Monday, October 17, 2011

My years of futility in Salem transit, part 2

Route 459-Derby St

Following up on my last post, I’m wondering why we just can’t get things done to improve our public transit and make our streets safer for pedestrians and people with disabilities.

I’m signed up with the MBTA to get service alerts for bus routes I regularly use, which would be the 450, 451, 455, 456, 459 and 465.  I just got an alert now:

Routes 455 & 459 are experiencing 15-20 minute delays due to traffic.

10/17/2011 4:07 PM

This has been a regular occurrence.  Normally, I’m not concerned about delays here and there because buses run in traffic and are susceptible to the same delays that affect motorists trying to go down 1A and 107 on their way to and from Salem.

But there’s been a disturbing increase in traffic congestion that has happened in all months at most times of the day in the North Shore.

The MBTA schedules have been severely affected;  looking at Route 456, the frequency of service is now 80 minutes.  That means 1 hour and 20 minutes between buses.  This route once ran hourly when it was established in 2002.  (The 456 is a busy route that serves Central Square by way of Highland Ave., and the many Lynn residents who shop and use the medical offices in Salem.)

The 450 has been affected as well.  In fact, during weekdays, none of the MBTA routes out of Salem Depot run hourly.  The 465 that serves the Peabody-Danvers shopping area runs about every 1 hour and 10 minutes (70 minutes).

Even on weekends, the 455W, Salem to Wonderland, no longer runs hourly, but also slips 5 minutes here and there throughout the day.

This single bus route is the most frequent, and busiest, of all of the MBTA’s Salem routes.  Before the 455 was split into the 455 and 459 routes (the latter going to Logan Airport and South Station on weekdays), it ran every 30 minutes, as does the 455W weekend service to Wonderland.

I have taken that route many times and I can tell you it is crowded.  If you come home from Boston and elect to get off the Blue Line at Revere Beach (one stop short of Wonderland), you will not get a seat on the bus.  (The bus shelter at Revere Beach is much nicer than the one at Wonderland so I board there any time I can.)

Remember also that the MBTA runs many, many other routes to and through Lynn, and to Swampscott and Marblehead.

Here is an exercise for those who doubt this:  Drive down either Route 1A (the Lynnway) or Route 107 (Western Ave.) and pull into a lot somewhere before Revere.  There are a number of Dunks around so pull in with a medium regular and your choice of donut.  Normal business hours are fine, day or evening.

Find an MBTA bus that is marked for service on its LED sign (other than “NOT IN SERVICE” or “NO STOPS”).  Count how many people are onboard;  you don’t need to be exact.

Count the buses and count the people.

You’ll probably find a lot more buses and a lot more riders than you think.  These people are heading to and from work, to and from doctor appointments, daycare, shopping and even church.

Critics of transit spending like to say that you can’t make demand by spending on big capital projects like, say, the Blue Line extension to Lynn.

But the people are already here!  They’ve been here for a long time.  They come whenever the latest condos get built on Highland Ave.

And those who don’t take the bus, drive.  Yes, I know I am in the minority of people who do not drive and yes I am lazy, didn’t overcome my disabilities, and so forth.  I know all that.

But I know, too, that in any urban area, when the density of people gets above a certain point, it’s time to consider investing in public transit, simply because the road networks will strangle the very communities that depend on them.

That time’s now.  It’s been “now” for years.

No public official will say this, because the scariest thing they could imagine is to have Barbara Anderson and the Tea Party at their door screaming “NO NEW TAXES!”  I’ve heard that before, I’ve heard it for years and years and years.

And, certainly, Salem is wealthy enough in the short term that the Tea Party platforms could “work”.

For a short while, anyway.

Will the shiny, happy, good, new (and rich) residents of Salem tolerate not being able to leave their driveway, not only in October, but year-round?  The traffic jams of Halloween in Salem are legendary, but the dirty truth is that they happen just as readily on a cold twilight afternoon in January.

I fear something even worse:  The Massachusetts Senate has approved a casino gaming bill.   In the bill, which still has to go to a conference committee to be finalized, there would be three destination casinos in the state.  One of them would be near Suffolk Downs.

The owners of Suffolk Downs have long looked to slot machines to provide the revenue they need to keep the horse track running;  horse racing as a sport has been on a long slow decline for decades and the track was once known as “Sufferin’ Downs” for good reason.

The owners recently bought Wonderland, the defunct dog track near the Blue Line that was closed after Mass. voters approved a referenda to ban greyhound racing.  Wonderland is where most people think a slot parlor may go on the North Shore.

It’s the northern end of the Blue Line.  And it is the worst migraine headache for me and all of us on the North Shore.  And it will happen.   There’s too much money being tossed around in executive suites and the State House to think otherwise.

Both my mayor and my rep, Driscoll and Keenan, are supporting casinos.  They’re doing so, I suspect, because of the hope of increased state revenue for cities and towns, the selling point most used by our state lottery, and they are hoping for infrastructure (roads & transit) improvements.

I’m not going to guess on the revenue, but I will guess that the casino operators won’t invest as much in the infrastructure as we would like.  They don’t need to.

They don’t need a Blue Line extension;  most of their customers will drive, and the few who don’t can be served by leasing a few dozen shuttle buses.  We’ll see them everywhere once the casino opens.  (They will also become the default recreational option for senior centers, but that is another matter.)

They won’t need to invest in anything else;  the casinos of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are, like most, self-contained so the visitor doesn’t need to go anywhere else.  Nowhere else but there to spend money!

