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Legislators tour MBTA system

Transit group organizes T commute to raise awareness of system’s needs

Eliza Dewey
Legislators tour MBTA system
State Rep. Russell Holmes was among several dozen legislators who rode the MBTA to work last Thursday at the urging of transit advocacy group GovOnTheT.

Winter 2015 was the winter that few will forget — especially MBTA commuters who suffered through severely delayed buses and trains, unprecedented system-wide suspensions of service, and a crippled commuter rail system that still is getting back on its feet.

On a fittingly freezing first day of spring last week, 47 state legislators took public transportation to work in a coordinated show of support for weary commuters. The initiative was organized by a new grassroots group called GovOnTheT formed by Boston-area residents Michele Rapp and Stephen Kropper to highlight transportation concerns and mobilize legislators toward an improved MBTA.

“The idea came after I had many frustrating commutes,” says Rapp. “I complained a lot and also questioned whether legislators who were voting on the MBTA had any direct experience with the frustration of the system.”

Rapp and Kropper said they formulated the idea and planned the event in the course of just 17 days. While the snow served as a breaking point and convenient rallying cry, they both cite long-running frustrations they’ve had as commuters.

Rapp, who travels from Arlington Heights to Alewife station each morning, said she has concerns about station parking, which is costly and crowded. Add to that the bus service, which she often finds to be too infrequent even during peak hours and belabored by frequent stops, creating a crowded and tedious commute that is especially painful on cold days.

Kropp says the T’s problems extend beyond public funding. He cites the tough competition that public transportation faces from roads and highways that don’t cost money to travel (with the exception of tolls on the Mass Pike and various tunnels). He argues one solution would include “cross-subsidization” between the gas tax, the MBTA, and federal support. The gas tax currently goes to an overall transit fund, but voters repealed a law last November that tied increases in the gas tax to inflation.

Legislators who participated in the GovOnTheT event told the Banner that while they did not always take the T, the experience was a valuable demonstration of their commitment to transportation issues.

Rep. Russell Holmes said that he began his commute at an intersection in Mattapan served by both the 21 and the 31 bus routes. He said he was particularly interested in potential improvements to the 31 bus route. That route was slated to be upgraded to a Key Bus Route with more frequent service in a 2008 MBTA service plan.

Those exact changes did not materialize due to lack of funding. However, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo says that the 31 bus line has seen some improvements in service frequency and that the MBTA will consider more upgrades as part of future service planning. He also said that no significant service changes are planned as part of the Casey Overpass demolition, other than occasional night and weekend detours during construction.

Rep. Evandro Carvalho said he is encouraged by the governor’s special commission on the MBTA and is awaiting that group’s recommendations, due at the end of March, to see what specific issues need to be tackled first. He said the report should provide a holistic view of what is needed, noting that he was very familiar with the Red Line because he grew up in Fields Corner, but that any one person could only provide limited anecdotal evidence.

Carvalho added that the issue at hand was bigger than performance during the snowstorms, which revealed larger underlying problems and led the public to demand more immediate answers. In particular, he cautioned against seeking expansion projects before dealing first with more fundamental issues such as maintenance. Earlier this month, state transportation officials disclosed that the MBTA has a maintenance backlog of $6.7 billion in repairs.

The human side

Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge expressed similar concerns about the long-term T funding, appealing to the human side of the issue.

“There’s so many stories we haven’t read yet — how many people lost their jobs, or lost hourly wages [during the storms]?” she asked. “We have to think about the impact on society if a nurse can’t get to work that day.”

When asked about outgoing General Manager Beverly Scott’s handling of the winter storms, both Carvalho and Decker said they did not blame her for the winter service issues, saying they thought she did the best she could with the transportation system she had been handed. Scott became MBTA chief in December 2012 and resigned in February following public outcry and political finger-pointing over the T’s snowstorm performance.

Rep. Dan Hunt said he was most interested in seeing upgrades at JFK/UMASS station to make it a “fully modern station.” When asked by the Banner if he thought the Olympics could serve as the catalyst for the improvements, as Boston 2024 and Mayor Martin Walsh have argued, Hunt said he did. He said the Olympics could “shine a spotlight” on the JFK project and move it up the list of priorities.

Boston 2024 has said that the only transportation projects required for the games would be new Orange and Red Line cars that already have been paid for and are due to arrive in 2018. However, the group has also proposed nearby Harbor Point (formerly Columbia Point) as the site for the Athlete’s Village. The group has highlighted JFK/UMASS as one of the stations they would like to see improved and argued that the games could potentially expedite that project.

The Banner also spoke with some T employees last week about their experiences working during the snowstorm. One employee said the public backlash about the service during the snowstorms was in many ways nothing new.

“They give us a hard time anyway,” she said. She recalled, for instance, one time when she could not answer a customer’s question and he responded, “You never know anything.”

Another employee who had spent much of the winter shoveling off the snow-covered rails described the physical exertion required for the job, adding that when he was done with work he had to return home to shovel some more. However, he said that he was at least compensated extra for the grueling work.

As for GovOnTheT, the fledgling group says they may take the initiative to other cities following the successful experiment in their home base. Closer to home, they may use a similar model to address environmental, economic and social issues, such as GovOnTheFarm, GovInTheFactory and GovInTheCourts. Those who are intrigued by the concept should stay tuned.

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