Advocating for the Green Line

With last night’s Senate action on the Transportation Bond Bill, we passed an important milestone in our efforts to improve the transportation system — roads, bridges and public transit. It is worth recapping where we are, with a particular emphasis on the challenge of improving the Green Line.

Representing Back Bay, Fenway and the Longwood Medical Area, I have come to understand how important Green Line service is to the economic health of the region. These areas account for a huge amount of employment and incoming capital, yet they face real constraints on growth due to congestion.  At the same time, these are neighborhoods where people live and have valid quality of life concerns.

The Green Line is loaded far above its capacity at rush hour. Full cars often have to pass full stations without taking new passengers. As a result, many more people are driving than want or need to drive, limiting growth and degrading local quality of life.

Last year around this time, we held a meeting about how to build capacity on the Green Line. We identified a number of short and long term measures for improvement.

The big idea for the Green Line is to add more equipment so that during rush hour more trains can be three car trains. To get to three car trains, the T needs to have more cars, and also has to upgrade the power supply — they cannot run three car trains close together without running the risk of overloading circuits.

I was pleased to see that Governor Patrick proposed funding for Green Line cars and power upgrades in his “Way Forward” plan for transportation spending for the next 10 years. Since that plan came out in January 2013, I have been focused on how to make it a reality.

Step one was to put more money in place for transportation system maintenance generally. That was last year’s battle, to fund transportation generally at a high enough level to start catching up on deferred maintenance on roads, bridges and public transportation. The outcome of last year’s battle was a very significant increase in transportation funding — much less than some of us had sought, but enough to make a real difference.

Step two was the step we took last night — to authorize borrowing against the new revenue stream for specific transportation purposes. The borrowing bill authorizes $13 billion in borrowing for capital project spending over the next five years, including $2.5 billion specifically for MBTA projects.

The Governor had allocated a higher number for the MBTA in his Way Forward plan.  However, the Way Forward plan was a 10 year plan as opposed to a 5 year plan. Essentially, the difference was the amount of the Green Line cars, so in the bond bill, the purchase of Green Line cars is being pushed out into the future by at least 5 years.

When the early drafts of the bond bill came out, I considered advocating for a substantial increase, to accommodate earlier purchase of the Green Line cars. However, first of all, it became clear that the totals were more or less set in stone politically and a $700 million increase for any purpose was not going to fly. But further, in conversations with the T, it emerged that the T wasn’t really ready to purchase a new Green Line fleet — the existing fleet isn’t actually about to be ready for the junk yard. The more responsible approach to the problem is to continue to maintain the fleet and plan for replacement in the 10 to 15 year time frame, beyond even the time frame of the Way Forward plan.

My next approach was to suggest a 25 to 50 car increase in the imminent car purchase for the Green Line Extension towards Medford. But again, in conversations with the T, new barriers emerged — the T really doesn’t have physical storage space to accommodate a material increase in the number of cars on the Green Line.

So, what I finally did on the issue in the bond bill was to offer language making clear that a portion of the $2.5 billion could be used for

planning design and construction of vehicle storage and maintenance facilities and public process related there to.

The next phase of advocacy is to work with the MBTA and with the Governor to allocated available funds to actually make progress. The big pieces over the next five years will be:

  • Understanding and beginning to address the facilities constraints on Green Line fleet size.
  • Understanding and, hopefully, addressing the power limitations on the Green Line.
  • Making sure that planning is occurring on a responsible time frame for fleet expansion  in the next decade.

The MBTA has, in fact, included in its 5-year capital plan funds to support planning for both power upgrades and the acquisition of a new and expanded fleet of Green Line cars.  It’s too soon to allocate funds to actually doing the power upgrades as the problem is not yet fully understood.  See generally, page 26 of the 5-year capital plan.

We’ll stay on the issue.  Later this year, we’ll be scheduling a second public forum for the Green Line and at that forum, we hope to be able to report progress that people will feel sooner — maintenance improvements, signal timing improvements, real-time train location information.

Cover image credit to Wikipedia.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

15 replies on “Advocating for the Green Line”

  1. Thank you for your work on this topic, and for following up.

    I understand the problems the MBTA has in obtaining and storing more train cars. They are building a whole new yard just for the GL Extension order, which is about 30-some new cars just to help operate those branches.

    That is why it is very important for the MBTA to make efficient usage of its existing fleet. Just finding a way to save 6 minutes on scheduled round trip time, for a single branch, is equivalent to buying a new train. If they can save 3 minutes going in, and see the same savings on the way out, then that obviates the need to purchase an extra train. That frees up those resources for other uses. For example, the extra train could be split up to create two new three-car train trips.

