(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 411: Transit Matters in Boston

December 8, 2022

This week we’re joined by Jarred Johnson, Executive Director of TransitMatters in Boston. Jarred talks about making the case for the MBTA, the Orange Line shutdown, regional rail and electrification, overhead wires versus batteries, and fare policy.

You can listen to this episode at Streetsblog USA or at our Libsyn hosting site.

Below is a full unedited transcript:

Jeff Wood (1m 54s):
Jarred Johnson, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

Jarred Johnson (1m 56s):
Thanks for having me.

Jeff Wood (1m 58s):
Well, before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Jarred Johnson (2m 1s):
Yeah, so Jared Johnson, I grew up in Oklahoma City, so not exactly the world’s most transit reliant city, but actually did rely on the bus for a year when I was in my first year of high school, but in any case, grew up in Oklahoma City, worked in political campaigns for a while. Actually started first listening to the overhead wire when I was ironically driving up and down the freeway in Houston, Texas. Oh, working on the 2014 governor’s race. And after one more campaign, I finally decided to, you know, to hang it up and to do something different. And so moved to Boston to do AmeriCorps in the community development space, which then led to doing community engagement work at a community development corporation or a nonprofit housing builder in Dorchester.

Jarred Johnson (2m 49s):
And from that I moved over to the real estate team there. And this whole time since I’d moved to Boston, pretty much I’d been engaged with Transit Matters first, listening to the podcast and coming to some of the events and then eventually joining the board. And so in 2019 we were able to get a grant and sort of, you know, go from being just a, a, you know, small volunteer only organization to now having staff. And since that time we’ve grown and now we’re up to six people.

Jeff Wood (3m 19s):
Wow. So what was the first thing that got you like involved in transportation policy that you were like, oh my gosh, this is what I am interested in doing? It could be when you’re a kid, even like you rode the train and you’re like, this is awesome,

Jarred Johnson (3m 29s):
You know? Oh yeah. You know, it was interesting. That really wasn’t too much of the experience there. I did, I took my first train trip, I think when we were maybe 10 or 11. We took the Heartland Flyer just down to Gainesville, Texas. But no, I think it really crystallized my junior year of college. I went to a student government conference in dc The conference was forgettable, but, but we stayed in Bethesda, stayed in Bethesda, Maryland, which, you know, for folks who don’t know, it’s about eight or nine miles outside of the downtown, the heart of dc. But I remember going there and just being amazed at the, like, the vibrancy in the street and buildings that were, most of them were taller than the buildings in Oklahoma City.

Jarred Johnson (4m 11s):
And you know, I, I had just started paying attention to development in Oklahoma City because it was really going through a renaissance with the MBA team and with all these major investments and our, our sales tax and the private investment was finally kind of starting to build onto that public investment. So I had, you know, I was looking at these things through that lens already. And so when I got there, I was just like, why is this city, which is a sixth the size of Oklahoma City, why does their downtown feel more vibrant than ours in some places? And it started looking it up and it was because of the metro, and it was because of this, you know, transit oriented development strategy. And so that’s really kind of the lens that I come at it through is less so about the trains, although I definitely have morphed into a train and bus geek.

Jarred Johnson (4m 52s):
But to me it really is about building those places that we, we love. I always think about how Americans, especially before the pandemic, spent billions of dollars to go to Florence, to go to Disney World, to go to New York City in Times Square, to go to these places that are walkable and vibrant and you know, where the car is deemphasized. And it’s like we could have that everywhere if we just build, build the transit. I mean, Amex is owning laws and a bunch of other things, but certainly the transit is of Cornerstone.

Jeff Wood (5m 21s):
Yeah, for sure. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about what you’ve been up to. And it’s been busy in Boston lately. It feels like quite even sitting in San Francisco, I’m like, wow, there’s a lot going on in Boston

Jarred Johnson (5m 33s):
For better or worse,

Jeff Wood (5m 34s):
What are you all up to as transit advocates and what’s on the top of your mind right now?

Jarred Johnson (5m 39s):
Yeah, I mean, I think the thing that’s on the top of our mind is really, you know, making the case for the N bta. The n BT has had a rough, I mean, few years, but certainly this year things have really come to a head with increased federal oversight of the T because of a number of safety issues. And, you know, we stress the people that the t t is safe and it’s still, you know, significantly safer than driving and all these other things. But that job has made a lot harder when people are jumping out of train windows because the vehicle is caught on fire. So we’re having that conversation about, you know, how do we help restore confidence in the agency? You know, we’re people that we criticize the tee often and sometimes very harshly, and they deserve it. But there are so many people at Thet from the frontline workers to the people in the planning departments who are really passionate and they’re good people.

