would not.

So what are the options? I assume that doing nothing is not a real option, because the platforms are deteriorating and we can’t keep on burning diesel fuel, but people in Needham are rich and politically powerful, as well as attached to “their” train service. The Regional Rail model is appealing: frequent service every 15 minutes is feasible with electric propulsion, and the full implementation would put at least all of the West Roxbury stops into the subway fare zone, because they are no farther away from downtown Boston than Riverside or Braintree. Many activists in Boston have been asking for an Orange Line extension, which would provide a single-fare ride to most of the MBTA network as well as a single-seat ride to downtown Boston, but has a bunch of baggage that would mean this option likely ends service in Needham entirely. Other people have advocated for extending the Green Line along the now-abandoned segment through Newton to serve Needham; I myself have advocated all three of these options at various times. Sticking with mainline-rail technologies, but modernizing the equipment to allow faster and more frequent trips is an option, too, but has some of the same issues. And this is a line that serves 3,300 people a day — even being optimistic and assuming that a more frequent service could serve 10,000 people a day, mostly in West Roxbury, how much spending is that really worth? The interstation distance on this line is relatively short (most of the stations are within ¾ mile of at least one of their neighbors), as is the line itself, so even modern fast-accelerating trains can’t shave much time off the schedule. (In my simulations, the long interstation between Hersey and West Roxbury is the only place where a train even gets to 50 mi/h, and you would really like to have another station or two in that stretch. Having all level boarding helps much more by reducing dwell times, although this is complicated by the need to wait for signal clearance on the largely single-track parts of the line.)

A summary of the benefits and impediments for each of these alternatives:

Status quo
Station conditions will have to be addressed, do not want to throw good money after bad. Current service is much worse than it could be. Diesel locomotives and locomotive-hauled coaches are obsolete. Maintains existing direct service to Back Bay and South Station, at a very large cost in capacity on the Providence Line due to crossing movements for inbound trains at Forest Hills. High fares keep people from driving and parking in Needham just to use the commuter rail.
Regional Rail
Requires high-level platforms and substantial structures for vertical circulation. Some station locations will require substantial property takings if double-tracking is to be restored in West Roxbury. Frequent all-day service with integrated fares reduces need for parallel bus services. Environmental processing for 25-kV electrification infrastructure in Needham and crossing the Charles River likely to be difficult. Same issues with Providence Line capacity unless trains terminate at Forest Hills, as has been proposed by Rail Vision and others.
Orange Line extension
Requires complete grade separation (due to third-rail electrification) and fare control, which may necessitate relocating stations and is definitely the most expensive option. Extremely unpopular in Needham and would require substantial property takings north of Needham Junction to double-track and grade-separate the line, likely resulting in ending service to the town, or else an expensive bored tunnel with stations in different locations. Line would be closed for several years for construction.
Green Line extension
Requires a politically unpopular retaking of the Upper Falls Greenway and likely property on either side, and an expensive new viaduct over Route 128. While this preserves a one-seat ride to Longwood and the Back Bay, it is a much slower trip (why the Needham Cut-off was built in the first place). Capacity of the Green Line’s Central Tunnel is limited, and addition of a fifth branch would worsen schedule adherence significantly, unless frequencies were dropped on the outer Riverside to compensate. On the plus side, no new vehicles or maintenance facilities would be required (other than the Type 10 LRVs that have not been ordered yet), and additional stops could be added in Newton serving the Needham St. area, which is rapidly transforming. Probably only makes sense in conjunction with an Orange Line extension to West Roxbury, making that option even more expensive, but preserves some service to Needham. Only modest platform raising, no grade separations and only limited additional vertical circulation (12-foot ramps vs. 45-foot ramps for Orange Line or 48-foot ramps for high-platform mainline rail).
Regional Rail model with low-floor DMU/EMU
This would be my preferred option — requiring only modest platform raising, much less obtrusive vertical circulation, and largely compatible with the existing infrastructure (signals, grade crossings, PTC/ATC, maintenance facilities) — but there’s one huge drawback, though: the MBTA doesn’t operate any of this sort of equipment and never has. (The Budd RDCs are closest but not low-floor and they’ve been gone from the fleet for decades now, so there are no parts and no maintenance expertise.) Otherwise, I would be telling the T to call up Trinity Metro and ask if they can lease one or two of the TEXRail DMUs (a diesel version of my favorite Regional Rail train, the Stadler FLIRT) for a pilot. This still has the issues with building 25-kV electrification infrastructure through Needham Center, once you ultimately get EMUs rather than DMUs, but the issue of maintaining a tiny fleet of low-floor EMUs in addition to the larger fleet of high-floor EMUs remains. A new low-platform stop would have to be constructed at Forest Hills. (Note that low-floor mainline trains are still higher-platform than LRVs, 600 mm above the rail rather than 300 mm, so the ramps required would be roughly twice as long.)

