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Discussion relating to commuter rail, light rail, and subway operations of the MBTA.

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Postby Pete » Mon Dec 06, 2004 7:48 pm

Wow, this is like the old "Point/Counterpoint" sketch.

I think harsh commentary invites, and merits, harsh criticism. That's just how it is. And I don't think any of the criticism here really steps over any lines that weren't stepped over already on Badtransit.com and elsewhere. Mr. Richards has repeatedly set the tone for the kind of dialogue he'd like to engage in, and the bar is set just about at the low level you're looking at here.

I have a question of my own. We all know your opinion of the MBTA, but how do you substantiate statements like "the USA's most inept mass-transit system"? Could you please give us some assessment of the state of transit in the United States, and offer some more detailed comparison that fleshes out this statement?

I know you keep repeating that it isn't your job to be an expert, but a statement like that should have some expertise behind it. You do claim not to be a journalist, but let's face it, I can claim ignorance too, but it's not going to perpetually keep me off the hook if I keep talking. You're a journalist, albeit an amateur one, by virtue of having created and maintained an ongoing publication, Badtransit.com, for a significant time, long enough to know what you're doing. So please, no backing out on those "I'm just the prototypical common man" excuses, ok? Didn't work for Howard Beale, either.
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Postby efin98 » Mon Dec 06, 2004 8:00 pm

Pete wrote:I have a question of my own. We all know your opinion of the MBTA, but how do you substantiate statements like "the USA's most inept mass-transit system"? Could you please give us some assessment of the state of transit in the United States, and offer some more detailed comparison that fleshes out this statement?


That's a great point. Has Mr. Richards ridden on the buses, trains, and commuter rail trains of other systems like New York, New Jersey, Washingon DC, or any other major transit system enough to make a bold statement like that? It's one thing to make an accusation, it's entirely another to make it and have the basis to back it up with real life experience.
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Postby BadTransit.com » Mon Dec 06, 2004 10:59 pm

Great questions. I agree that harsh criticism (and we have certainly engaged in that!) invites a response equally so. And I also agree that we have "set the bar" quite low. So here we go.

I've been a regular T commuter since my late teens, and I just pushed a half
century, so that gives me 30 some years. Not all these years have been full
time T transit, but I'd say more than half on average. I've been made late,
a lot, and on countless occasions wondered if I'd make it to the surface; or
suffer some distrophy from whatever odor it is that seeped into the car. I suppose that since I've survived MBTA transit so far, and have never been fired from a job because the T made me consistently late, and have not been run over by anything, or stabbed, robbed, or dragged along the railbed with my leg stuck in a door, or that I've not contracted some horrible disease picked up in an elevator, that I should therefore hold the opinion that the MBTA is just tops, operated by a fine group of Gentlemen who, although holding an inordinate number of >$100,000 per year posts, are slaving, doing everything humanly possible to see to it that the trains, buses, and other conveyances all operate - and do so "on time".

I have not been fortunate enough to enjoy other transit systems for a long
period of time, but I don't think this should disqualify someone from
complaining and bitching about something that they already know all too well.

Like the human (I think) excrement I stepped in while ascending stairs at Park
Street.

Having hung out in DC for a week at a time on a few occasions, I never saw
filth. You can (almost) eat off the floors there. Try doing a spot
inspection like that here. Granted, arresting people for eating a candy bar is way over the top, but at least they actually have a real transit police force.

Now, does this say that Bostonians are just filthy people? Maybe. But it's also human nature. We experience this right here at home. My bride likes living in disorganized mess; I appreciate clean, at least for the common spaces. So when I find our kitchen a disaster area I am less likely to care if I leave a dish on the counter top, or some food on the floor. It blends in.

I've also been to Atlanta (clean, and a model of good management); Philadelphia (not a bad commuter rail, but the former manager who was eventually kicked out was a former T hack); New York (filthy and rude, but safe and never breaks); Montreal (clean, friendly, safe, and seems to be well managed); and most of western Japan (Japan Rail, several regional trains and many local subways, trains and buses - all impeccably clean, incredibly friendly, on time, with working electronics, organized stations, adequate security presence, bicycle friendly, etc. I cannot stop heaping praise on what I experienced there over 3 weeks).

The questioners here seem to have a need to qualify those who offer criticism. If 30 years or so on the system isn't enough, I'll offer you this analog:

Take an empty vessel and label it "Commuter". Commuter pays dearly through
fares and taxes and expects safe, reliable, clean, efficiently operated, and
well-managed public transportation. In fact, this is what "Commuter" is promised to receive.