Jarred Johnson (6m 26s):
And at the end of the day, no matter how much I criticize the system, that’s what I rely on. I, I love thet and I love what it does for our city and our region. And so I, you know, I wanna figure out how do we make, how do we make the system stronger? But one of the key things that we’re working on is how do we do that in a way that is equitable in respects that some people can’t just work from home while we’re fixing the system? And so those are the two biggest things. And you know, we’re gonna have a new governor in, gosh, a matter of days at this point in the November election. And so I think we’re really focused on how do we keep transportation and particularly transit. How do we keep this a, a key issue for this incoming administration and how do we get them to, you know, take some easy wins up front.

Jarred Johnson (7m 10s):
We’ve, we’ve got some of those, you know, low income fairs, cutting commuter fairs, some different things like that. You know, how do we get them to take the small wins and keep engaged, but also to make the hard decisions and to find, find the funding to really address the safety issues, the maintenance issues. And you know, one of the things that people and agencies across the country are feeling this operator crunch, which, you know, I, I think is solvable, but it’s gonna take money and effort and attention.

Jeff Wood (7m 37s):
Do people have an idea of like, is there a strong favorite for the next governor? Yes.

Jarred Johnson (7m 41s):
Yeah, yeah. The Democrat is leading by about 25 points, which people would be surprised. Massachusetts has only had one democratic governor in the last 30 years. So

Jeff Wood (7m 51s):
Cause that was Deval Patrick?

Jarred Johnson (7m 52s):
Devon Patrick, yes, yes. Who actually did really like transit and did some good things. Some things didn’t get all the way finished. You know, it’s a question about whether or not ordering those cars from Chinese railroad company was the best decision. But nonetheless, here we are,

Jeff Wood (8m 7s):
You know, in New York the governor controls the mta, who, who’s in charge of the T? The governor.

Jarred Johnson (8m 11s):
The governor, yeah. We have the worst of all worlds. We have a regional transit system that only serves, you know, half of the state. It is the half of the state with 80% of the population and sizable amount of the gdp. But you know, you have elected officials in the other half of the state that are, you know, understandably annoyed at having to fund the T. But yeah, so you have a regional system that is funded statewide and the general manager is appointed by the BT a board, which is then appointed by the governor.

Jeff Wood (8m 39s):
Yeah, there’s another election, I mean, at ballot measure coming up in Massachusetts as well. And it seems like if it passes, it might be good. The Fair Share Amendment. What’s that? And and what do you hope it could do if it does pass?

Jarred Johnson (8m 50s):
Yeah, so the Fair Share amendment would be a marginal tax on millionaire. So it’s been been called the Millionaires tax. So, you know, I believe the first million is exempted, but if you have a 1.5 million home, then you will pay this increased tax on that 0.5. And so, you know, I think, again, one of the things that people might be, you know, surprised to learn about Massachusetts is, is that we don’t have a graduated income tax. It’s a flat tax. And there’s been a number of referendums to try to change that and, and they’ve all been not successful. But I think this one, by just sort of more narrowly targeting, it looks like it could be successful. So it’ll add a pretty significant amount of money. The ballot measure is really focused on two key areas, education and transportation.

Jarred Johnson (9m 30s):
And I think, you know, one of the things that we are, we’re having the conversation now about this, what does, what does transportation mean? You know, what’s the right funding allocation for both of those two priorities? And so, you know, I think really trying to fight to get as much of that money for public transit in particular, that particular part of transportation is really gonna be, I think a key thing. And the other thing that’s important to realize is that the voters can’t actually obligate money. So, you know, it will be binding, this tax will be added, but only the legislature can actually direct and sort of, you know, lockbox funds. So that’ll be another fun adventure next year is when the legislation that codifies this referendum is created,

Jeff Wood (10m 9s):
Could they just say, no, we’re not gonna do the will of the voters? They

Jarred Johnson (10m 13s):
Could, it’s, I think it’s highly unlikely a number of them have endorsed it. So this one came onto the ballot. I believe there’s two ways, you know, you can get a bunch of signatures, but you can also have the legislature pass it and it’s gotta be passed in two consecutive sessions. And so this was done that way. So you know, there’s enough people in the State House who care about it. And yeah, I think it would be very politically un palatable to just do a 180.

Jeff Wood (10m 35s):
Another big issue recently was the orange line shutdown, and it got a lot of attention. And you all were paying really close attention to the aftermath as well. What did you see after the shutdown was announced to be over?