So now that I’ve dismissed all of the alternatives as inadequate, too expensive for the possible audience, politically impractical, or too different an equipment type in too small a fleet for the T to effectively maintain, have I left any other options on the table?

Yes. Yes I have.

After looking at all of the stations in context, staring at aerial photos and track maps, and thinking about land use, I am convinced that the right option is in fact light rail. But not a Green Line extension, which is impractical for the reasons I described above; rather, a direct substitution of light rail for the existing mainline rail service between Forest Hills and Needham Heights, with added stops at Baker St./VFW Parkway, Millennium Park, and Gould St. This offers all of the advantages of the Regional Rail solution, with the same service pattern, but uses equipment the T already is planning to buy and maintain, is incrementally constructable, and is much cheaper to build — commensurate to the expected ridership. It would require building slightly raised platforms, but these platforms would be compatible with the existing legacy service, allowing for incremental construction before the new vehicles are delivered, and the low platforms require only short ramps for accessibility. Existing pedestrian and vehicular grade crossings could largely be maintained, and platforms shortened to only 250 feet, greatly reducing the distance patrons (especially wheelchair users) are required to walk to board and alight. (Why extend all the way to Gould St.? First, to preserve future options for extending into Newton. Second, and more importantly, because there is a big assisted-living facility/nursing home on Gould St. next to the right-of-way and it would be well served by a station.)

This does still require installation of overhead power, but the structures for light-rail catenary, designed for low voltages and a maximum speed of 50 mi/h, are much less obtrusive and require less clearance than what you have to build for mainline electrification at 25 kilovolts AC. Even crossing Cutler Park and the Charles River is not likely to be a problem for 750-volt DC catenary, and it would be actually practical through Needham Center, without requiring significant land takings. It does require construction of a new platform at Forest Hills with internal vertical circulation to access the Orange Line, and it also requires a separate maintenance facility, like the Mattapan Line has, because the line won’t have a track connection to the Green Line — I would put this either in the Rivermoor Industrial Park, south of Millennium Park and near the existing terminus of the 36 bus, or beyond the proposed Gould Street station, next to the WCVB-TV studios and Muzi Motors. (The latter’s oceans of asphalt and low-rise buildings should be a high-priority target for redevelopment anyway.)

You might ask whether this is an actual improvement. The MBTA hasn’t chosen a proposal yet for the new Type 10 Green Line vehicle, so we don’t know what their performance characteristics are, but I picked a random LRV that’s already used in North America (the Siemens S200 used in Calgary) and plugged its parameters into my simulator. With the two infill stops, at Millennium Park and VFW/Baker, Needham LRT still beats the existing diesel train between Forest Hills and Needham Heights by a whole eight minutes (20 minutes vs. 31), meaning that even with the forced transfer to the Orange Line, someone going to Longwood or Back Bay would not end up any worse off (and they’d pay a lot less). Without any investment in double-tracking, this schedule works for 5 trains per hour (12-minute headways), with a cycle time of exactly an hour, so it would require 6 trains:
A stringline diagram showing an hour's service at 5tph

If the second track is restored through West Roxbury to Millennium Park, you could double frequency on the Boston segment, which would be nearly equal to Orange Line service, cost far less, and be constructible incrementally, without cutting off the Needham end of the line.