    Is it possible to find such time savings? I believe so. As we have discussed in the past, there are many inefficiencies in the current MBTA operations. For example, we have an opportunity in the Commonwealth Avenue Phase 2 project to address some longstanding slowdowns caused by stations which are too close together and by lack of signal priority.

    Another way to save time, which applies to every branch, is to find a way to speed up the boarding and alighting process. The MBTA could find many minutes of savings simply by using all doors to help people get on and off the train, at each surface station. The world standard approach is to open all doors at all stations, and to use the “Proof of Payment” technique to collect fares. The MBTA began implementing this procedure a number of years ago, but then backed off of it for unknown reasons. Then they went backwards by forcing the absurd “front door only” policy on us, which is the slowest, least efficient way to operate Light Rail.

    The power supply issues, as you note, remain to be solved. But there are many other easy fixes which will both improve the rider experience, and make more efficient usage of scarce resources, such as number of trains available.

    I hope that the upcoming Green Line public forum will be an opportunity to kick off a public process through which decisions may be made, and these fixes may be implemented.

  2. Very well taken points, Matthew.

    These comments fit within a general theme that is important. I perceive that transportation planners are feeling very generally that big new projects are hard to do in our fully built metropolis. There is a lot of interest in ways to make our existing road and transit systems move more quickly and I think, in fact, a lot of potential to do so.

    And yes, that is where our attention should be in the next forum.

  3. Will,

    Matthew’s suggestion makes perfect sense, and I’d like to add to his idea. I participated in an MBTA data hack-a-thon at Hack/Reduce in Cambridge; this had a few sponsors including the MBTA itself (who provided us wonderful data to hack!) as well as the Mass Tech Collaborative.

    When it comes to looking at Green Line scheduling and bottlenecks, what could happen is the MBTA could put together datasets specifically with Green Line trolley geospatial and timing info from recently (2012, 2013, 2014 if available), and have a hack-a-thon just about that. It would not address Matthew’s excellent points about the mechanics of alighting, taking fares, etc., but it could look at when and how we could send more trolleys through the system.

    For example, I take the E line a lot. Sometimes there is only one car on the train, but the trains are spaced a few minutes apart. This may be better than having a two-car trolley and sending it through fewer times in certain cases. This is the type of question the hack-a-thon could answer.

    Thank you very much for keeping us apprised, and “doing your homework” about asking the T what they could use. I have worked at the government, and nothing is more frustrating than a “donation” you don’t need and don’t know what to do with!

    Monika Wahi
    West Fens Neighborhood
    Boston, MA

  4. Will,

    Thank you for your efforts on this matter. As a 20 year resident of the Back Bay and a daily rider on the Green Line, I can tell you firsthand that the Green Line is in desperate need of improvements and I am afraid that the 5 year plan is probably about 5 years too late. In a study on gentrification released recently by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Boston was named as the top city under gentrification pressure in the US. Fenway is seeing an explosion of new housing being constructed and huge new hi-rise developments are already approved for the Back Bay. Two new towers in Christian Science Plaza will soon add 950,000 square feet of mixed use space. Mayor Walsh is a big supporter of increasing density and height of new developments in the city, so this trend is only going to accelerate. I’m sure the Mayor would be highly supportive of our efforts in improving the Green Line.

    Tony Carlo

  5. Thanks, Tony. I think we would both agree that Green line capacity expansion is already long over due. We’ll keep doing everything we can do move it along.

    Monika, I like the way you are thinking. Stay in touch for notice of the next forum, probably in April or early May and we can develop this conversation with the right people. There are some really good people at the T that are thinking along these lines.

  6. Reading Will’s article and the discussion following it inspires three thoughts for me:

    1) Will, I am once again reminded of how grateful I am to have you representing me in the State House. Your approach to this issue exemplifies your approach to all issues: intelligent, methodical, rational, and sensitive to both tactical and strategic needs of your constituents, your district, and the Commonwealth. It is a pleasure to watch you work, and I am so grateful for the extraordinarily high level of transparency you give your constituents into what you are working on.

    2) I am particularly gratified to see you putting so much time and energy into an issue which most people would not perceive as “sexy” or headline-grabbing.

    3) The level of discourse from people who have commented on this article is truly incredible. I am grateful to all of you for your participation in this conversation.

    One comment on that discourse… I’ve been told that the T does not release geospacial data about the green line because they don’t have geospacial data about the green line. Apparently, the tracks are so old that they don’t have train location sensors on them like the other lines do. I’m also under the impression that the fact that so many of the tracks are above-ground interferes with collecting geospacial data because the necessary sensors can’t be maintained as easily above-ground.

