Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Who should pay to plow DCR paths? How about the DCR?

Once again, Twitter has reminded us about the inequities of transportation funding: for the severalth year in a row, New Balance is paying to plow the Charles River esplanade paths along the river in Boston. While there's nothing wrong with this per se—and it may be marketing New Balance is happy to pay for—it shows where our priorities lie. The DCR—which stands for Department of Conservation and Recreation, if you've forgotten—has no problem finding the money to plow the roadways which provide transportation along the Esplanade. But when it comes to the pedestrian and cycling paths, they cry poor and make someone else come up with the money.

This is similar to the reaction over the rebuilding of Greenough Boulevard along the river. Everyone was over the moon that the Solomon Foundation had come up with the money to repurpose the roadway from four lanes to two, and to fix an entirely substandard portion of the path there. Yet no one bothered to ask: why do we need a private foundation to fund work the DCR should be doing anyway? The DCR didn't get a foundation to pay for the guardrail replacement along Storrow Drive, nor did they go looking for a handout from Ford, GM or Toyota. There was a safety issue, and they paid to fix it. They're happy to do that for roadways, but cry poor when it comes to paying for non-motorized use.

This page has also pointed out that the DCR could recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by monetizing the parking along Memorial Drive near Kendall Square, yet this resource sits fallow. Perhaps next year we could take some of this money to clear the sidewalks, and New Balance could make a donation instead to buy running shoes for students in Boston Public Schools. That would be a more appropriate use of their funds.

Otherwise, I'll be heartened when I see a Tweet that the DCR announces that, thanks to donations from Ford Motor Company, they'll be clearing snow off of Storrow and Memorial Drives during the winter, rather than just closing them down whenever snow falls. I expect I'll be waiting a while for that.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The T is sort of fixing East-West (!)

Back in September, some of the #10PeopleOnTwitter pointed out that there was something amiss with the T's end-of-service procedure (called "East-West", because it's when the trains leave Park to the east and the west). What should be a relatively quick process was frequently taking more than half an hour. Looking in to the schedule, I realized it was because a certain train from Heath had a guaranteed connection at Park, and was scheduled 20 minutes after the other trains, every train—and every downstream bus—was delayed.

So I wrote a blog post, with some help from a variety of people on Twitter (with screen grabs, coding and the like), put some numbers to it, and let it rip. Jim Aloisi wrote about it, the T took issue with the numbers, Jim shot back at them, and the issue was left unresolved: for the most part, it seemed like the T was uninterested in something which would both save them money and create a better experience for their passengers. No one reached out to us (other than to yell on the Internet at Jim) and it was left at the T saying "nothing to see here; this isn't a problem."

And yet … this week, the Fiscal Management Control Board announced that, as of the new schedule rating at the end of the month, the 12:47 car from Heath Street will no longer have a guaranteed connection at Park; instead, the 12:32 car will. This should mean that the E train will no longer be guaranteed to hold up the process (other lines still might, of course). While us Twitter folk certainly wouldn't mind the recognition, I think we're all glad that the T is going to make this change. So, this is kind of a big deal. Yes, we will be monitoring it after the first of the year to see how the changes play out.

(My ask: that the T have some sort of petition system for this. If you write a petition, and you get x number of people to sign on, they at least give you a response. There are a lot of things that riders may see that management does not. My other ask: take the savings from this, and run late night service.)

Update 1/21/17: based on preliminary data, the average delay experienced by trains and buses has fallen by an average of 12 minutes over the first 19 days of the new schedule. To put it another way, from April to December of 2016, the last trains left Park Street before 1:10 a.m. 6% of the time; since then, the last trains have left before 1:10 84% of the time. A further data analysis will follow.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Track 61 High Speed Line (and new trains for Mattapan)

The Mattapan Line deserves new rolling stock, but buses make no sense. It's not that the PCCs which run the line are unreliable—they're plenty reliable—but parts are hard to come by (some are custom made by a museum in Maine) and the fleet is a throwback to the 1940s, making the 1969-era Red Line cars look young by comparison. New, modern streetcars could each carry nearly double what a PCC does with more low-floor doors for far more efficient boarding. By spreading weight across three trucks (sets of wheels) instead of two, the whole "the bridges won't support larger vehicles" straw man. (PCC: 18,000-21,000 lbs/truck, plus air conditioning units, Seattle streetcar: 22,000 lbs/truck.) The bridges likely need some work anyway, and a concrete deck to support buses weighs a heck of a lot more than ballast and track (buses need a lot of concrete). And the T is good at quickly replacing old bridges. So maybe you just replace the bridges.

For example, the Seattle streetcars cost on the order of $3.2 million each, and Mattapan would likely need five streetcars, and two spares, to run service, so about $22 million overall. Streetcars are spec'ed to last 30-40 years, so it's a $500,000 investment per year. 10 buses, at $750,000 per bus, would cost $7.5 million, but only last 12 years, so the capital cost would be about the same (30 buses over 36 years = $22.5 million, slightly less given a discount rate, but at least right now, money is cheap). And the cost to convert the corridor to bus transit—given BRT costs of $10-$50 million per mile—the cost of vehicles would be dwarfed by the cost of concrete. The answer for Mattapan is easy: just buy modern streetcars for the Mattapan High Speed Line.