Mayor Driscoll is deluding herself if she thinks this won’t ripple into Salem’s tourist revenue.

What casinos will surely do is clog up the roads and make it impossible for anyone in buses or cars to get around.

Unless, of course, you are going to the casino yourself.  That will be easy.

Otherwise, not so much.  The decay of the T will continue and no one will care.  What have I been doing for 4 years, again?  Will it matter?

My years of futility in Salem transit, part 1

Highland Ave at Pep Boys

In my last post, I updated the status of Salem Depot and its endless revisions and delays.  A little further south of downtown, there’s another situation that I am reminded of again and again.

I’ve long wrote about the Market Basket bus stop and the problems navigating to it in the winter.  Around this time of year, most of us are shopping for new winter boots and hoping against hope that the upcoming winter will be mild, or at least with little snow.

This picture outside Pep Boys showed that this was not to be, early in 2011.  In 2010, the Commission hoped that the MBTA would route buses through Market Basket to eliminate the problem.

That was also not to be;  the MBTA declined the idea.  The Market Basket plaza was never designed for buses, the routes would be delayed going through there, but most importantly, the abutter to Market Basket—the adjacent shopping complex with Shaws and TJ Maxx, objected.

There will be no new bus stop in the winter of 2011-2012 and, I fear, there may never be.

Since I’ve started this blog, I have heard regularly from a gentleman, a former city councilor, who’s been upset over the bus stop and its snowbanks.

Like clockwork, I’ll hear from him when Mayor Driscoll announces funding for some new project (“She can spend $XXXXX for something but not on the bus stop!”)


He’s made me even more cynical than I am already.  I have seen and known enough about government to know that the fact of Mayor Driscoll seeking to start some project or another is totally orthogonal and unrelated to that bus stop.  I didn’t even vote for her but I have expressed my thoughts on transit to her and other elected officials regularly.

Most people who’ve been outraged over this issue have cars and don’t need to wait in the snow for the bus!

I use that bus stop regularly. If I get run over standing next to a snowbank one gray chilly day, isn’t that poetic justice?  Given what the Tea Parties say about government and those who work for it, I wouldn’t expect an ounce of sympathy from anyone if that happened!  I don’t know the politics of my correspondent, but I do know a lot of people his age who parrot  the “hard work and personal responsibility” trope of the Tea Parties so often that it is just screaming noise.  (Obviously, I didn’t work hard enough to overcome my vision problems so I could drive!)

And my correspondent is an ex-city councilor!  I feel that if you are a current city official or even a former city official, you have an obligation to answer when someone asks, “What did you do to make Salem better when you served?”

I’d like to ask my correspondent what he did when he had the reins.

I know that in 4 years and 1-1/3rd terms into my service on the Commission on Disabilities, I have to ask myself that question every time I get up in the morning and every time I sit in our conference room at SATV every third Tuesday.

I’m beginning to wonder if I can really answer that.  Thoughts in my next post. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Salem Depot Update

Message board at Salem Depot HP parking area

Two updates on Salem Depot:  Several of us from the Salem Commission on Disabilities met here at Salem Depot with representatives from the Salem and MBTA Police to discuss handicapped parking problems at the station.  The Salem News wrote about this in some detail.

There wasn’t much that the police could do at the moment, since there is no continual monitoring of the area, by video or otherwise, but the T placed a message board, seen in in the image, for the interim.  October and Halloween represent the biggest month that this station sees in car and foot traffic, so this sign is not or should not be an unexpected expense for the T.

I never read the Salem News comment section, but there was one comment to that article I want to address:  The commenter believes that, instead of enforcing HP parking, that people with disabilities should use the T’s paratransit service, The Ride.

Um, they could.  But as I’ve written before, that service is very expensive to provide.   Using The Ride for direct service from, say, North Salem to Boston is just nuts if one can make the commuter rail.  And using The Ride as a shuttle to the station itself is practically a non-starter with Salem’s downtown traffic as bad as it is.

It turns out to be much cheaper, in the long run, for the MBTA to make their regular service accessible to people with disabilities.  The current management at the T seems to realize this, only after decades of neglect—and lawsuits.

My second update is more disturbing.  There was a robbery at the station one night last month.  A student was robbed of his laptop and iPod to the tune of $1,400, while waiting for a ride around 9 PM.

On reading this in the News, I can imagine the good people of Federal Street locking their doors in unison.  It’s not safe at 9 PM, after all.

I have been at the Depot late at night getting off a train.  It’s not at all unusual to call for a ride or a taxi.  9 PM is not a “wrong” time to be on the T.

My Mom told me stories of the old Salem Depot, not the famous headhouse that was demolished 50 years ago, but the two that sat under the south end of Riley Plaza.

A platform that was virtually invisible from the street. 

There were crimes and assaults on that platform up until it was closed in 1987 when the current station opened.

It is not acceptable to have someone minding their business at the station, waiting for their ride home, and being robbed. 

It’s intolerable that we should be taking these events  for granted, but many do.  I know, we’re in a recession, government is ineffective, and can’t we just wait for better days?  We’ll build a better Salem Depot to the shrine of Sammy McIntyre someday soon!

I’m coming to think that nobody in Salem wants a new train station, not the politicians, not the Salem News 101st Keyboard Brigade, not the neighborhood groups, or the “government-is-bad” people, nobody.

More on my next post.