    According to the T, “Unfortunately, the Green Line does not have the same type of train tracking technology as other lines. As Green Line riders ourselves, we feel your pain! Our teams are currently working to design a tracking system but expect it to be a few years before we can make something public.”

    It’s going to be difficult for the T to improve green line metrics without real-time data. Will, do you know whether the T has a definite plan with a definite schedule for getting to the point where they can collect that data, and has the money for that work been budgeted?

  7. The MBTA is currently working to install real time tracking equipment into Green Line cars. There is a brief project description in the MBTA Draft FY15-FY19 Capital Plan:

    Green Line Real-Time Tracking System: Project covers both a consolidated real-time prediction and alerts system and a full CAD/AVL system for the Green Line.

    The new data stream will allow smart phone application developers to integrate real-time data into transit tracking apps, as we have seen with the other MBTA subway lines.  On Green Line platforms with digital displays, train wait times will now be displayed.  The new tracking technology will help MBTA improve train dispatches as well.  While this upgrade will not solve all of the Green Line’s problems, it does look like it will be a significant improvement.

    This improvement is expected to come online in 2015.

    Andrew Bettinelli
    Legislative Aide
    Office of State Senator William N. Brownsberger

  8. I ride the Green Line from and to Cleveland Circle almost every day. Here are a couple of suggestions:

    1) Rolling Stock: The cars are in terrible shape. For example, there are big patches of rust on the sides and the announcers (both aural and visual) work sporadically. It seems to me that any additional funding for the MBTA should be specifically allocated to buying new cars. The alternative is that any new finding simply disappears into the pension fund and benefits only the people making no contribution to the operation of the MBTA at all.

    2) Fares: I would guess that 20% of the people riding the Green Line don’t pay a fare. One simply has to hold up any old card — a queen of hearts will do just fine — to get in an open back door. I’ve observed that the fare cheats come from all walks of life; they are by no means just people who might not be able to afford the fare. What makes matters worse is the the MBTA drivers sometimes just flag everybody on without paying a fare I suppose to get the train going faster. This obviously encourages cheating.

    3) Work Schedules: The MBTA at least appears to not have control of its work schedules. At the Cleveland Circle and Boston College terminals one can observe groups of 10 to 20 employees just standing around with seemingly nothing to do.

    4) Train Schedules: As far as I can tell there is no relationship between the published Green Line train schedules and reality.

    Cheers, Scott

  9. Scott, I think it’s counterproductive to worry about every last fare. Data from CTPS indicates that lost fares on the green line are fairly minimal considering.

    Fact is, if you want better service then it’s much more important that the T try to keep schedule. Forcing everyone through the front door leads to delays, bunched trains and blown schedules. All those things cost the T money in terms of time, not to mention how terrible is for riders.

    In short, you are not doing anyone any favors by complaining about a few people who may or may not be fare evading. Unless you enjoy painfully long commutes, it’s much more important for the train to get everyone aboard and moving again.

  10. Matt, I don’t think it needs to be an either/or, i.e., I don’t think we have to choose either making the trains run faster or reducing fare evasion, but not both.

    For example, I’ve seen inspectors with hand-held CharlieCard readers during rush hour at some Green Line stations — they read people’s cards before the train arrives, and then let them board all doors. If they were to do that more often at more stations, they could be making sure people are paying their fares without slowing down entry onto the trains.

    Another idea they don’t use in Boston but they use in many other public transit systems is having inspectors riding random trains checking to make sure people paid and issuing citations to people who turn out to have fare-jumped. You don’t need to do very much of this before people start to get the idea that it’s probably a better idea to pay than not. You can also do the enforcement in waves, similar to how NYC handles its “don’t block the box” campaigns.

  11. Hi Jonathan,

    You are right, it does not have to be an either/or. The first suggestion you made is expensive to implement, because labor is the biggest cost. However, the second suggestion you made is the right one: also known as “Proof-of-Payment” fare collection. This method of fare-checking is the best at revenue protection, cost-effectiveness, and schedule keeping. That’s why it is used by nearly all light rail systems around America and around the world.

    Unfortunately, the MBTA started and then stopped implementing Proof-of-Payment, for unknown reasons. Since then, the MBTA has regressed, making life more difficult for riders, delaying trains all the time, while still failing at fare collection.

    The problem with complaining about fare evasion is that the MBTA is more than happy to make our lives miserable. The executives at the MBTA couldn’t care less if the trains crawled along at 3 mph average. They don’t ride it. So if they get the idea that the riders don’t care about anything but fare evasion, then life on the Green Line will get even more miserable for riders, as the trains spend more and more time stopped at stations.