Jarred Johnson (10m 47s):
So we saw, you know, continued slow zones on some of the slow zones that were identified before, which was to be expected. You know, they takes a little while for them to run the trains fully loaded across newly laid track or newly balanced to track in order to settle things. But we noticed there were some new slow zones that had popped up that were not slow zones before the pandemic. And so, yeah, that issue, and even after the week was done, some of the slow zones were lifted, but some of the existing slow zones that we knew about before the shutdown, those were not lifted. And these new sections had not been lifted. And so you had a situation where three weeks after the, the shutdown, the train was slower than, than it was before the shutdown.

Jarred Johnson (11m 30s):
And so this was something that was really, it was really frustrating because, you know, there was another way to do this work on the orange line that didn’t involve inconveniencing 125,000 people. And so to do that and to not be honest about the work that was done, or to not be able to deliver on the faster ride that was promised is kind of in a slap in the face to the rider. So, but I think it really illustrates what I said, you know, at the beginning of this, which is that we have got to fix our system. And yes, there’s gonna be some tough work that has to come out of that, but a, you know, the agency has to be transparent about what’s happening. They have to back up the tough talk and that something as extreme as a total shutdown should be the absolute last resort.

Jarred Johnson (12m 14s):
And then you better stick the landing.

Jeff Wood (12m 15s):
Exactly. For folks that might not be familiar though, like why did they have to shut the orange line down in the first place? Like what was the years back reason that this all happened? I know that we could talk the whole time about this, but in, in a smaller kind of

Jarred Johnson (12m 31s):
Clips,

Jeff Wood (12m 31s):
Notes ish way,

Jarred Johnson (12m 32s):
I’m gonna have to be very vague, so I don’t get in in trouble here. I have my thoughts and my, my ideas about why they did it, but it was never actually clearly stated. Huh. You know, I mean the work needed to be done in terms of addressing the slow zones. That was very clear. Replacing some old rail maintenance, addressing some track. Yeah. It was just long overdue maintenance. I think the real question is, is why did it need to be a month and why? And now it’s only three weeks ahead of time. Why did it need to be a whole month of shutdown? I think that is the question that is really up in there. And that we haven’t really had a clear excuse. Theta has said, don’t look at us. We, we did not, we did not say that this was the way that they needed to do it. So the FDA is not the excuse here.

Jarred Johnson (13m 14s):
I think one can look at polling data, one can look at a lot of coverage in the news about the T and draw your own conclusions about, you know, PR and those sort of things.

Jeff Wood (13m 26s):
Why would folks say that Theta might have been the cause of something like this?

Jarred Johnson (13m 31s):
So one of the problems is that the FTA has an agency that only the most ardent of transit nerds know about. And even, even some of them probably don’t know it. So

Jeff Wood (13m 39s):
The Federal Transit Administration Exactly

Jarred Johnson (13m 41s):
Right.

Jeff Wood (13m 41s):
Acronym we’re

Jarred Johnson (13m 42s):
Even, we’re even using the acronyms.

Jeff Wood (13m 44s):
Absolutely.

Jarred Johnson (13m 45s):
And so, you know, there was a lot of misunderstanding about what Theta was gonna do. There were people who thought that the FDA was gonna take the system over. I even thought that for a little bit because there’s some misconceptions about what happened in dc which is the only other time that the agency has done a closer federal audit and has, has taken over safety oversight for an agency. But people, you know, misunderstood that taking over safety oversight to me taking over the organization. And you know, one that didn’t happen. And two, the FTA already had a more extensive say in wada, the Washington Metro, the people who run Metro Bus and run the DC Metro, they already had a greater authority in that because it’s partly in the federal capital.

Jarred Johnson (14m 25s):
So you had that issue. And then I also later on found out that some of the really extreme service cutbacks and the, the really aggressive maintenance schedule that also sideline whole parts of their system, that that was not theta either. That was, you know, the former general manager who’s now left. But I think that was why people sort of immediately thought, oh, well, okay, well Theta’s here, they’re, they’re taking over. They’re, you know, they really shame the t this must have been there they’re doing,

Jeff Wood (14m 51s):
Huh. Tell me a little bit more about the transit tracker tool. Cause I think that there’s been some really good reporting locally about the shutdown at the aftermath and how like your organization has kind of helped bring a little bit of transparency.