Now pour the following elements into the vessel. (Mind you, these are just a few):

- Slogans, flyers, "100 day plan of action" campaigns instead of solid,
effective security presence based on the time-proven technique called "foot patrol";

- A large billboard towering over the Southeast expressway that proclaims "SAFE-T", two days after a woman was shot on the Orange Line;

- Cleaning contractors selected based on lowest bid and who are now under fire for poor employee practices, like demanding overtime and exposing workers to chemicals without proper protection... not that this might raise a question about oversight of the contract and contractor;

- Management, not answerable or accountable to the public they are supposed
to serve, driving a system (and our State) wildly into debt with foolish and
unwanted suburban expansion projects, and another (the Silver Line) that has proven itself inefficient and unworkable, while core systems continue to break down;

- A commuter rail contract awarded to several former MBTA managers who,
under the guise of an "international consortium", managed to tackle a nice
$1.3 Billion contract, complete with a no-bid maintenance provision. Said
contractor, one of whom was audited for what seemed to be a no-show Big Dig contract (auditor could find no record of any work performed for $1500 per week salary) now faces upwards of $0.5 Million in performance fines imposed
by - of all the agencies - the MBTA. And don't get me going on what a sham shell game is played with these "fines". Meanwhile, the commuter rail system continues on in its usual semi-meltdown condition. Examining the record (you're welcome to do so on our web site) I see that the Framingham line last month suffered an astonishing number of failures for such things as "operational problems", and "equipment failure". Tell that to the boss when you're late... again.

- MBTA Police raiding the MBTA's own "money room" to bring it under control (once again), followed by news of a grand jury investigation, followed by a few firings, followed by a massive hiring spree, followed by silence on the matter of exactly what happened (how many $Millions went out the door and on whose watch).

If this isn't enough, top it off with these expressions:

"disabled train up ahead"
"there's another train directly behind this one"
"scheduling adjustment"
"mechanical difficulties"
"operational problems"
"switching problems"

These are phrases that T commuters can say (and probably do) in their sleep. When uttered, they sort of blend into the background. These are the Mantras of our MBTA, stated again and again over the many years. And if you don't accept them, and fail to sit down and shut up, they'll be followed by the pathetic excuse "Well, what do you expect. Our system is 100 years old", or the lie, "We have the lowest fares of any transit system in the nation".

So send them more money?

If licenses are to be given out for expressing opinions, fine. I think I qualify. In my opinion, as a long time commuter, and one who has keenly followed the stench of the MBTA's politic, I can state quite boldly that we do indeed have the USA's Most Inept Public Transit System. I'll stand by that statement any day. If I find a system that happens to score lower, I'll be sure to post it.

In answer to the suggestion that BadTransit is feigning naivete, I differ. I am hardly a journalist and I know a few pros well enough to also know that I don't measure up in the least. I also really know far too little about the technical side of rail. These deficiencies, coupled with my own bias (political and otherwise) probably makes for a web site effort that's not the best that it could be. That's why I opened it to public participation, hoping that others could fill in the many gaps.

I'm still just a commuter, but one who refuses to hang up the argument when the train finally rattles its way home, late once more.

Don't like the web site? Don't blame only me. I think the MBTA are themselves partly to blame. I have yet to find another quite like BadTransit. Philadelphia has "Septa Sucks", which is a similar (and better) effort, and New York has one that focuses on commuters. If there were worse systems, I'm certain we'd see similar web site efforts.
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Postby Robert Paniagua » Tue Dec 07, 2004 6:55 am

Ok folks, let's show some respect for the guest series, no flames/attacks. Thanks!

Also, since I'm the outright moderator of this Forum, I will be monitoring this thread here and if anything happens, I'll have to deal with members who cause thigs to go wrong.

Thank you for your cooperation.
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Postby Robert Paniagua » Tue Dec 07, 2004 11:06 am

All right, but I will still monitor this thread for anything going out of hand.
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Postby Pete » Tue Dec 07, 2004 12:44 pm

BadTransit.com wrote:Great questions. I agree that harsh criticism (and we have certainly engaged in that!) invites a response equally so. And I also agree that we have "set the bar" quite low. So here we go.


[1,275 words snipped]

You have a knack for answering in such broad strokes, in such overwhelming volume, that it confounds attempts to answer back. It's like filibustering.

So I guess I'll just move on, then, and ask you this -- you've already made clear, repeatedly, that you believe the MBTA is corrupt, incompetent, inept, to anthropomorphize. Let's put that issue to bed and let me ask, what's your plan? I don't know if you also claim not to be an activist -- you sure do sound like one -- but an activist that isn't inept has a plan, one that demonstrates an understanding of the forces at work and one that has attainable concrete goals along a path to a solution.