    In my view, this is both incompetent and immoral behavior by the T. We are paying customers and the MBTA should be required to meet certain reasonable targets in exchange for our payment. If the MBTA is unable to provide reliable, accessible, and decent transportation then they have failed at their jobs. Money is not an excuse in this case: this is about the MBTA purposely cutting off our nose to spite our face.

    The correct solution for the MBTA is to implement Proof-of-Payment, like almost every other major light rail system, in such a way that riders may use all doors to board the train, and all doors to exit the train. As you say, random fare checks protect revenue while ensuring that trains are able to keep dwell times to a minimum, keep moving the hundreds of paying customers onboard, and help reduce the chance of propagating delays.

    Until the MBTA implements Proof-of-Payment, we need to make sure that they do not try to collectively punish all the paying riders for the behavior of a few non-payers.

    In my view, we need people to come up and talk about the importance of keeping the trains moving and running on schedule. Worrying about fare evasion is for the T police and inspectors. Riders need to keep up the pressure for improved service, and worrying about fare evasion does not make for improved service; it makes for worse service under the status quo. That is my primary point to Scott.

  12. …the MBTA is more than happy to make our lives miserable. The executives at the MBTA couldn’t care less if the trains crawled along at 3 mph average.

    I don’t think language like this is accurate or helpful.

    In any organization the size of the MBTA, there is going to be dysfunction; there is going to be corruption; there are going to be people who don’t care about the quality of service they are providing to their customers.

    However, I truly believe that most of the folks who work at the T, including the “the executives,” do care about providing the best possible service to its riders, and accusations to the contrary do not do anything to further that goal.

    I understand that you were making that statement in the context of, “…if they get the idea that the riders don’t care about anything but fare evasion,” but that’s a red herring, because no one here is complaining about only fare evasion. Scott’s comment to which you replied mentioned four complaints, only one of which was related to fare evasion. I agree with you that there are other issues that are more important than fare evasion, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

    It is also worth noting that the issue of fare evasion isn’t just about lost revenue. It’s also got a “broken windows” aspect to it.

    In any case, I completely agree with you that any attempt to reduce fare evasion which slows down service would be completely unacceptable.

  13. Hi Jonathan,

    I was exaggerating a little bit as a rhetorical device. If the trains averaged 3 mph then the costs of delays would be staggering enough to make anyone take notice. However, there’s plenty of room to fall from the current 8 mph average.

    Perhaps my cynicism is showing. In the past two years, we’ve actually seen a worsening of service. Much of that regression has been a direct result of perceived complaints about fare evasion.

    Hard data from CTPS shows that fare evasion is not that serious a problem, but facts have never entered into this matter. It’s all about “acting tough” and applying punishment, without any thought to collateral damage.

    The MBTA has repeatedly shown that they are willing to make service worse in an attempt (failed, mostly) to attack fare evasion. So, although I did see that Scott listed schedule-keeping as a priority, under the current regime that goal is in direct conflict with his concern about fare evasion. And I know which way the T will lean, because they have shown it over the past two years. Instead of implementing the correct solution (that you outlined) of Proof-of-Payment, they just make life harder for riders.

    The MBTA has already sacrificed accessibility, efficiency, and even a small bit of safety in pursuit of the impossible goal of reducing fare evasion to zero. They are also wasting precious operational dollars: it is costing them more money to make service worse than it would cost to do the right thing.

    In my opinion, this kind of behavior means that certain people, in some positions at the MBTA and MassDOT, simply do not care about the riders. They have other priorities, perhaps, that we could speculate about. But I have tremendous difficulty imagining how anyone there could think that “forcing everyone to squeeze up and down the steps of a tiny front door of a train” is providing “the best possible service” to the customers.

  14. It seems like operations at the T are often more at the whim of politics than the efficiency of the system. If fast, reliable service were indeed a priority we’d have proof of payment and signal priority on all the above-ground Green Line branches. Instead, we have the T pointing fingers and declining service. It’s actually quite fascinating to me how when it comes to lane widths and other roadways design aspects (the state often requires wider lanes than cities and towns actually want), the state has the power to override local city government, but when it comes to signal priority for the T, the T throws their hands up and says “sorry we can only do it if the cities and towns want it”.

  15. Thanks, Jonathan, Scott and Matt.

    Let’s continue this conversation at the Green Line forum next week: Wednesday, May 28, 6:00-8:00 p.m. in Rabb Lecture Hall at the Copley Library. It’s going to be a good meeting and these are exactly the issues that are on the table — from fare collection, to signal timing to vehicle acquisition.

    My impression is that almost all working at the T — from the core management team out to the drivers and maintenance workers — really do want to deliver good service. The challenges to doing that are real.

    I’m very hopeful for long term progress!

Comments are closed.