Jarred Johnson (15m 4s):
Yeah, so we have a really, really incredible team of volunteers. We call them TM Labs, trans Matters Labs team. And they’ve started creating some really incredible data visualizations. And I think they started about, oh, a little over two years ago. And I think sort of the overall theme that we wanted to try to do, and it’s really become apparent with the slow zone tracker, is, you know, we wanted to provide data tools that could validate people’s experience, right? Because, you know, you’ll be on the train and you’ll think, gosh, this section is considerably slower than it was last week. But, you know, without having access to the data, you know, cause you don’t know how to do a API plugin, yada yada, I don’t even know how to do that.

Jarred Johnson (15m 46s):
And because it’s not presented in a way that is readable, you know, you don’t have that. And so with the slow zone tracker, which, you know, we launched it this summer, some folks started picking up on it, but it really came to the public consciousness during this orange line thing because it allowed people to screenshot and share on Twitter look at like, my trip is taking this much longer and, and I’m looking at these new slow zones that it popped up. What’s, what’s going on? This is a matching what the T is showing. And so that’s just been really exciting to see these tools used and to see our sort of, our use cases validated. You know, sometimes people think that data or technology is the ends and you know, I don’t agree with that. I think it’s the means, and I think this is a perfect example of that, that this isn’t solving anything in and of itself, but it’s illuminating things and it’s validating people’s experience and it’s giving people, even Senator Marky, you know, use the train tracker during, during a Senate hearing to ask, you know, the general manager, what’s up?

Jarred Johnson (16m 42s):
Why is this time slower than it was before the shutdown when you said it was clearly not going to be? Huh?

Jeff Wood (16m 47s):
Josh Fairchild, who’s a trans matter president was on the Monday show about a year ago. And we talked a little bit about plans to create a connected regional rail system and some electrification. I’m wondering where that’s standing these days.

Jarred Johnson (16m 58s):
Yeah, unfortunately there hasn’t been nearly as much official action, but one of the things that’s been really incredible is that we, and, and a number of our partners have continued to build support for it. And so it was something that was, you know, a question that all of the lieutenant governor candidates were asked about. There was less of a race on the, the governor’s side, but the gubernatorial candidate who’s more favor to win has a, you know, extensive transportation section where she is highlighted that regional rail is one of her priorities. And so, you know, I’m, I’m really hopeful that, that under this next administration, that we can really move that project forward. But again, you know, even if I’m a little disappointed that we haven’t sort of moved it forward in a more concrete way, again, I’m really excited that, that people are realizing just like what this is gonna mean for gateway cities, which in Massachusetts we’ve got a unique sort of political and population geography.

Jarred Johnson (17m 50s):
We’re at the ends of some of our commuter rail lines. We have sizable cities post-industrial cities with a sizable low income and minority population. And so having cheap, fast bidirectional rail service is, is really gonna be, I think, a boon to those communities. And we’ve, like I said, we’ve just continued to gather a broad range of support from folks in, in the housing world who recognize, particularly cuz Massachusetts just passed a new law that mandates every community that has a commuter rail stop zone for a multifamily housing, as of right. They’re really interested in this conversation about increasing commuter rail service and eventually regional rail service to these places.

Jarred Johnson (18m 30s):
The folks in the workforce development community who understand the potential for jobs for this. And so, yeah, like I said, I’m really happy that it has stayed on the table. I actually had a panel on this earlier revolution that now coming up on four plus years afterwards, it still talked about and people are really excited for it.

Jeff Wood (18m 49s):
What about the electrification process in terms of, I think the regional rail also depends on the connection between north and South station and then there’s also the electrification, which I think the governor got involved in some form or fashion recently as well. Yeah, yeah. What’s going on with that? Yeah,

Jarred Johnson (19m 4s):
So, so we, you know, the North south rail connection is definitely an important part. We think the electrification kind of part has to come first cuz of, I mean, one political will, but also just the geometry issues and things in the tunnel. But yeah, the electrification piece has been this, this has been a weird sort of sticking piece, you know, to be fair, electrification in the US has, cause we do it so infrequently has been a fraught process. You know, your, you know, stranger to the troubles that have happened, you know, in the Bay Area with the Caltrain electrification process. I think in five years when those electric trains are running on there, all of this will be a distant memory and no one will care. It’s one of the richest regions of the entire globe.

Jarred Johnson (19m 45s):
But, but you know, we’re in the beginning stages and so everyone’s just looking at the costs and not thinking about the benefits. And so the T has been looking at battery technology and we’re, we take a little bit of a dim view on that in the short term. I think there’s exciting possibilities for the future, but I think no one would look at the N bta, the current state of it, or the new trains that we got from a Chinese company that’s never built trains in America before. No one would look at that situation and say, yeah, the T ought to be the first people in the world to try to use electric trains to come every 15 minutes. So, so yeah. So you’ve got that. And then we were really confused by the fact that, you know, that’s what the T has said in their PowerPoints, but then the governor, like as you said, you know, intervened in a recent policy bill to one, remove the restriction on the T from buying new diesel locomotives past 2030, and then also contradicted the vehicle type that the T is putting out in their own report.

