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MBTA talks equity, asks for feedback

Route, frequency changes discussed at local meeting

Jule Pattison-Gordon
MBTA talks equity, asks for feedback
During a meeting with MBTA officials at the Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library, attendees spoke of their personal experiences — and trials — commuting.

Repeated cancellations of the Fairmount line in October, a T fare hike and tales of third-shift workers stranded by late-night service cuts have brought to the forefront questions on how the MBTA makes decisions — and how much disparate impact on minorities factors in.

The MBTA now is airing its policies and seeking feedback. This conversation comes at a critical time, as the agency looks to revise its bus routes, which officials say have not been updated in nearly a decade.

On the web

Respond to the MBTA Rider Census

The MBTA uses this survey to help plan its service and assess impact of proposed changes: http://mbta.com/about_the_mbta/default.asp?id=6442454743

MBTA officials and a representative from Keolis — the private company responsible for the Fairmount cancellations — spoke to residents at the Boston Public Library branch in Mattapan last week. Officials outlined the civil rights and equity calculations currently used and sought feedback on how to improve equity impact assessments as well as T service.

The MBTA is on the edge of big changes, Brian Shortsleeve, MBTA Acting General Manager, said.

“You’re going to see over the next five years close to $6 billion of investment to the T that we think will make a big difference,” he said.

Looming large: rerouting plans. The current bus routes were drawn up at least eight years ago, and have not been revised as populations and demands shift, leaving some vehicles empty and others packed. Currently, buses on 142 out of 164 routes are not reliably on time, Shortsleeve said.

Also on the horizon: an influx of new buses, infrastructure investments and plans to move to all-electronic fare collection — which, if not done carefully, could burden those without easy access to credit or technology.

The T is considering as well how to restore some level of late-night service and examining why trains were cancelled repeatedly on a commuter rail line that serves a primarily minority neighborhood with a scarcity of other transit options.

Major changes

The MBTA strives to balance demand for vehicles to arrive reliably on schedule with the demand for them to arrive frequently, officials said.

One fix is to add a new bus to a route. However, if no new resources are available, the T may choose to schedule buses less frequently and allot each one more travel time — and thus more wiggle room in case of traffic or other holdups — to improve the timeliness of its arrivals, said Laurel Paget-Seekins, MBTA director of research and analysis. Or the T may run buses on the line more frequently, but accept risks that they will not meet scheduled bus stop times as reliably.

The Mattapan meeting in part was held to gather feedback on how to set priorities and what to consider when making changes.

When the MBTA makes service changes that it deems major, it is required to assess whether minorities or people with low incomes will be disproportionately burdened, whether intentionally or not, in order to comply with Title VI. This federal civil rights law prohibits programs or activities that receive federal assistance from acting in ways that are discriminatory, based on race, color or national origin. The MBTA also must assess if any changes will primarily benefit just one group of riders, said Miles Walters, MBTA Title VI specialist.

The first step: determining if the proposed change — such as adding a new bus, eliminating a route or adjusting fares — counts as significant enough to trigger an equity assessment. Such determinations are based on how long riders have to wait for a vehicle and how much the route mileage is expanded or truncated.

Walters said any fare changes and any major route changes will qualify for equity analysis. Such major changes include altering a route’s length by at least 3 miles or 25 percent, or changing the amount of hours a vehicle operates per week by at least 10 percent.

During the public comment period, Mela Miles from the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition said that the MBTA should not dismiss concern for those minorities being burdened by a change, even if more are aided. For those who receive service reduction, it could mean being forced to rely on routes served only once an hour, she said.

Measuring equity

Currently, when the MBTA considers making a change, it assesses the net number of minority riders impacted compared to the overall number of minority riders to see if disproportionate percentage would be affected, Paget-Seekins said. MBTA members also look to see if only one demographic is the major beneficiary of an adjustment.

However, Paget-Seekins told the Banner, the agency does not yet include in its decision-making an examination of the severity of the benefit or burden. For instance, reducing service on a line that comes every ten minutes places less of a burden than reducing service on a line that comes once an hour.

“Right now, it’s kind of a binary: Do they benefit? Are they burdened?” Paget-Seekins said.

Audience members noted that when one bus or train is late, it can throw off an entire trip, causing passengers to miss transfers.

Public comments

Mattapan resident Joyce Durst expressed what seemed to be modest concerns:

“All I’m interested in is, Can I walk to the stop, get on the T and get where I’m going in a reasonable amount of time?” she said. She recommended the T prioritize sufficient coverage area, then that buses and trains arrive when the schedule says they will.

Several attendees said that service has not always matched the lifestyles of those in the surrounding neighborhood. The area around Forest Hill is home to many nurses, cafeteria workers and other late-shift employees who work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., not 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and need transportation schedules to reflect that.

Similarly, people who work on the weekends struggle with reduced bus service, said a 48-year-old resident of Mattapan.

“There’s a high population that works on the weekend,” he said.

Also deserving consideration: which age groups are served. One attendee, who identified herself as Tiffany from the Talbot Norfolk Triangle, said Mattapan has many active elderly residents who need enclosed bus stops. Robert, the 48-year-old resident, said buses also must be large enough to accommodate wheelchairs and baby carriages.

Several audience members called as well for greater communication between the MBTA and Boston Public Schools so that children are not counted as late when held up by delayed buses. Some also called for free passes for all students to ensure safety and that traveling to jobs, internships and extracurricular is not a financial barrier.

Paget-Seekins said some progress was made — student passes now function every day of the week, year-round.

Mela Miles recommended continuous dialogue with community members — including at least four meetings per year and creation of a community advisory committee — so that discussion is not held only when problems occur.

Keolis’s Fairmount cancellations

By October 22, Keolis Commuter Services had cancelled Fairmount trains 17 times that month, going by the count reported by The Boston Globe.

Rita Hardiman, Keolis’ chief diversity officer, said cancellations came after coaches that had been sent out for inspection returned without the certification papers, and so had to be sent out again. However, she acknowledged that her company should not have chosen to direct the bulk of the equipment shortage to the Fairmount line.

“In a one-week period, there were five trains cancelled five days in a row on the Fairmount line, which was unacceptable,” Hardiman said.

The company has since revised its policies and no longer will cancel a train for more than two consecutive days, Hardiman told attendees.

One resident said that even before Keolis, the Fairmount line seemed unduly subject to cancellations during rush hour and on Patriots game days.