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Garrett Wollman @garrett_wollman
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As promised, I'm going to summarize my observations from today's Rail Vision Advisory Committee meeting. First, a few notes of the oddness of the process.
It's a very big committee, and the @MBTA web site says nothing about its membership other than that they "represent diverse perspectives". I have no idea who is on it or why, but I noted one side of the large rectangle was all advocacy groups, and on the far side, politicians.
In between them were other people whose role was not identified. So unless I know for certain who someone was (because they introduced themselves) I can't tell you who said what. On the fourth edge of the rectangle were the consultants and managers responsible for the project.
The meeting wasn't live-streamed or, so far as I can tell, recorded; a staffer stood at an easel writing down what the committee members said. The discussion started with something called the "tier 1 evaluation", which apparently isn't published.
Some committee members complained, in their remarks, about the short time frame (three days?) they were given to review the document before commenting at today's meeting. Others felt that the number of different service options being analyzed made the doc hard to comment on.
Most of the meeting was taken up with a round-robin discussion session, supposedly about this document, but it was clear that some members were more prepared than others, and some were saying what they were going to say without regard to the actual text, whatever it is.
"Chris" started, and set the tone most of the other committee members would echo, emphasizing the need for better service frequency, electrification, and especially rapid-transit-like frequencies on the Fairmount and Needham Lines.
"Ray" spoke about the need to balance express and local services, and expressed a particular concern about South Coast Rail having such poor travel times that no one will use it. He raised the issue of transfer penalties (an issue in some of the modeled scenarios).
"Ray" also about how better service in the "gateway cities" can unlock the potential for transit-oriented development. The next speaker is not introduced, but he talks about a specific desire for high-frequency service in the urbanized area on Worcester and Fitchburg lines.
That speaker draws the natural conclusion that what we really want is high-frequency service on *all* lines across the board. (Compare or my own proposal for a revised service standard. People talking like barely-adequate 2 trains/hr would be a huge win!)
"Lucas" is concerned about the framing and structure of the "vision", and there's some back-and-forth with the staff about this. Whether you call it "aspirational", "ambitious", or "barely adequate by the standards of small European cities"...
More concretely, the concern is that the final report will end up with "well, this is the best we can do with the infra we already have", and the committee members want it to be "this is what we deserve, and *these* are the investments we need to make in order to get there.
(I concur: there is absolutely no way the voters or the legislature will fund expensive but minor tinkering at the edges: don't ask the public to pay for an unsatisfactory compromise, ask us for the funding for what we *deserve* and then make some compromises if you have to.)
Paul Matthews asked about the quality of projections for both employment and population growth. He noted that on many lines parking at suburban lots constrains potential ridership, and asked about parking-unconstrained demand models.
(Some discussion of the issues here: the model they are using assumes no additional parking, and some towns would not permit more commuter parking regardless.) Matthews puts a big emphasis on reverse commuting, another major theme of the meeting.
"Roxana" wants to bifurcate the discussion: operational issues versus strategic ones. She says "operational" should be basic assumptions for all modeling: reliability, predictability, travel time determine "whether the service is viable or not".
The "strategic" sector includes things like reverse commuting, economic development, and climate action. She notes that systemwide electrification moves us farthest ahead in terms of climate/decarbonization. Next to speak is state rep. Dan Ryan (Charlestown & Chelsea).
Ryan says that Boston residents are opposed to any new development at all, so continued economic growth depends on building more employment and more housing in the "gateway cities", and moving people between them efficiently. Sees great potential for reverse commuting.
Unidentified member, representing Worcester Regional Chamber, says there's no question that improved service to gateway cities drives development, notes increase in service to Worcester from six to twenty trains per day helps attract biotech investment in the city and 495 belt.
He also mentions, specifically with regard to biotech, that a direct connection from Worcester to Kendall Square via the Grand Junction is key for connecting the science and lab district with testing labs, scale-up manufacturing facilities, customer support operations in Worc.