Jarred Johnson (20m 38s):
So, you know, I think we get a lot of mixed messages from this administration on electrification. So I’m, I’m really hopeful that the next administration will take advantage of the fact that on one of our, our commuter rail lines, I think the most utilized one, in fact, it is 98% electrified, that’s the northeast corridor. It actually contains some of the only high speed track in the country. But yeah, you know, I’m hopeful that they’ll build on that and that they’ll work on the fairmount line, which is a commuter rail line that goes right through the middle of the city of kind of a subway desert where the subway skirts the black and brown neighborhoods in Boston. And that also on the north shore between Boston and Lynn and Salem and Beverly, three large cities, you know, for the Massachusetts context outside of Boston that have also been, you know, asking for more service.

Jarred Johnson (21m 22s):
And two of them are gateway cities as well. So I’m hopeful that we’ll start to make some progress on the actual electrification piece on this next administration.

Jeff Wood (21m 30s):
Did you get a chance to read, you mentioned the Fairmount line and just brought this in my mind, there was a book by Jeremy Levine constructing community. Yeah. Did you get a chance to read that? He did some stuff about, his book was about the Fairmount line and the community development along

Jarred Johnson (21m 42s):
It. Right. And I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but I’ve read, I believe some of the, I believe the book came out of some academic work that he had been doing and all that. So I’ve read some of the academic work and then actually worked at one of the CDCs that is along the Fairmont line that was that CDC in Dorchester, the Coman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Jeff Wood (21m 58s):
Yeah, I had him on the show. And it was just fascinating to talk, you know, it’s not just a Boston story, it’s, it’s kind of like a microcosm of community development it feels like, around the country and who represents who and absolutely what creates community and what community actually means to who represents who. And it was just really fascinating and the Fairmount line because of that, just like sparked

Jarred Johnson (22m 14s):
My interest. Well, and one of the things that we’re hopeful for is that when this transformation happens, that it will encourage other commuter rental networks. There are a lot of communal systems around the country that have some of those same characteristics. They pass by low income in minority neighborhoods. And don’t stop there because you know, the whole idea of commut rolls get the folks from the wealthier, often whiter suburbs in town quicker. Well a, with electrification, you know, particularly if you do it with, you know, electric multiple units and the kind of subway style trains that stop penalty isn’t as much of a big deal. And B, it’s the right thing to do to provide service for these communities. And then lastly, it’s also the smart thing to do because we have no clue what the future of commuter rail is.

Jarred Johnson (22m 55s):
I was looking at some data from APTA and commuter rail nationwide is around about 50, 50 something percent of its pre covid ridership, which lags behind bus by about 20 points and other modes, I’m assuming that is subway and other things by about 10 points. And so, you know, if you wanna build a more sustainable model for the future, it’s gonna include closer in urban communities where there’s either no rail lines or a really infrequent bus or long bus commutes. And so, yes, I’m hopeful that the Fairmount line will be a great example of that,

Jeff Wood (23m 29s):
A more metro style system for the center cities and the Philadelphias and the Chicago.

Jarred Johnson (23m 34s):
Absolutely.

Jeff Wood (23m 35s):
Seems really interesting. I wanna go back to electrification for a bit because the T has also been frustrating to me from like an electric bus standpoint and the removal of overhead wires and the move towards electric buses with the diesel, you know, bus in the middle. Yeah, I’m wondering, and I’m not, I don’t want to just like, you know, harp on Thet, nag on the T because I think this is a national thing. Yeah. And I asked Sarah Kaufman about this earlier today actually. Why are we so focused on getting rid of our overhead wires that work so well and trying to push a battery technology that’s not quite ready for primetime? I feel like there are really good options. I mean, chin Gen in China has a fully electric bus network and they’re doing really well, but they’re on their second set of buses, they add a lot to learn from the first set.

Jeff Wood (24m 17s):
You know, we’re just kind of getting started with stuff. And so I’m wondering what, what we have to fear about overhead wires, about alternative forms of electrification that came up like a hundred years ago, just we’re so fascinated with getting the battery on board. Yeah.