This is yet another example of how deciding what service model you want to operate then determines what your capital program should look like. Here’s my vision for the incremental capital improvements to make this a reality:

  1. Acquire purchase options on Prime Auto Body and Muzi Motors properties.
  2. Start environmental review process, including alternatives analysis for maintenance facility location and infill stations.
  3. Add eight cars to Type 10 order.
  4. Start design and permitting on overhead electrification, infill stations, and maintenance facilities.
  5. Start platform reconstruction, raising platforms to 360 mm and making sure that pedestrian grade crossings are at least 275 feet apart (250-foot platform plus 12-foot ramp on either side); add ramps as required.
  6. (All of the above are no-/low-regrets investments; the platform work needs to be done anyway and you might as well only do it once.)
  7. Design new Green Line-compatible signal system, or else figure out how to fit mainline cab signals and ACSES to a Type 10 LRV.
  8. Assuming positive environmental review, start construction of maintenance facilities, infill stations, signals, and catenary.
  9. Close the line for the summer to test vehicles and signals (the only step that requires a full line closure, because the new platforms and catenary are geometrically compatible with existing rolling stock).
  10. Open the converted line to passengers.

That’s what you do with the Needham Line to get from 3,300 to 10,000 passengers a day.

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Weekend excursion: Stations of the Fitchburg Line

Attention conservation notice: 3,900 words about passenger stations on a railroad you probably don’t ride in a city where you don’t live, with embedded rants about the conservatism of railroaders and the necessity of integrating service planning with capital construction and vehicle procurement.

I continued my series of visits to MBTA commuter rail stations the weekend of March 6–7 with the Fitchburg Line. I chose this line for a couple of reasons: first, it’s the second-closest to me, after the Worcester Line which runs only a mile from my home; second, the MBTA decided to close the inner part of the line completely for two months, “while passenger volume is light due to the pandemic”, in order to accelerate installation of Automatic Train Control equipment, which is required by federal regulations. (The T was able to meet the December 31, 2020, federal deadline for installing Positive Train Control by getting a waiver from the FRA allowing it to operate PTC without ATC on the North Side commuter lines for two years.) Additionally, two of the line’s nineteen stations had service suspended due to low ridership and lack of disabled access as a part of pandemic-related service cuts, and I wanted to see what those stations actually looked like while they were still reasonably intact. (We’ll see what “intact” turned out to mean in a little bit.)

As with last weekend’s tour of the Worcester Line, I did not go into The City to photograph the Zone 1A stations, and as with last weekend, I am publishing the photographs separately in a gallery on my SmugMug site. Feel free to middle-click that link to see what I’m talking about in the rest of the commentary.

The Fitchburg Line is a very strange bird and I Have Thoughts. It serves some of the wealthiest suburbs of Boston, including the tony suburbs of Belmont, Weston, and Lincoln, along with working-class cities like Fitchburg and Leominster at the very far end of the line. Before the pandemic, a number of distinct service patterns were operated, including short-turn local trains between Boston and Littleton, express trains that ran non-stop between South Acton and Porter Square, and local trains that skipped neither, one, or both of the now-closed low-patronage stops in Weston. The regular local train making all stops was scheduled to take 104 minutes between North Station and Wachusett. The line includes both the absolute newest MBTA station of any kind (the aforementioned Wachusett), as well as one of the oldest (Silver Hill, in existence since 1844). Of the nineteen stops, nine are completely inaccessible (100% low platforms or indeed no platforms at all), six more have low-level platforms with short “mini-high” platforms to make them nominally accessible (although not acceptable by current standards), and the four recently-built (or reconstructed) stations have actual full-length high-level platforms.