State senator Joe Boncore: "Frequency, frequency, frequency". The goal here is to move people off the streets onto rail, and that requires reliable all-day high frequency service. Also emphasizes need for electrification and ctte's need for population growth projections.
Boncore spends some time talking about the housing crisis, echoing Rep. Ryan, and suggests that maybe cities that affirmatively address the housing crisis by building new transit-oriented development should be rewarded for their efforts with better service.
(The comparison here, not at all unfairly, is with Wellesley Farms -- which became a running example for the committee. Wellesley builds next to no new housing, especially not near its excellent rail service, and some people think maybe they don't deserve four trains per hour.
There's some pushback on this idea from other speakers, noting that even if Wellesley doesn't "deserve" better service, it may be better for both operations and for riders if the service is more uniform and the same high frequencies are provided everywhere.)
Eric from MAPC is up now and specifically addresses the question of population modeling, notes that @MAPCMetroBoston has worked with other regional planning agencies to develop a new statewide population growth model, which will be incorporated into the modeling for Rail Vision.
He notes that metro Boston has experienced modest growth (compared to sunbelt metros) but still more than had been expected in the last long-term plan. He specifically points out that shrinking household sizes imply faster growth in housing requirements than in population.
Josh from @T4MASS asks for a bar car on the commuter rail, I think in jest. (Sorry, Josh, we don't need a bar car, we need to shave half an hour off your commute from Worcester.) He picks up the discussion of "reverse commuting" as an important part of the picture.
Josh notes a need for "more rapid-transit-like" service, with more flexibility (explicitly calling out "flexible trainsets", which I'd interpret as "longer articulated EMUs" that can be coupled and broken up quickly, in service), to make the best use of rolling stock and crews.
Josh points out that land is the most valuable asset in our transportation network, and rail corridors have "three to four times more capacity" than we are currently using. (I think with modern practices that's an understatement.)
Josh brings up a couple of new points, first the need for an integrated system with demand-response elements (shuttles or TNC services) that can address first/last-mile concerns, and second, need for service concepts that can be phased in over time as investments are completed.
Suzanne Rasmussen is one of the members who is unhappy with the schedule of document delivery relative to the meeting, and promises more comments in writing. She observes that it is absolutely essential to drive mode share towards transit.
She reiterates Josh's point about first/last-mile, and also emphasizes the need for accessibility. She states flatly (the first speaker to do so IIRC) that "electrification should be the long-term baseline assumption" for rail planning.
Suzanne also raises two more issues about the infill stations being suggested, specifically, whether the proposed Alewife transfer is actually practical (given walking distance between Fitchburg Line and Red Line), and the omission of Sullivan Square stop from some routes.
She also queries the document's treatment of the Grand Junction, emphasizes that it should go all the way from West Station to North Station and not just stop somewhere in the middle of East Cambridge. Notes frequency is essential to meet Commonwealth's goals for mode share, CO2.
Next up is @JimAloisi, who makes quite a few good points; I'm going to cover them in the order they are in my notes, which doesn't necessarily make the greatest clarity. (If only the document were public!)
Jim also finds the Grand Junction options confusing. Urges thinking about what a blank-slate design would look like; e.g., @NSRailLink would be an absolute no-brainer if we didn't have existing legacy railroad terminals. Era of roadway expansion over; must make best use of rail.
Jim talks about traffic congestion being at crisis levels, and then segues somehow (I didn't write the connection down) to displacement/gentrification and access to jobs. Looks to growth in "gateway cities", notes need for carbon action.
Aloisi: "Legacy system creates barriers; Rail Vision should break down barriers". Notes all-day, frequent, bidirectional service should be expected to induce demand in cities outside the urban core. (In the urban core, too! -GAW)
Jim asserts that eight is too many alternatives to make an informed choice about, suggests that decisionmakers need a shorter menu. (That's being very charitable to Gov. Baker, who has probably already made his mind ujp.) Emphasizes that electrification is key to all our goals.
Catherine(?) of @ABetterCity talks about priorities, emphasizes that all alternatives studied should be "aspirational", figure out where we want to go and then work backwards to identify the constraints that keep us from getting there. Emphasizes frequency again.