What's your plan? Sketch it out for us, and please, for the sake of productive discussion, try to be succinct.
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Postby BadTransit.com » Tue Dec 07, 2004 2:10 pm

The situation is quite clear (IMHO) and requires the following "Plan of Action"

1. Repeal the Pacheco Law.
The Pacheco law is designed to protect powerful union interests at the expense of the public. Unions are necessary, and should be made even stronger within the T's workforce to counter all that workers have to deal with, but the inability to effectively manage services is a noose around the neck. A new law, one that further protects workers and assures them protection against harassment, is needed in its place.

2. Perform a management "flush out". This means eliminating patronage positions and the various "perks" provided. Managers must, like in any business, perform or they're out. This will require a replacement of the entire top management structure to effect these changes, particularly the fiscal managers. If the MBTA were a true private corporation, the shareholders would have fired the entire management long ago.

3. Re-charter the MBTA as a public agency, not an "Authority".
The "Authority" structure allows the MBTA to play with public money while hiding behind a shield of semi-corporate status. With a "Board of Directors" and a "Chairman", the MBTA can act as if it has the interests of its shareholders (us) in mind, but spend with little public oversight.

The new structure would place the MBTA's management in the hands of seasoned professionals, not the politically-connected. Their mandate would be severe:

- bring the system into compliance with all safety, health, employee, and operational laws;
- review all current contracts for compliance and performance. Those that do not measure up should be fired and replaced with those willing to earn their way;
- re-structure the MBTA Police such that it is no longer managed by the MBTA, but operates as an agency of the Department of Public Safety. The MBTA will no longer be allowed to use its police force as a political power tool, nor use it to investigate its own potential misdeeds. A severe conflict of interests exists and must be stopped;
- bring the MBTA into fiscal health.
Although the MBTA, when challenged, claims that despite all the debt, everything is fine, I would probably not be standing alone suggesting that bondholders and potential bond buyers might view the agency with some concern. Restoring the trust of its investors is vital, and so too is shifting the focus to the true investors - the citizens of our state. We are the ones who fund this system and we deserve a lot better.

Bringing the T into financial sanity will require abandoning in place the Greenbush expansion project (minus damage restoration) and any work for the Fall River project. The Silver Line will be left as is with no further expansion work. Restoration of the Arborway and other surface trolley lines that were promised will be performed instead. The new management will enter into discussions with those concerned with Big Dig mitigation, to the end that the MBTA focuses on becoming a responsible environmental neighbor in all of its operations.

The public will have to bear the burden which will come in the form of realistic costs of service as the MBTA will have less tie-in to the public revenue stream. This must first be earned through a dramatic shift in performance that the public takes notice of. Winning public confidence is an important step. The MBTA will be required to compete in the open marketplace for customers, rather than being the arbiter of funds disbursement to other regional and local transit bodies that rely partly on state aid. Indeed, this power will be removed, and given to an impartial bureau within the Department of Transportation.

The state will provide fare adjustments to those who need it through a seperately-managed system funded by taxpayers.

4. A longstanding complaint is that the MBTA, and other state transit agencies, suffer from lack of coordination. This cannot be solved by another committee (recently formed in the House), but through a top-level leadership effort (Governonr, where are you?). Agency heads, particularly in the new structure the MBTA's, will be required to belly up to the meeting table, communicate with other agencies, and work together towards a more efficient transit plan that takes in the long term needs.

5. The mere existence of the MBTA's "Office of Diversity and Civil Rights" proclaims that these elements are missing in the T's employee and contracting practices. A new tact, one that promotes the most qualified, and is blind to race, creed or sex, should be implimented.

6. Clean up the entire system. This means actually performing maintenance during maintenance hours, particularly station and train cleaning. Banning food, as in Washington, DC, will be an important step that can come once the public begins to notice the difference.

No longer will MBTA facilities be used as homeless shelters. The new transit police agency, applying the time-honored technique of foot patrol, will assist those who need help, redirecting them to appropriate shelters or aid.

Stations will eventually be re-planned such that there is consistency in markings, with less focus on artwork and more on cleanliness and efficiency. MBTA facilities, although fully public, are not to be made into malls where commuters hang out. The designs should encourage swift movement.

Vigorously enforce the ban on smoking by both MBTA employees and customers.

7. Review service plans and agressively seek public participation
If it means knocking on doors, do it. Far too often the public has learned about important MBTA service changes after the fact. Service needs to be severely reviewed and fashioned to be as efficient as possible. It will be necessary to keep certain "losers" which can be balanced out by other "winners" (as in revenue).