Jarred Johnson (24m 30s):
You know, I think it can seem like the easier option, right? And to be fair to agencies in some cases. Yeah. You know, when you, when you’re an agency that has, you know, had to have a knockdown, drag out fight with a community about, I dunno, something as simple as, as a covered bus stop or something like that, it feels like, you know, the idea of putting up new wire, let alone addressing people that have concerns or have issues or aesthetic things with the existing wire, that can feel like a lot. And so I think for a lot of these agencies it feels like, you know what, there’s barely the institutional sort of backing to electrify, you know, this other stuff is, is really pushing the boundaries. But, you know, I can’t lie, you know, it, it is, it can be frustrating and you know, I think these next few years will be really interesting to see, you know, whether it’s the issues that Connecticut has been having with some of their fleet.

Jarred Johnson (25m 21s):
You know, I mean I think the thing that agencies have going for them is that virtually all of the North American market is all in on on it. And so, you know, I’m, I’m hopeful, you know, I, I think, you know, if had a magic wand, you know, would’ve done the N BTA process differently, but now that this is the path I’ve taken, you know, I have no choice but, but to root for this to be successful, but yeah, there was this overhead wire can be, can be quite frustrating. And I think, you know, especially so on commuter rail rail rights away where with the exception of a few grade crosses, it’s not going through cities or over streets in that same way. So that’s one where I think we are a bit more, bit more willing to sort of take on the t on that one.

Jeff Wood (26m 2s):
You guys are also working on fair policy as well. What are some of the changes that you would like the t to make in terms of fair policy?

Jarred Johnson (26m 8s):
Yeah, well the number one thing, it would be a low income fair. You know, we’re really glad to support our partners groups like Green Roots and ACE and Livable Streets and the public transit public good coalition in really getting the tee to do a low income fair. They’re one of the few agencies of their size that doesn’t have that program. You know, they do have programs for seniors and for youth, but for folks in their, you know, late teen years to early twenties on up until 65, they’re not covered by that program. And you know, it may not seem like a lot, but for some people with the margins, you know, two 40 or four close to $5 can be a lot. And especially if you maybe didn’t have the money at the beginning of the day or the beginning of the week to buy a pass, then getting ding that over and over again is an issue.

Jarred Johnson (26m 54s):
And then, you know, that’s just for people in the core. Again, as I mentioned earlier with the Gateway cities, we have a significant amount of low-income folks who live, you know, in Wooster 30 something miles away from Boston, which if you take the commuter rail is I believe close to $12 each way. That’s just not, I mean I would be a little bit annoyed by Ping, you know, $24 a day, $22 with a past discount. So we wanna see that low income fair happen and we wanna see it applied to all modes. We also would love to see just a cheaper overall commuter rail system. Going back to that Worcester example, it is ridiculous to me that it is cheaper to drive on the turnpike to Worcester, the Mass Pike than it is to take a train.

Jarred Johnson (27m 37s):
And someone can get into a pedantic argument with me about taxes and insurance. And I would just say, who gives a blank? You know, like people aren’t thinking about what is it insurance is what, two months time? No one’s thinking about what’s one 60th of my policy and every time they get in the car, no it is cheaper to drive to a lot of these cities and, and I picked the one with a toll. So for the other roads that don’t have tolls, it’s significantly cheaper. So yeah, we want a much cheaper commuter rail system. We also want a system that’s way simpler. The T has two fair charts for its commuter rail, one for regular trips and then one for enter zone trips. If you’re not going all the way into Boston. That is outrageous. It’s really funny for, you know, some of the folks, especially this administration, you know, who have the, we ought to run government like a business mindset.

Jarred Johnson (28m 23s):
You don’t go into McDonald’s and have a 12 step process to order a Big Mac. Why is it so damn complicated to ride commuter rail?

Jeff Wood (28m 29s):
I mean, agree with that. It’s so we make it harder than it really needs to be. Absolutely. I notice this coming from the airport here in Miami, actually. You take the little people mover to the station where you get on the orange line and the orange line, the metro mover and the orange line just, you know, it wasn’t too difficult. And I already actually had a card from a previous conference I’d come to here, but the card reader was kind of broken and I was worried that I was gonna miss the training if I missed the train. It’s like every 30 minutes. And I was freaking out and I’m, I’m a regular user, right? I’m like somebody who should know really well in the system and it’s like why can’t we just have this standard thing that everybody is okay with? And there’s all these little details in every single place that are a little bit different. And we have this problem, as you know, in the Bay Area we have 20 plus transit agencies.

Jeff Wood (29m 11s):
So, you know, we’re trying to make it all kind of condensed and simplified, but it’s really a difficult process.