But then what do you do with the PCCs? They're still sort of useful transit vehicles, and it's not hard to look at San Francisco to see where PCCs operate as both transit vehicles and as transit and as a rolling museum (and tourist attraction). We won't run PCCs in mixed traffic on the Green Line any time soon (or probably ever), but there is somewhere that the fleet could provide a useful transit connection and operate in a tourist-friendly location: between Andrew Square and the Convention Center.

Why this route? While older streetcars could conceivably run on surface lines (and did as recently as the late 1990s) doing so with any regularity would have liability and accessibility concerns, and decrease the capacity of the Boylston-Tremont subway dramatically, where a slot using a 45-foot PCC is far less efficient than one with a two- or threee-car LRV. It would also require pantograph conversion. San Francisco gets around this by running the PCCs on the surface of Market Street with the light rail in the tunnel below (which was built in 1982, only 85 years after the Green Line went underground in Boston). Basically, in Boston, the current light-rail lines are out.

So that leaves a purpose-built line. Nearly every rail right-of-way in Boston is used for rail service, or has been converted to a multi-use pathway. (For instance, Minneapolis runs historic streetcars on an old section of streetcar right-of-way, but other than a short portion of the Fells, we don't have that.) With narrow streets, we can't easily throw in something Kenosha-style. But there is one stretch of railroad track in Boston which sits unused: the so-called Track 61 in South Boston.

The state currently owns Track 61, but it hasn't been used for freight service in decades (and other than vague platitudes, there are no plans to do so any time soon.) There have been calls to run DMU service on Track 61, but this is such a risible plan—crossing the Northeast Corridor and Old Colony lines at-grade, at rush hour, in a roundabout route—that it will never happen, even if the T were to acquire the appropriate rolling stock. Recently the City of Boston has proposed using it for a split terminal from the Fairmount Line, which is more feasible, but still requires a diamond crossing of the Old Colony Line, and the desire line of the Fairmount Line almost certainly aims downtown (and where there is a Red Line transfer), not at the Seaport. If freight were ever to run across the line, streetcars would not preclude future freight use at off hours (which is done in several other corridors) if shipping traffic required a daily freight movement on the line.

The route of Track 61 and an extension to Andrew in yellow.
It's the route of Track 61 which is most intriguing, as it would make a last-mile connection between the Red Line and the Seaport, which currently requires a ride on two over-capacity transit lines (the Red Line to South Station and the Silver Line to the Seaport). For commuters from the south going to the Seaport, a transfer at Andrew would save five minutes of commute time, and (more importantly) it would pull some demand off of the Silver Line at rush hour, when buses run every minute-or-so at crush capacity and leave passengers on the platform. With some minor (seven figure) improvements (stations, overhead, a couple of interlockings), there is an unused rail corridor with mostly-existing rail on which the PCCs (or new rolling stock) could be run in relatively short order.

The key would be to find both funding and possibly a non-MBTA operator. (Power could be acquired from the adjacent MBTA facilities, but it could be run by a different organization. Let's start with funding: there are mechanisms in place. Capital costs could come from a TIGER-type grant, and operating costs from a transportation management association or perhaps from the Mass Convention Center Authority or even MassPort, especially since they have hundreds of millions of dollars for parking garages in the area (maybe, uh, we shouldn't build that parking garage, wait, don't call it that).

Amazing! Trams/streetcars can have level boarding.
(Minneapolis-Saint Paul "Metro")
As for the rolling stock: The current PCCs are inaccessible, but are made accessible with high-platforms along the Fairmount Line. This could be replicated along Track 61, especially since the stations would be built from scratch and fewer in number. (In theory: Andrew, Broadway, Convention Center, Black Falcon.) More likely would be low-platform modern trams (and by modern, I mean "flush with the platform") to run on the line with PCCs used for supplemental service (weekends, middays, etc). It might be possible to strike a deal with the Seashore Trolley Museum to both use the Seashore-owned 5734 (which likely needs some rehab but ran within the past 20 years and has been stored underground at Boylston) and perhaps relocating some other MBTA equipment from there for an outpost of the Maine facility: a small, San Francisco-style rolling museum showing the transit history of the oldest subway in the country.

DMUs and commuter rail to the Seaport is a round-peg-square-hole issue. The scale is not really appropriate (especially if it is diesel, with more local particulate emissions in a high-density residential community) and the routing certainly isn't. (There's also the matter of significant single-track, which is easier to navigate with light rail equipment.) Moreover, with the Red Line adjacent at one end and the Silver Line at the other, it might be possible to simply tie in traction power from each end without building any new facilities, so the power costs would be minimized (overhead is cheap, substations are expensive). Track 61 shouldn't be let to sit and fester for the next 25 years. But if we do something with it, let's do something sensible.