With a very jovial CYA delivery, MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola chuckled his way through good-natured insults from Boston City Councilors last evening. He was at the Hyde Park Muni building for a hearing of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Transportation Committee (alas, no Amy Poehler cameo).
It was a very Boston, very city-government two hours entertainment. We got no denouement, but yet, a promise of more bureaucratic theater. It all may resolve well.
We recently saw that with related commuter-rail matters, specifically the Fairmount line. While we rail about commuter rail, Boston is a positive legend in transit circles nationally and internationally. Our local community groups badgered the commonwealth and feds into bring service and stations on the Fairmount Line (a.k.a. Indigo Line) to the underserved largely black and poor citizens. We also pushed successfully for both more frequent service and more than 50% fare drop to a fairer fare equal to a subway trip to Fairmount Station.
Hence the committee meeting. It had the heavy-fingered title of Order for a hearing Regarding Inconsistencies in Commuter Rail Fares and the Effect of This Policy on Local Communities. It resulted from well-justified whining by residents of neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods.
Commuter rail fares in Boston range from $2.10 to $6.25 per one-way trip. These differences relate — but arbitrarily — to MBTA zones, which only kind of tie to distance from major city rail hubs (mostly South Station). Moreover, a short walk or drive away can make that nearly 300% differential, and again, these are all within the city limits.
Then cue the Mommy-Jane-got-something-I-didn’t calls. The Fairmount neighborhood (mine) lobbied and otherwise worked the system for years go get the service, frequency, stations, and BANG! drop from $5.75 to $2.10 a trip. Readville and Hyde Park Stations, only a short distance away are still at $5.75 and $6.25 a trip. Those around them are aware that out-of-Boston stations like West Medford are at $2.10. (Insert understandable foot stomping.)
Last evening’s very civil hearing got into all of these. Three Councilors spoke their unanimous support for fare equity within city limits. They made it plain their constituents were wired about that happening.
Those who showed
Those who appeared in person and were mentioned as supporters were perhaps as telling as who did not. On the dais were:
- District Councilor for Hyde Park Tim McCarthy
- At-Large Councilor and Council President Michelle Wu
- District Councilor for Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury (and Roslindale sliver) Matt O’Malley
McCarthy cited some of the legislators for those neighborhoods who supported lower fares in-town, including Representatives Liz Malia,, Russel Holmes and Angelo Scaccia, and Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz.
Note who didn’t bother, including all the Parks etc Committee members:
- Chair Salvatore LaMattina
- Vice Chair Bill Linehan
- Frank Baker
- Annissa Essaibi-George
- Mark Ciommo
Perhaps they weren’t aware they could take the Fairmount Line and get off 100 yards from the municipal building.
Wu brought the prestige of the Council boss. She also worked the room before the hearing and captured snatches from several of us. For example, Gov. Mike Dukakis has long been a mass-transit rider and advocate. He and I both testified at a few public meetings, he was my my Left Ahead show a couple of times and we’ve even corresponded on fares. When Wu approached me at the Muni, I told her that I’d like to see the T as free with money spent on service, maintenance and security instead of fare collection, while Dukakis said he’d like a $1 trip for all. At yesterday’s hearing, from the dais she parroted that some would like free or $1 fares. I sincerely appreciated her saying that. She’s a skilled pol.
McCarthy has a pre-Council career of constituent services. He spoke of reason and fairness, particularly for the stations in Hyde Park on the two lines.
O’Malley was charming as he always is. He can out-jolly even DePaola. He said the fare issue was “a problem with a pretty simple solution, as is dropping all in-Boston fares to $2.10. “We can solve the problem and have an early night,” he added with the requisite chuckle.
Before dumping on DePaola as the T representative, O’Malley also apologized in advance. He linked the GM to a Yankee in Fenway Park, acknowledging that most commuters in the system had terrible thoughts about the MBTA, particularly in light of the failures to operate last year in record snows (and under the previous GM).
Nonplussed, DePaola confirmed there’d be no resolution at the hearing. He pleaded bureaucrat with no portfolio. That is, he came into the meeting without power beyond listening and responding to direct questions that did not involve promises.
He cited the powers that be:
- Governor Charles D. Baker
- The 11-member MassDOT board
- Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack
- I think he even mentioned the five-member Fiscal and Management Control Board
Baker is a professional bureaucrat. He knows how to wall himself off and is better insulated than a hipster dressed for downhill skiing. DePaola reveled is padding himself.
As he put it, the fares and related issues are all major policy concerns. He praised the questions and concerns from the audience as well as the trio of Councilors as “great ideas.” Then he was at his CYA best with, “We’re the troops. We deliver the service. The policy comes to us from those who make it.”
That was short of don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you lingo, but not by much.
T probation periods
I’d add that when the Fairground frequency increase and fare decrease came, they were on trial bases. They were on six and 12 month tests. If ridership and revenue seemed to justify them, the MBTA would (fanfare for noblesse oblige) kindly keep them in place.
Apparently, we near Fairmount Station did OK. The T queen bees would still like better numbers but we passed the minimal, it seems. The irony is that they really don’t other to count, not under the old crew or the new Keolis one. Many Fairmount Line trains have conductors who do not have the time (or interest) to collect fare. Those who do grunt approval of smartphone purchases and monthly passes waved in front of them. They simply don’t count the actual number of passengers per trip.
DePaola made much of the T subsidizing commuter-rail at $4 per passenger trip, in contrast to 65¢ on the subway or trolley. We have to trust those are accurate figures and that they amount to the $200 million a year shortfall the T provides.
McCarthy noted that among the 175 communities who pay some annual fees to the T, Boston is by far the largest contributor. He contended that we deserve a break, at the least that all commuter-rail stops in city limits should have the same fare (as in $2.10).
DePaola rejoined that 50 rail stops were within the distance of the farthest Boston-limit distances from South Station, so that would be a big deal. If Boston gets that, then everyone will want it. Whaaa.
My sense of the hearing (and speakers) was that we might be headed to another, bigger trial. That might mean after more headings and sloth-like action by the T bureaucracy, stations like the four in West Roxbury and Roslindale might get Fairmount-style tests. If lowered fares bring in more riders and fuller parking lots, the T gods just might nod approving on the peasants.