Jarred Johnson (29m 16s):
Yeah. You know, and I think going back to that whole theme about, you know, treating government like a business or a lot of agencies have started to call their writers customers. If you’re gonna do that framework, that should extend to making your system super, super easy to use. You know, one of the trends that is, I don’t know, maybe I’m being kind of classic, some folks might be mad, you know, but the trend of like, you know, doing away with station attendance to just do everything on a ticket machine. Like maybe that’s not the world of the future. Particularly when we think about the much thornier question where I see some of the benefits of train automation, things like that. I mean think we’re ways off from that. I agree with you that transit ought to be the easiest option in the world.

Jarred Johnson (29m 56s):
You know, transit agencies should be going outta their way to lower those barriers. Whether it’s, you know, the amount of fairs, how you give them all of those things and you know, they need help with that. A lot of times these agencies that are severely underfunded. But I think we absolutely need to push these agencies. You know, if you’re gonna call your writer’s customers, then you need to do right by them. You know, I think it’s one of the things that we brought up sometimes with the T on, you know, the way that they will treat their customers after service disruptions and after major sort of failures. It’s like, well you know, if this was a private business, you know, you’d be emailing a we’re sorry and you know, your next dinner is on us kind of thing. Yeah. And so, you know, that’s what we should be doing. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (30m 36s):
There’s also the fair free trials have been going on as well. Yeah. How’s that been received?

Jarred Johnson (30m 41s):
I mean it’s been received very, very well. I think the fair free pilots have been going really well in Boston. So there’s three routes that have been made fair free. These are three of the busiest route that go through the heart of Boston’s black and brown community. And they saw 38% increase in ridership and faster boarding times. You know, some of the ridership did come from people who would’ve just walked on their trips. You know, I think there’s, I think a smaller percentage has come from car trips. But you know, I think for a short pilot that’s only been going on for, I think we’re coming up on a year, but you know, it’s only been going on for a year and with all things held constant, you know, tons of re parking and other issues, I think it’s still really, really encouraging to see that.

Jarred Johnson (31m 22s):
And also some of the folks who are walking Boston’s winter gets pretty cold and our summer gets pretty hot. So, you know, if someone hopped on the bus for a free ride for something that they would’ve walked before, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I mean that’s what public transit is for. So yeah, I’m excited to see this happen. And one of the things that is really exciting is actually outside of Thet, our regional transit authorities, which are our smaller bus agencies that run service outside of the core of Boston, some of them have been fair free since Covid, including the Wooster Regional Transit Authority. And you know, in some of the cases with the regional transit authorities, you know, a lot of them provide kind of lifeline service. And so there are some cases where it actually a pretty significant amount of their revenue is eaten up by the cost of collecting fairs.

Jarred Johnson (32m 7s):
And so, you know, I think there’s a really strong argument with the RTAs to have them go fair free.

Jeff Wood (32m 13s):
Yeah. It’s an argument that’s happening all over the country and there’s obviously a lot of folks on numerous different sides, not even just foreign against but efficacy and all that stuff. So it’s interesting to see some trials actually happening in a big city like Boston.

Jarred Johnson (32m 26s):
Yeah. You know, and, and I think our organization, you know, doesn’t have like a firm opinion on it cause we’ve got strong voices on either side. Yeah. But I think the thing that we all agree on, even the fair free advocates, you know, my friend Stacey Thompson would agree, like there doesn’t have to be an either or Right. Thing of more service or, or free fairs. You know, we know who benefits from better transit and cheaper transit. You know, we know that transit has to be a key, key part of our decarbonization and our climate change fight. And so yeah, like why don’t we make the case to lower barriers and you know, figure out what that phased process is. But how do we lower those fair barriers for the most impacted people first?

Jarred Johnson (33m 7s):
But how do we lower those barriers overall and how do we increase and expand access?

Jeff Wood (33m 13s):
Yeah. So we’re at a year anniversary of the infrastructure bill. Have you seen any kind of action locally or is it something that is gonna take years to see the impacts?

Jarred Johnson (33m 24s):
I think it’s gonna take years to see the impact. Yeah. But I think some of the programs that have been set up are really positive. Like, you know, the reconnecting communities, a lot of folks were, you know, I was disappointed when, you know, bill Bbe kind of fell apart and when, you know, it looked like that piece was gonna be lost. And so even though you know, it could have been a bit more money. Yeah. It’s still really incredible. I mean this is the first time with the federal government has really, really acknowledged, not only acknowledged its role in devastating communities with the Interstate Highway act, but also, you know, has put money on the table to try to address AMO solutions. So I think things like that, you know, more money for rail car procurement and more money for buses. I believe one of the changes this year was setting aside more money for facilities with the bus side as well.