8. Open the books.
The MBTA needs to come out of the shadows and operate in a fully open, accessible, and above-board manner. This means that citizens should no longer have to fight for public records requests, and that when complaints are made these are taken seriously and dealt with effectively. Often, the T ignores issues until they rise to the top and boil over.

9. Set the clocks
All timekeeping on the MBTA should be coordinated and schedules should be adhered to precisely. This should be at the top of the list for performance at all levels. The MBTA is, first, delivering a reliable, safe, clean and efficient transit service. No longer will it take 30 minutes to consider a train "late".

10. Perform real maintenance; make accountable purchase decisions; build things to last.
The T has a rather self-fulfilling arrangement when it comes to maintenance and purchases. The quicker something fails, the greater assurance that more personnel will be needed to keep things running; and the better the pot of gold for potential contractors. Under a well-managed system, this scheme will be untenable.


11. Improve communications between passengers and the MBTA.

From electronic signs that dont work, or are inaccurate, to the broken PA systems and the T's web site and printed material, the Agency excells in non-communication. No longer will the MBTA speak to passengers in train lingo: use of terms like "Annulled", and "Diversion of Service" will be banned.

Witnessing the MBTAs internet and printed material leaves the distinct impression of being transported back to grammar school. Printed material is sometimes convoluted and usually rife with spelling and grammatical errors. Frankly, it should be an embarrassment.

Public relations must write its notices and press releases in plain English. No amount of fancy words and double talk will make the passenger understand a simple notice about the activities of the MBTA. At times, this is what separates the seasoned rider (who probably would have a fair to excellent knowledge of the system) from the tourist (who might not know the system, or might be a foreign tourist with limited English). If its too difficult to read a press release or a service change, then it will be too difficult for the passenger to understand why their service is/isnt running.

These are just a few of our ideas (credit to Brian Colby for some of them).

We have a very clear idea what the issues are, the mountains that have to be moved, and the solution. Doing this will require a public uprising and legislative action. It's needed. Otherwise, we will contine on with the same old.
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Postby Pete » Tue Dec 07, 2004 3:15 pm

I don't think I've heard anyone at the T claim everything was fine. On the contrary, I've heard officials state publicly that nothing is fine, and that this is directly attributable to the debt burden.

Since you've outlined worthy goals but no steps toward attaining them short of a popular revolt, I don't think at the rate you're going that you're going to get close to abandoning the Greenbush project before it's done. Fall River/New Bedford has the advantage of running through many more legislative districts than most projects, many of whose residents could hardly care less whether urban MBTA buses run at all, so long as they get their train.

What I'm saying is, you've outlined goals, not steps toward achieving them. How do you propose to make it happen?
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Postby BadTransit.com » Tue Dec 07, 2004 3:55 pm

Pete wrote:I don't think I've heard anyone at the T claim everything was fine. On the contrary, I've heard officials state publicly that nothing is fine, and that this is directly attributable to the debt burden.

But things before the "debt burden" weren't all that fine either. And how did we get to this place, if not by errors of management? The MBTA was warned, twice, that it could not under the sinking economy expand and maintain at the same time. Yet they plodded ahead, boldly, to the inclusion of fare and fee increases ("etched in stone" before the public hearings began). The warning signs were all in place early in 2000. The current T management either ignored them, or perhaps thought that the economy wouldn't touch them. Somebody like a real Governor ought to go down to the General Offices and tap a few of these folks on the shoulder and wish them well in their future career.

Since you've outlined worthy goals but no steps toward attaining them short of a popular revolt

I think the changes that are required and at the level that we are proposing would indeed require a massive public push.

I don't think at the rate you're going that you're going to get close to abandoning the Greenbush project before it's done.

The MBTA fails to see the writing on the wall. Those in opposition will continue to be so until the MBTA relents. The resulting fights will continue to be costly. BinLaden is useful to Bush, so the chase is off. Similarly, those who oppose Greenbush provide the MBTA with a bounty of excuses why the project is late and over-budget. If not for this excuse, we'd hear others.

What I'm saying is, you've outlined goals, not steps toward achieving them. How do you propose to make it happen?


I was hoping that BadTransit might become the rallying point for commuters who are dissatisfied and have been frustrated with other options. An organization of commuters with an achievable goal who can gain credibility and recognition would have instant solidarity with, I bet, a hundred thousand or more MBTA commuters. This would be a public force that could not be brushed aside.

The action that's needed ultimately happens from the top (the Governor and other political servants), but its a strong and well organized group of commuters who can force the change that's needed.

