State Plan Means More T Buses Operating Beyond Useful Life, Foundation Says

According to the Conservation Law Foundation, by 2021 the number of MBTA buses operating beyond their useful life would climb from 642 to 908. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
According to the Conservation Law Foundation, by 2021 the number of MBTA buses operating beyond their useful life would climb from 642 to 908. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The state's draft five-year $14.3 billion transportation capital plan lacks adequate funding for MBTA buses and fails to follow through on a bus maintenance facility for Pioneer Valley commuters, according to a transit advocate.

In public comments, the Conservation Law Foundation said the number of buses that are beyond their useful life of 12 years would increase over the next half decade under the draft plan.

As of last summer the MBTA had 1,060 buses with an average age of nine years and an average original purchase price of $395,000 per bus, according to the T.

According to the Conservation Law Foundation, by 2021 the number of buses operating beyond their useful life would climb from 642 to 908.

The foundation said the plan would take steps to mitigate the aging of the fleet, purchasing 104 new buses and overhauling 155, leaving the agency with slightly more buses beyond their useful life at the conclusion of the five-year plan.

"Treading water or even losing ground when you're already behind isn't sustainable," said Rafael Mares, vice president and director of Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice at the Conservation Law Foundation. He told the News Service, "You ask the average bus rider, they know that the buses are in bad condition."

Taking office amid a devastating winter that laid bare the T's infrastructure woes, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has emphasized repair and modernization of the existing system over service expansion and has said the $14.3 billion combined MassDOT-MBTA capital plan devotes 80 percent of its resources to those twin goals.

Creating a more modern bus fleet is a massive undertaking, and MBTA Chief Operations Officer Jeff Gonneville has been tasked with developing a complete vehicle plan that could be reflected in future iterations of the "rolling" five-year capital plan, Pollack told the News Service.

"When it comes to vehicles, the five-year [capital investment plan] makes a substantial down-payment on upgrading the fleet," Pollack said. "But given the needs and condition of all the vehicles it's not a task that can be completed in five years."

Pollack made her comments while commuting home by bicycle along the Charles River last week, accompanied by a reporter and MassDOT communications director Jacquelyn Goddard.

On Wednesday, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board plans to hear an update on capital spending, including a revised outlook for fiscal 2016.

Mares also highlighted the draft plan's lack of funding for maintenance facilities he said are sorely needed for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and the Franklin Regional Transit Authority.

The foundation said the Pioneer Valley's 100-year-old trolley barn is "functionally obsolete" and far too small to accommodate its needs.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz last month told transportation overseers that the transit authority "advanced the project assuming full state funding," and it had been included in a prior capital plan. He said the maintenance facility is a "top priority project."

Mares said about $11 million from a variety of sources had already been contributed to the Pioneer Valley project, which is "shovel ready," and would need another $71 million.

When asked about the Pioneer Valley maintenance facility, Pollack mentioned the possibility of alterations to the plan before the transportation overseers approve the final version.

Mares said the Franklin facility in Greenfield is in a similar state, but needs additional planning before construction can commence and would need about $20 million.

The foundation also critiqued Pollack for not funding the purchase of replacement Green Line trolleys and not specifying construction dollars for certain expansion projects. The group praised Pollack for funding multi-use paths and the purchase of Red and Orange line vehicles.

Mares said the capital funding in the plan is not sufficient to meet transit needs. "We have too little money. It's like this blanket that doesn't cover the whole body, and they're pulling it in one direction and then they're pointing to the part of the body that's now covered, and that sounds great, but then you gotta look at what isn't covered," Mares said.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen on Tuesday also used the blanket analogy while discussing what she said are unmet transportation and education needs and touting a proposed surtax on household income above $1 million.


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