No promises as officials struggle to restore MBTA service

With Massachusetts commuters struggling with daily delays and cancellations on public transit, Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday said predictions that it could take a month after the final snow falls to fully restore MBTA service are being viewed by his team as an "outer limit."

"I think we need to be faster than that, but I don't want anyone overpromising and under-delivering," Baker said during an afternoon press conference, adding, "Our goal is to work collaboratively with them to do what we can to get different parts of the system online as soon as possible."

The MBTA plans to produce a "comprehensive schedule" on Wednesday for the restoration of service, MassDOT Chief Operations Officer Frank DePaola told reporters on a conference call later Tuesday afternoon.

"We are very focused on having a concrete plan," MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott said. She said, "It's like a war, and we're taking this back station by station, line by line, switch by switch."

Another work week started Tuesday with MBTA and commuter rail riders fighting to navigate a patchwork system of shuttle buses, trains and trolleys, and facing some routes that were shut down.

Baker said his administration has moved into triage mode, suggesting broader conversations about how to fix the transit system for the long-term could wait.

"Our focus at this point is literally, 'What have you done today and what are you going to do tomorrow and how fast can we expect to see people in a situation that they consider to be, sort of, normal,'" Baker said.

While Baker said his administration is now meeting twice a day with MBTA officials, the governor said he was unaware of Scott's estimate of month to full restore service until she made it publicly Monday evening. Scott said, "We have the full support of this administration."

While much of the public attention has been on the performance of MBTA trains, Baker said he called Keolis, operator of the MBTA's commuter rail system, to request a meeting within the next couple of days.

"I'm really looking forward to having the folks from Keolis in for a chat," Baker said. "I'm certainly not satisfied with their performance and I want to hear what their service recovery plan is. Just doing the same things they've been doing every day is not an adequate answer."

Scott said the commuter rail has been running on a reduced schedule and "quite candidly even on that reduced schedule it has been a subpar performance."

On Tuesday, commuter rail service on the Greenbush line to the South Shore was shut down and MBTA ferry service from Hingham to Boston, an alternative to commuter rail, was closed due to ice in the harbor.

The MBTA has also been roundly criticized for its performance, as commuters have been left waiting in line in the cold for shuttle buses. Scott said she was "strongly mulling over" the idea of providing refunds.

"I can't give you the final answer on that," said Scott, who said she would bring it to the MassDOT board's finance committee. She said, "We appreciate that this goes beyond the pale of what anyone would want."

When Baker was asked about refunds Tuesday, he said, "I think the idea of service recovery and coming up with something that involves the dislocation associated with the riders is something worth discussing and is certainly on the list."

Scott, who resigned from the MBTA last week effective April 11, declined to explain her reasons for stepping down, though she said she would provide more information on that subject later.

"It was a personal decision," Scott said. She said, "There will be a time y'all can ask any questions you want about any of that but that is not what we are focused on."

Baker met Tuesday morning in his office with John Jenkins, the chair of the board for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, to discuss ways his administration can work with MassDOT and the MBTA.

"We've all got the same interests at heart, and that is getting back up to normal as quickly as we can," Jenkins said after leaving the governor's office.

Jenkins called Scott's estimate of 30 days for the MBTA to fully recover after the last snow a "shock to the system" to some. "But you know, you want something to make you feel good or you want something that's realistic? And I think the 30 days is realistic," he said.

Jenkins described Baker's office as "great" in providing help through the National Guard and assisting in obtaining Peter Pan buses for use as shuttles. "He's promised to continue to do that and he's promised to provide any assistance to us that he can," Jenkins said. "He says just ask for it. And we will be asking for it."

With some lawmakers beginning to beat the drum for more revenues to fund the state's aging public transit system that has largely failed to meet the challenges posed by winter weather, Baker said there would be time in the future for that debate.

"We will certainly have a debate more generally about some of these larger issues once we get past this," Baker said.

Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Gatzunis, who joined Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito at the afternoon press conference, urged homeowners to look for signs of stress in their roofs and ceilings and to notify local building inspectors or call 911 if the threat of a collapse seems imminent.

While a Baker aide said there have been 71 reported roof collapses so far in Massachusetts in businesses, schools and homes, Gatzunis said snow that currently weighs seven pounds per square foot could increase to 21 pounds if it rains. Baker said forecasts over the weekend call for a mix of sleet of rain.

Fire Marshal Stephen Coan also reminded people to help shovel out fire hydrants to assist firefighters, and cautioned homeowners dealing with ice dams against using things like torches to melt the ice. In some cases, Coan said, such devices have led to fires.

"You cannot do that," Coan said. "It's a recipe for disaster."

While some commuters are working remotely, many have experienced heavy delays while attempting to get to their jobs.

"Everybody's got that same story," Jenkins said. "Whether you're driving or whether it's the T. You know, I drove in this morning and it took me twice the time to get here than it normally would. And I was driving."

"One of the things we should be thinking about is adjusting our expectations, whatever mode of transportation we're taking," Jenkins added. "And I think people are getting used to that. That's not an excuse, by the way. We've got to do better and we will do better."

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr on Tuesday told the News Service that he has heard from constituents who rely on the Gloucester branch of the commuter rail who have spent time waiting on platforms for trains that never arrived, only to find out hours later that the train had been cancelled.

Baker said he wants to talk with both the MBTA and Keolis about their communications strategy, and predicted more "outbound communication" from the T in the coming days to inform riders about what services they can expect.

Jenkins was appointed to the MassDOT board by Gov. Deval Patrick and his term expires in 2017.

Asked whether he plans to stay as chair, Jenkins said, "I can't comment on whether I'll be chair or not. We didn't even talk about that. That wasn't what this meeting was about, at all. You know, I'm on until 2017. I guess I'm the chair until I'm not, is the way I'd put it. But that was not a part of our conversations."

Jenkins said he has asked top MBTA officials to not "overpromise."

"People really don't want to hear next week, you know, if you really think it's going to be two weeks," Jenkins said. "Don't overpromise where you think you'll be a hero. I want to be able to plan my life. I think people want to be able to plan their lives. And if it's going to be a week, say a week. If you don't expect that we're going to get out of this until spring, at least say it. But don't be overly optimistic, because people need to plan. People plan their lives around and run their lives around public transportation."

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