The two stations in Belmont, “Belmont” and “Waverley”, have surprisingly low passenger counts (based on the 2018 CTPS manual counts). Both of these stations have extensive local bus service, but the stations are assigned to the extremely expensive “zone 1”, which costs $6.50 a trip, as compared with the $2.40 “zone 1A” fare (same as the subway). In a rational fare structure, these fares would be equal, and some subset of passengers would shift from the bus to the train to get into Boston. This is one example among several illustrating the need for an integrated planning approach: these stations are currently entirely inaccessible, and the investments required to bring them up to compliance are substantial, but when they only serve 200 round-trips a day, it’s very difficult to justify the expense. But as a part of a Regional Rail approach, with frequent service and fare integration, these could be among the busiest stations on the Fitchburg Line, and would easily justify the capital investments required to make them fully part of the rail network. Waverley station itself is in deteriorating condition and will require investment soon to stabilize the concrete stairs, which should be viewed as an opportunity to make the station accessible and move it to zone 1A.

Waltham is the next community outbound from Belmont. It used to have four stations, of which two survive (and only one of which is located in the same place, sort of). Waltham has the last significant stretch of (non-station) single-track on the line, and from looking at the aerials and the two ends on the ground, I have no clear idea why — it seems to be a two-track railbed that is just running single-track to make frequent service impossible. Perhaps they found that there were dynamic envelope constraints such that running a single track in the middle of the railbed would allow trains to maintain somewhat higher speeds? The eastern end of the single-track section is in a relatively dense mixed-use neighborhood which includes many residences, the Waltham District Court, and some big-box stores, as well as a lumberyard; it’s located under the US 20 overpass, which carries the busy and slow #70 bus. Waltham Lumber sits on both sides of the interlocking, and stores some of its inventory on the platform of the former Beaver Brook station, which was closed in 1978. Again, under a Regional Rail model with fare integration and frequent service, this station would make all the sense in the world to restore (with full-length high platforms and elevators to new bus stops on the overpass) if for no other reason than to improve conditions for riders of the #70 in Waltham and Watertown. It’s also a sensible place to put a station to queue traffic for the single-track section: if you’re going to have frequent service, you’re going to end up with trains waiting at the interlocking, and you might as well have a station there. (A similar logic applies to the proposed South Salem station on the Eastern Route: having stations on either side of a single-track bottleneck helps regulate the traffic flow and maintain the published schedule.)

The west end of the single-track is actually within the limits of Waltham station, and I totally don’t understand why it was built the way it was. Waltham is the third-busiest suburban station on the line, after only South Acton and Littleton. The inbound side of the station is located on the single-track section, between Moody and and Elm Streets, which it crosses at grade; the outbound side of the station is located west of Moody Street, along and on the same side of the single track, and the interlocking where the line resumes double-track is within the outbound station limits. West of the outbound station, the right-of-way is four tracks wide, of which three tracks partially remain. The section of track where the inbound station is located used to be double-tracked, and there is still an old interlocking tower that used to control the old Watertown Branch (abandoned in 2007 and since demolished), so it’s not at all clear to me why the neckdown is located west of Moody and not east of Elm Street, where there is clearly enough R-o-W.

Of course neither station has a full-length high platform, or indeed a full-length platform of any kind; both sides have mini-high platforms, and both are considerably shorter than the MBTA’s standard of 800 feet. (More words about that below.) The sensible thing to do, from my perspective, would be to shift the interlocking east of Elm St., double-track through the current inbound station, and build a new center platform west of Moody with a direct ramp down to street level for access. This might require shifting the outbound track north a few feet to avoid taking 121 Moody, but would provide full accessibility and would eliminate the current situation where trains stopping at the station foul the grade crossing. (The line has published clearances of AAR Plate E all the way from Boston to Littleton, so even if there were any freight customers left — and there appear not to be — they wouldn’t be any worse off.)

Brandeis/Roberts station, the second active station in Waltham, serves its namesake university, as well as a suburban office park and an apartment complex. It has a significant parking lot, and served 370 daily boardings back in 2018 — most inbound but a significant minority outbound. It is perhaps the most “normal” station on the line: two parallel, full-length, low-level, side platforms with mini-highs for accessibility. It is built on a curve, like many of the Fitchburg Line stations, but there is no obvious constraint here other than cost why this couldn’t be a full high-platform station with safe crossings.

