Public Transportation Advisory Committee: new services and reviews

A regular monthly meeting of the Public Transportation Advisory Committee on Wednesday, May 21, started at 7:00 pm in the fourth-floor conference room at Town Hall, with all three current committee members attending plus five members of the public, two representatives of GroupZoom, proposing a new transit service, a Brookline Transportation Board member, a member of MBTA management and two representatives of the MBTA Advisory Board.

Express buses to Cambridge and Boston: Matthew George, founder of GroupZoom, located in Cambridge, described the Bridj transit service his company expects to offer. It plans to provide express-bus service between high-demand locations–featuring Web-based scheduling, electronic payments and on-board amenities, including WiFi. According to business news reports, GroupZoom has received around $3 million in venture funding from a private investor group that includes Scott Griffith, a partner at General Catalyst and former CEO of Zipcar, now an Avis division.

Mr. George said initial plans are for two Brookline-centered routes and two Cambridge-centered routes. He claims routes between the vicinities of Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square and between the vicinities of Coolidge Corner and Post Office Square are prime candidates in Greater Boston. Traveling the MBTA Green Line and Red Line between Coolidge Corner, where he lives, and Kendall Square, where he works, Mr. George measured morning rush-hour travel time at around 55 minutes. He says his service will take less than 20 minutes.

Initially, Mr. George expects the Bridj service to provide full-size, 54-passenger buses run by Academy Bus, a charter company operating from Braintree. The fare for the Kendall Square route is projected at around $6 each way, or three times the current MBTA Charlie Card fare, in return for saving an estimated 35 minutes each way. Linda Lally, an MBTA system planner at the meeting on other issues, said MBTA supports the proposed Bridj service as a complement to the mass transportation services MBTA provides.

Abigail “Abby” Swaine, committee chair, said GroupZoom would need Brookline Transportation Board authorization to operate a jitney service and would need approvals for locations it plans to pick up and drop off passengers. The company will probably need similar authorizations from Cambridge and Boston for the routes Mr. George described. Committee members asked about locations of stops. Mr. George said possible locations are near municipal parking lots, particularly ones on Centre Street.

Jerry Lazar of Craftsland Rd. asked whether GroupZoom might provide service from Chestnut Hill. Mr. George was not sure but said Bridj will have zoned fare capability. He said there is also interest in service from Brookline Village. Scott Englander, a Brookline Transportation Board member, asked about sharing data with host communities. Mr. George said GroupZoom would do that, subject to nondisclosure agreements. An inquiry the next morning with Todd Kirrane at the Brookline Transportation Department indicated no applications yet from GroupZoom.

MBTA equipment, more 3-car trains: Richard T. Leary, a former executive secretary to the Board of Selectmen and later Brookline’s first town administrator, presented a report for the MBTA Advisory Board. He has served for many years as Brookline’s representative. He was accompanied by Paul Regan, the board’s executive director. Responding to the committee’s interest in 3-car trains on the Green Line, Mr. Regan said the MBTA has only enough equipment for a few 3-car trains at rush hours.

Running more 3-car trains will also need power upgrades, according to Mr. Regan. Some power substations have been renovated, but trolley wires are up to 80 years old, and overloads and brownouts occur at rush hours, When power upgrades are finished, replacing antique signals will be the next priority. Only those near Kenmore Square, which flooded in 1962 and in 1996, have had recent attention.

The current MBTA capital plan calls for 220 new Green Line cars by some unspecified date. However, the financial tables, out to FY2018, show no such acquisition. The Green Line currently has 114 operable Kinki Sharyo Type 7 cars, now 17 to 28 years old, that are to be renovated. It has 95 operable Breda type 8 low-rise cars, now 6 to 15 years old. They will not need major maintenance soon. No additional 3-car trains can likely be expected before 2022.

Mr. Regan, Mr. Leary and committee members discussed measures to speed up boarding passengers and discourage fare evasion. About two years ago the Green Line stopped opening rear doors when running on the surface. That led to crushes in the fronts of cars, especially at rush hours, so the Green Line resumed opening rear doors during rush hours. Mr. Regan said MBTA will be hiring more transit police but faces high turnover. Officers often leave to take highway, city and town police jobs.

Committee members asked whether MBTA will add more payment kiosks to service Charlie Cards. There are now about 150 of them, but there are none for surface parts of the Green Line except on the Riverside (D) branch. Mr. Regan said there are four payment centers located in Brookline groceries: the two Star markets, one 7-11 store and Bay State Foods. He did not think more payment kiosks or centers would open in the next few years.

Speedier Beacon Street trolleys: Last year the committee supported a $50,000 study of Beacon Street traffic signal improvements, to reduce delays on the Cleveland Circle (C) branch of the Green Line. The 2014 annual town meeting looks set to fund the project. It is included in the Advisory Committee’s budget, under Article 8.

Mr. Regan said MBTA management was “thrilled” about the Beacon Street project, a first for the MBTA Green Line. So far, MBTA has worked on traffic signal improvements for buses and for commuter rail but not for above-ground parts of the Green Line. The Advisory Committee has proposed some conditions on the funding, which committee members had yet to investigate.