I don't consider myself much of an "activist" and I have not had much time or energy to help build things to the level that I think is needed. We planted a seed, but our choice of soil and nutrient may be quite off. In short, I'd like to make it happen, but need a lot of help to get there.
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Postby efin98 » Tue Dec 07, 2004 4:30 pm

BadTransit.com wrote:I don't consider myself much of an "activist" and I have not had much time or energy to help build things to the level that I think is needed. We planted a seed, but our choice of soil and nutrient may be quite off. In short, I'd like to make it happen, but need a lot of help to get there.


That spells it out in plain english: you have no intention of doing anything, all you want to do is cry and complain about things. You are all talk and no action, bloviation and no substance to stand behind.

Save your long winded excuses. You said so yourself that you are not an activist. All you are is an arrogent fool mouthing off about problems but refusing to do anything about them. You are no better than any other person who just sits back watching a crime happening and won't call the police.
efin98
 

Postby BadTransit.com » Tue Dec 07, 2004 4:37 pm

Thanks very much for your input.

Care to join us and help?
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Postby efin98 » Tue Dec 07, 2004 4:49 pm

BadTransit.com wrote:Thanks very much for your input.

Care to join us and help?


Help you? Not on your life. I take action when I see something that I KNOW is not right or just, unlike you. I've emailed before and complained to those who can actually do something, not post it online where nothing WILL happen.

It's one thing to act like a tough guy online, it's another to actually bother to do something. Your site is all talk, YOU have to do the action. If your site is as popular as you claim it to be AND you actually follow up and try to make a difference you WILL get your way. The T can't avoid it. Nothing scares the crud out of an authority like bad press and action by pissed off folks like you. Just do something.
efin98
 

Postby CS » Tue Dec 07, 2004 11:24 pm

Are you suggesting that there the other side just be quiet? That they can't give their view? How do you know they haven't taken "action"?
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Postby efin98 » Wed Dec 08, 2004 12:04 am

CS wrote:Are you suggesting that there the other side just be quiet?


I said nothing of the sort. Reread exactly what was said and you will see that he stated he does not take action. I stated he is all talk but no substance.

That they can't give their view?


They can give their view all they want but can't claim they are trying to make a difference when clearly they have no intent of doing that. They talk big but refuse to actually do anything to improve. All talk, no substance.

How do you know they haven't taken "action"?


He said so himself that they have not done so.
efin98
 

Postby BadTransit.com » Wed Dec 08, 2004 12:51 am

It's actually very simple, so let me clear up any confusion.

When we started out I had some free time, and loads of energy and good intention.

As time marched on we had twins.

Now I have very little time, not quite as much energy, and still good intention - plus some experience and an evolved perspective on the issues.

Note, I said that I have very little time. Also note that I have asked for assistance.

There are just a few volunteers that help in keeping BadTransit on the air. I don't see how lack of time translates to the "no action" claim made here. Good intent and sincerity remain.

Speaking of sincerity we've been put under considerable pressure through certain channels to shut down the web site, but have kept it operating simply because we truly believe in our message. Not blowing our horn here, but this is known as being courageous.

Therefore I reject the argument presented that we are "all talk and no action". Far from it.

There has been a considerable amount of discussion but most of it seems to be on form, and the messenger, with little argument about the message itself. Left out of these discussions are the plight of MBTA commuters. However, if everyone agrees that things are just peachy for your average pole-hanger, and that The Management of the T is tops, how about the disabled? A second lawsuit against the MBTA for ADA non-compliance and continued reluctance to effectively address the systems shortcomings has been filed. The first one a few years back ended up nowhere. A recent public hearing (to the T's credit in that it was even held) laid bare the enormous inequities that make our system nearly inaccessible to many commuters who are not among those blessed with good legs, vision, and hearing.

Or we can pick other things, like environmental compliance. Maybe folks would like to chat about the over $1 Million fine (a record) that the T had to pay the EPA (meaning tax and farepayers had to pay the EPA) because they failed to manage bus idling and waste water disposal. The latter is something that the EPA gets particularly cranky about. Dumping oil into storm drains is a "no-no"

Or again, perhaps folks here think that the T is one step away from being a card carrying Sierra Club member, despite the fact that they keep the lights burning - even outside - on the sunniest of days. Well, I wouldn't pass that idea by the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, who once referred to the MBTA as having the worst record of environmental compliance of any agency.

Having observed them for a long time, I'd add this postscript: "Ever."

However, since the issues that BadTransit raises are of no concern to some folks (as stated previously) then why continue the debate?

Or, perhaps there is an inkling of truth to the message of BadTransit that resonates, but is difficult to admit?
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