Jarred Johnson (34m 9s):
Cuz they, you know, they’ve set aside money for low and no emission buses for some time. But I think there’s been restrictions on, you know, that it has to go towards fleet. And for a lot of agencies, the team in particular, the facilities are a major pinch point to that zero emission transformation. So it’s very early. But you know, I think having Secretary Pete, him and some of the folks that he’s brought in on his team has been really transformative.

Jeff Wood (34m 33s):
That’s a really interesting point about the facilities because I think people just think that buses go on the road and that’s about it. You know, there’s, there’s a whole like maintenance issue with electric vehicles versus diesel buses and the parts and all that stuff. And power, the power

Jarred Johnson (34m 47s):
You have to bring in

Jeff Wood (34m 48s):
Where the, the charging comes

Jarred Johnson (34m 49s):
From the extreme amount of power into the building. You have to figure out, are you going to have an an overhead gantry system that can move a plug around or are you gonna have plugs for all 80 of your buses? You know, in Boston, some of our bus garages are trolley barns, they’re, they’re old trolley barns where they’re made for buses from 19 whatever. And so they’re some of our garages that modern buses can’t even fit into the bay. So these are some of the issues that you talk about when it comes to bus electrification. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (35m 18s):
Last question. You all have been really successful at changing the conversation in Boston, or at least elevating certain conversations. I wonder if you have any advice for advocates in other places that would like to, you know, have similar impact in their communities? Hmm.

Jarred Johnson (35m 30s):
Oh, that’s such a good question. Yeah. What is it the transit matter secret sauce?

Jeff Wood (35m 36s):
Is it just being like a bunch of nerds like us?

Jarred Johnson (35m 39s):
I, I mean I, I do think in a lot of cities, the news media writers, elected officials are really looking for knowledgeable, passionate people who don’t work at the transit agency to help them understand things. And there are people inside of the transit agency who want people on the outside to help, you know, support them when they make tough decisions or kind of help push them if there’s decisions happening that leadership is doing that they don’t agree with. So yeah, I mean leading into that nerdy set. But no, I do think figuring out what your niche is and running with that, you know, figuring out what new thing or maybe what thing that has been talked about in the past has been dropped.

Jarred Johnson (36m 20s):
You know, what are you gonna add to the conversation? I think one of the things that, that we struggled with for a little bit is figuring out what were we gonna be, were we gonna be a grassroots group? And we looked around and said, okay, well, you know, you know, we’re a little bit Cambridge Summerville north of the River centric, we, we’ve expanded since then. Yeah. And you know, we were a little dude heavy, we weren’t as diverse as we, you know, could have been. And we’ve made some, you know, some good strides in all those areas. But we said it’s just not gonna be credible for us to, to be a grassroots group in Lynn, eight miles from Boston and be one in Worcester, 35 miles from Boston and be one in Boston’s Latino neighborhoods and cities to the north and also in the black neighborhoods the South. And there are other organizations doing that stuff.

Jarred Johnson (37m 2s):
And so we have found our niche partnering with grassroots groups and trying to figure out how we can support them with our data and our wonky tools. And so we’ve really just leaned into who we are and really found our niche in that. And then, you know, regional Orle has been one of those transformative things that we introduced into the conversation. Not that we came up with the concept, but you know, really the ones pushing it and bringing it into the Boston conversation I think has really been transformative. So I think it’s those, those couple of things. You know, find your niche, figure out how you can add to the conversation. Cuz again, there’s, I think in just about every city, certainly in cities where there’s not an established advocacy network, there’s that need and then you’ve gotta figure out what kind of group you’re gonna be and what solutions.

Jarred Johnson (37m 45s):
You know, I always, I really love Transit Center for their reports and for the ways that they gather advocates together to share stories and to share campaigns that other groups are doing. I mean, some folks, one of the groups I I always love shutting out is the Marta Army that went around adopting bus shelters to shovel them out or to give them amenities. There’s just, yeah, there’s just so many ways that you can figure out what your niche is. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (38m 9s):
Well folks wanna find out more information about transit matters or want to, you know, follow you on Twitter or whatever. How can folks do that?

Jarred Johnson (38m 14s):
Yeah, so folks can follow us on Twitter at at Transit Matters. They can also follow on Instagram at that hand. We’ve got some amazing Instagram content these days. And then you can find me at, at J A R J O H for Transit Takes Lefty Politics and Em Bism.

Jeff Wood (38m 32s):
Awesome. Well cheer, thanks for joining us. We really

Jarred Johnson (38m 34s):
Appreciate your time. Of course. Thanks for having me. Big fan of the show. This was part of my Urban Pill experience.


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