MBTA fares and finances: Mr. Leary reviewed MBTA finances. Last year’s Transportation Finance Act, Chapter 46 of the Acts of 2013, adds about $600 million per year to state transportation funding for FY2014 through FY2018. Although MBTA gets a portion, much of that goes toward repairing degraded bridges and roads. MBTA is committed to a “proposition 2-1/2″ approach. It will raise transit fares by about 2-1/2 percent a year: likely about 5 percent every 2 years, starting this July.

However, the agency’s financial problems are far from over. Since 1947, the MBTA and former MTA fares have never paid the full cost of rides. Before 2000, MTA and MBTA got a yearly and much maligned “deficiency budget” from the General Court. In 2000, under so-called “forward funding,” MBTA was instead granted one percentage point of the state sales tax. For a while that worked, because of increasing ridership and sales tax receipts. Then fare revenue flattened after 2005; sales tax receipts flattened after 2008.

For FY2010 through FY2014, the General Court provided $160 million a year in so-called “contract assistance.” That means, in effect, the old MTA and MBTA “deficiency budget” from the past has been revived in a new form–added to the sales-tax earmark. The General Court looks on course to do the same for FY2015.

According to Mr. Leary, those funds, along with management reforms and the 2013 finance act, have brought financial stability to MBTA. MBTA is hiring 63 workers to bring more maintenance in-house plus 180 workers to run late-night service. Employees are on the state’s Group Insurance Commission health plan, which is also helping Brookline cope. Subway trains are being run by single operators. Absentee rates are down. Need for the last two reforms had been reported since at least the 1950s, by the old Boston Herald and by the Boston Globe.

MBTA is to maintain a “recovery ratio” of 33 percent or more–meaning fares are to pay at least one-third the cost of rides. Of its current $1.9 billion budget, Mr. Leary said about $160 million is being paid by “local assessments” on cities and towns in the MBTA operating area. Brookline is paying about $5 million. Similar municipal transit support has occurred since the 1920s, starting with the former Boston Elevated Railway Co.

Committee member Sherry Flashman asked about falling ridership. Mr. Regan said ridership is actually up. That becomes somewhat complicated. MBTA preliminary reports of increased ridership have often proven inconsistent with federally audited reports appearing much later in the National Transit Database. Those showed largely stagnant system ridership after 2002 and falling ridership after 2005. Possibly the years after 2012 may see sustained, verified increases, but it is too early to know.

Less waiting for the next bus: Brookline Transportation Board member Scott Englander presented a quantitative study he carried out to see whether wait times near Cleveland Circle, transferring between MBTA bus routes 51 and 86, could be reduced by schedule shifting. Route 51 extends through south Brookline to Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain. Route 86 extends through Allston, Harvard Square and Somerville to Sullivan Square in Charlestown. Combined, they could approximate a so-called “urban ring” long advocated to connect radial transit routes in and out of downtown Boston.

Mr. Englander’s work was assisted by MBTA system planner Linda Lally, who arranged access to real-time records of bus arrivals and departures. Ms. Lally said bus scheduling has been computerized for about three years and now includes “interlining”–meaning drivers may transfer from route to another. Those changes improve efficiency but do not reduce wait times for passenger transfers.

Mr. Englander found that shifting schedules of 51 buses relative to 86 buses could reduce average wait times somewhat. However, he said the best case amounted to only several percent of total travel times.

More ridership in south Brookline: For some time, the committee has looked at potential changes to the 51 bus route, in hopes of increasing ridership. According to Mr. Kirrane, the transportation director, one possibility is the segment between the intersection of Chestnut Hill Avenue with Route 9 and Independence Drive southwest of Putterham Circle.

The 51 bus currently follows Lee, Clyde, Newton and Grove Streets. Ridership might increase by instead following Boylston, Hammond and Lagrange Streets and Beverly Road. In the 1970s and before, areas near the latter streets were served by the former 59 bus, but that bus was discontinued in a cost-cutting change. The 59 number is now used for a route between Watertown and Needham. The committee meets next on June 15, also at 7:00 pm.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, May 24, 2014


Comment, June 10, 2014. Scott Englander, a Transportation Board member, sent a comment about MBTA 51 bus service:

The MBTA has so far only offered Brookline the possibility of shifting Rt. 51 bus schedules uniformly (i.e., shifting all departure times forward or backward by the same amount). Mr. Englander found that shifting schedules of Rt. 51 buses uniformly could, at best, reduce passenger layover times at Reservoir by 5%, and even that modest overall improvement would come at a cost of adversely affecting outbound passengers. The analysis did not look at potentially beneficial changes in schedule that don’t involve shifting all schedules by the same amount of time.


Katie Johnston, Data-driven bus service set to roll out, Boston Globe, April 10, 2014

Rafael Mares and Kirstie Pecci, Keeping on Track: Transportation for Massachusetts, Conservation Law Foundation and MassPIRG, March, 2014

Massachusetts Transportation Board, FY2015 transportation plan, Draft, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, January, 2014

Massachusetts Transportation Board, The way forward, FY2014 transportation plan, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, January, 2013

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