Next come the three stations in Weston, and I use the word “stations” advisedly. As I mentioned at the beginning, two of these stations — Hastings, with 18 daily boardings, and Silver Hill, with 11 — have been closed since January as a part of the MBTA’s COVID-19 service cutbacks. Hastings isn’t even a station at all: it’s just a grade crossing where some trains can be flagged down, and passengers board and alight in the middle of the street between the crossing gates. Silver Hill is a cute old station built into an open cut, with an under-length low-level platform accessed by a single wooden stair. Both of the closed stations are served by only a fraction of local trains, are entirely inaccessible, cannot practically be made accessible, would not be worth making accessible, and any honest equity analysis that considered solely the increased trip times resulting from having even a flag stop at these stations for passengers from farther out, as balanced against making two dozen rich people drive an extra mile to Kendal Green, would favor permanent closure of these stations — and so I said in written testimony to the MBTA board, to encourage them to resist calls for “complete restoration” of the old service in response to the next federal bailout. Once closed, they can never be opened again, since the multi-million-dollar capital investment required to make them accessible will never be justified.

Kendal Green itself is an interesting story. It has a single, short, low-level platform with a tiny asphalt pad for inbound passengers to cross the active outbound track and board. In fact, a number of the stations from here out to Shirley require inbound riders to stand between tracks on asphalt pads to board, which is both dangerous and slow, although at least Lincoln has multiple boarding pads for riders. Kendal Green had the highest pre-pandemic ridership of the three Weston stations, which makes sense considering that it also has the most parking: 110 passengers, nearly all of them inbound. (There is a surprising number of inbound alightings in the 2018 data; this station is the closest of the three to the office park in Weston but not that close.) The parking for the station is town-owned and permitted; it’s located east of and across the street from the historic station building, along a road that ultimately leads to the a landscaping supply company and the town dump transfer station.

Kendal Green, despite its low current ridership and location in a rich suburb with anti-housing zoning laws, has potential that I believe justifies additional capital investment, as I explained in additional comments to the MBTA board. Specifically, the station should be relocated east of the Church St. grade crossing onto the property of the landscape supply company, with full-length high platforms and a ramp connecting to the Mass Central Rail Trail. The MCRT connects to a senior living facility just a quarter mile away, two office parks within half a mile, and the Bear Hill section of Waltham with its numerous residential and commercial developments is within a mile, a reasonable distance for station-centered bikeshare. The existing bridge over the line is in unsafe condition and closed to foot traffic; since it needs to be replaced anyway, the same project could also provide vertical circulation for the relocated station to avoid unsafe at-grade track crossings.

This issue of substandard platforms keeps on coming up on this line, and I used the occasion of my board comments to suggest that railroad management (both the MBTA’s and everywhere else in the US) is extremely conservative, and will make up nonsense excuses in order to avoid changing anything ever. In particular, they will often cite “operational flexibility” as a reason for certain design standards that have the effect of making station improvements impossibly expensive, when they can’t fall back on NFPA 130 to justify overbuilding. The MBTA’s standard for new station construction requires 800-foot platforms, which only make sense in the context of infrequent locomotive-hauled trains that have to be nine coaches long because when trains are infrequent you get 1,200 people squeezing on to a single train. But if the MBTA is serious about Regional Rail, then their standards should be adapted to that service model, which means you’re running 250- or 300-foot EMUs or DMUs for your base level of service, and in peak periods you just add more trains — and when you can’t add more trains, then you’re coupling two 250-foot vehicles together. There are a lot more places you can fit a 500-foot platform than an 800-foot platform! (Like between Moody and Elm Streets in Waltham Center.) Just making that one decision about the type of vehicle you’re going to run suddenly makes all of your station construction cheaper, because you don’t need to acquire more land or modify bridge abutments to serve all your passengers. That in turn drives up productivity, because once you commit to shorter trains and a single platform height for an entire line, you no longer need conductors and can redeploy those people as train operators or fare inspectors.