Continues with need for bidirectional, full-day service. (I think she's the first speaker to use or emphasize the term "bidirectional" sted "reverse commute", an important distinction esp. once you talk about inter-suburban commuting.) Need to serve "more than just workers".
But she continues with a more involved discussion of service flexibility and labor mobility: someone who is settled and happy in Framingham shouldn't be dissuaded from taking a job in Salem because of commuting agony. (Need NSRL! -GAW)
Catherine touches on electrification and ends with two of @ABetterCity's signature issues: frequent service in the inner urban core, and "fair" fares. Argues that fares should be subsidized whatever amount is necessary to induce mode shift away from cars (whether SOV or TNC).
Another "Eric" asks about what scenarios (of those under consideration) drive the most ridership. Agrees that Grand Junction service should run all the way to North Station. (If NSRL is built, you could run a full circle route! -GAW)
"Helen" talks about the connection between connectivity and ridership. Discusses how you score equity: balance between development in "gateway cities" and environmental justice in existing underserved urban-core routes (I guess Chelsea, Dorchester, Roxbury).
"Mike" from Beverly is positive on electrification. Notes specifically that Beverly has 25 grade crossings and some of them are crippling for local circulation because of long down-times when slow diesel trains are serving stations adjacent to a crossing.
Mike notes that electrification and EMUs in particular would be a huge help for Beverly by reducing acceleration time at stations. Touches on reliability, notes that many North Shore commuters have an Orange Line or Green Line transfer (or worse, two transfers).
This is a major issue for the MBTA's reliability target. A 90% reliable service means being late for work at least once every two weeks, and with a transfer to another 90% reliable service, you're suddenly late for work every single week, which is many bosses won't tolerate.
Mike also is also positive on high platforms and frequency. (I don't think there's anyone on the committee opposed to frequency; I think they all understand that the way you add capacity is to increase frequency *first*, make longer trains only when you can't have more trains.)
Still Mike: "Great cities of the world are planning, or have done, what we need to do." Notes electrification is a *necessity*. "Our GHG/climate goals are inconsistent with further investment in diesel." YASSSSS!
Mike notes that Beverly has done its part to address housing, has built many units walkable to town center and transportation, could potentially permit another 1,000 units of TOD. Takeaways: "Frequency, reliability, connectivity, electrification".
Final official speaker is @Steph_Pollack, incumbent Transportation Secretary and the ultimate decision-maker in this whole process (well, if you don't count Gov. Baker and Speaker DeLeo).
Pollack emphasizes the need for a "seamless system", notes that current setup with MBTA, RTAs, TMAs, other private operators, is unnecessarily confusing and complicated: consumers just want to be able to get where they're going, and fragmented landscape discourages mode shift.
Pollack says system needs to be "affordable and desirable": accessible to those who have few transportation options, but high quality service that people who could drive would still willingly choose. (That's 100% why I've been banging on about this all year! -GAW)
Pollack notes system needs to be accessible to first-time and infrequent users, who need to have good connections especially in gateway cities where RTA services are not planned to coordinate fares or schedules with commuter rail. Seems +ve on "bidirectional full-day service".
A bit of talk about branding and marketing, especially for RTAs. Pollack also suggests that the MBTA should not be shouldering the entire burden alone: developers and municipalities need to be at the table. (Guess she's thinking Boston Landing here, and more PPPs. -GAW)
That was the end of the round-robin segment. There was a bit more discussion around the table here, but I couldn't tell who was talking and didn't write down any of the comments. Some talk of scheduling for the next meeting, which isn't yet settled. Then the public comments.
I got up first (I was sitting closest to the front!) and echoed @JimAloisi's remarks. Specifically, if we want fast, reliable, frequent, all-day, bidirectional service, the keystone to all of these is systemwide electrification and fast, light-weight Electric Multiple Units.
Four more people got up to speak after me, but I didn't write down what they said. Meeting then adjourned.
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