Another “flexibility” excuse is related to the MBTA’s continued foot-dragging on retiring its functionally obsolete locomotive-hauled coach fleet. Again, the “flexibility” is a false excuse; the real flexibility, as well as substantial savings in operating costs, would be to standardize on articulated multiple-unit vehicles, as I have emphasized repeatedly in these pages and in comments to the FMCB over the past three years. In particular, since there is real doubt as to the T’s ability to execute an electrification program in the time required, the agency should move now to procure a combination of EMUs and DMUs from the same manufacturer and family, with DMUs to be delivered first and an option to convert the DMUs to EMUs at their mid-life overhaul. All of the major carbuilders have such families — if you’ve been reading this for any time at all, you’ll know that I’m partial to the Stadler FLIRT series — and can build them in the US for “Buy America” compliance. Making this move now has numerous benefits:

  • It makes an early commitment to a particular vehicle type and capacity, which allows stations and maintenance facilities to be upgraded to meet a specific requirement for a specific service model, and not some abstract future need.
  • It ensures commonality of maintenance procedures, operator training, and spare parts supplies.
  • It allows the T to procure a single engineering services contract to oversee the production, delivery, and testing of both diesel and electric trains.
  • It allows the T to immediately (upon delivery of the first DMUs) redeploy the trainsets currently in use on the Old Colony lines and the coaches ordered for South Coast Rail onto other parts of the network, providing for timely retirement of obsolete equipment even before the system is fully electrified.
  • With the conversion option, it ensures that the T is not investing in diesel equipment that will have to be retired before its economic end-of-life to meet the Commonwealth’s and the nation’s climate commitments.

Now with that not-really-a-digression out of the way, let’s continue onward to Lincoln. The Lincoln station, like Waltham, has staggered platforms separated by a grade crossing — in the case, Lincoln Road. It’s located in the town’s commercial district, and is connected to a sizeable town-owned parking lot. Unlike Waltham, Lincoln station is totally inaccessible, without even mini-highs, and even worse, both platforms serve only the outbound track, with inbound riders (some 270 of them, mostly in the AM peak) required to stand in the middle of the outbound track on asphalt pads to board. I do not believe there is any real barrier to fixing this station: the outbound platform should be relocated to the west side of the grade crossing, with a ramp down to street level, and the length of the outbound platform extended to whatever is ultimately determined appropriate for the service model.

Concord and West Concord are both challenges. West Concord at least has mini-highs, but eliminating the mid-platform grade crossings at either station would greatly interfere with pedestrian circulation or require obtrusive vertical circulation structures in the middle of a popular, historic business district. In both cases there is also a concern that the station buildings are too close to the tracks and would require a narrow high platform that would not meet safety or accessibility requirements. My best alternative would be to add mini-highs at Concord, settle on a new multiple-unit train design, and then pin precast steps atop the existing platforms to match the door openings on the cars.

South Acton and Littleton, as I mentioned above, are the two busiest stations on the line, and both are modern stations with full-length high-level platforms surrounded by oceans of parking and without any walkable local destinations. (The Assabet River Rail Trail does not redeem the otherwise intensely car-oriented nature of South Acton.) In a frequent Regional Rail service model, with four or more trains per hour, I would advocate restoring service to West Acton, which is a pedestrian-compatible business district about halfway between South Acton and Littleton/495. (Less frequent trains from the outer end of the line could skip the stop.) There is already a universal crossover just east of Littleton/495 specifically to allow for short-turn operations, and given the distribution of potential rail destinations along the line, and the absence of freight service, it makes sense for the “frequent service” territory to extend to Littleton but not farther out where conflicts would arise with Pan Am operations. Littleton/495 was where I ended my travels on Saturday, as the sun was setting and I needed to get back home.

On Sunday afternoon, I started out at the historic B&M station in Littleton, a familiar site to the many bicyclists who ride the “Harvard to Harvard” and similar intermediate-distance road-bike routes. The old station is now occupied by an antique stove restorer, and it is just beyond the easternmost freight siding remaining on the entire line (although by all accounts that customer no longer receives any regular rail freight). My first current station stop was at Ayer, which is smack in the middle of the wye junction between the east-west Pan Am Southern freight main line and Pan Am’s north-south Worcester Main Line. The Fitchburg Line branches from the PAS freight main at Willows, two miles to the east, and everywhere from Willows west, passenger trains must share the tracks with freight even on the MBTA-owned sections of the railroad from Ayer to downtown Fitchburg.

As you might imagine, Ayer station is pretty dreadful. The local economic development commission and the regional transit authority are working to make the general surroundings of the station a bit more pleasant for passengers (and for connections to the nearby Nashua River Rail Trail). It has only low-level platforms and requires passengers to cross the active freight main line at grade. It’s not unfixable: there’s enough room between Depot Square (the actual depot is long gone) and the tracks to shift passenger service north, closer to the station, and add a high-level platform, although not nearly a full-length one, with some changes to a freight branch interlocking just west of the current platforms. There was some funding for this (albeit expressed more vaguely) in the Transportation Bond Bill that passed back in January. Only 275 passengers a day used the station in 2018.

After Ayer comes Shirley, which barely has a platform, although there’s plenty of room to add two; the line runs on a low berm between two parallel roads, with a parking lot on the south side east of the cute little shelter. It looks as if the platform used to be longer, but then a ramp was added to get to the shelter blocking part of it (although if you need the ramp there’s no way you would be able to board the train anyway). Because this part of the line is advertised as AAR “Plate F+” clearance, there are issues with the freight railroads (Pan Am and Norfolk Southern) in terms of providing high platforms without causing clearance problems. I think the only way out here is some sort of extendable gap fillers at the platform that would be triggered by passenger trains, which is a pretty tough investment to justify for 150 passengers a day. (The other alternative would be a gauntlet track, which would make the line effectively single-track for freight.)

The last three stations on the line, North Leominster, Fitchburg, and Wachusett, were all substantially expanded or constructed new since 2010 and largely funded under the 2009 Recovery Act. North Leominster is on a tall berm, surrounded by development on both sides, and immediately east of an overpass; construction here included a large parking garage adjacent to the inbound platform. Because the station was substantially modified, mini-high platforms were added, but because it sits on the two-track freight main line, even the mini-highs are apparently regularly hit and damaged by passing trains — making full-length high platforms a serious challenge. As with Shirley, the only options here appear to be movable gap fillers or a capacity-sapping gauntlet track. North Leominster has the additional issue of requiring more vertical circulation to provide access to a high outbound platform, as the current design requires passengers to cross the active tracks at grade. (This could most easily be provided via the top floor of the parking garage, which already has elevators and stairs, so it’s much less of an expense than if an entirely new crossover had to be constructed.)

Fitchburg station, which was the western terminus of the line until 2016, has its own separate, bidirectional passenger track, but despite this, has only a mini-high for accessibility. The remainder of the full-length platform is low. Fitchburg has a very large parking garage, which it shares with a MART bus hub and Fitchburg State University, all part of a complex of buildings fronting Main Street on the eastern end of downtown Fitchburg. Despite this apparently favorable location, Fitchburg only served 290 passengers a day in the 2018 study — some of whom were parking at Wachusett and taking the train one stop. It seems likely that a faster and more frequent train with more competitive pricing would attract more ridership. (Current pricing is $4.00 for parking and $12.25 for the zone 8 fare to Porter or North Station, as compared to $3.00 to park at Alewife and $2.40 for subway fare, and outside of rush hours, driving is almost certainly faster as well.)

Finally, we come to Wachusett. As befits the very newest station on the entire MBTA system, it is enormous, is completely accessible, and has a single full-length high platform. It’s also surrounded by an ocean of parking and far from any meaningful local destinations; it’s in the far southwest corner of the city of Fitchburg on the border with Westminster, just off the Route 2 freeway. The 2018 manual counts — conducted just two years after the station opened — found only 132 daily riders. Like at Fitchburg, trains platform at Wachusett by way of a single-track bidirectional siding, so passenger trains do not foul the freight main (which west of Fitchburg station is owned and dispatched by Pan Am Southern). There is a separate layover facility in Westminster, about ¾ mile west of the station siding, with six tracks to store all of a typical AM peak’s inbound consists.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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