Riders speak up as MBTA probes equity of bus, rail service

As transit officials walked the public through a draft plan to address charges of inequitable service on MBTA routes two weeks ago, Mattapan and Dorchester residents insisted that existing transit shortfalls, particularly sub-par bus service, should be prioritized for solutions.

About 50 residents, advocates, and officials gathered in the Mattapan Library on the evening of Wed., Dec. 14 for one in a series of meetings that are meant to hash out the MBTA’s Disparate Impact/Disproportionate Burden policy.

Transit agencies are required by the federal government to conduct an equity analysis on how a cancelled service or fare change could affect low-income or minority riders more than the general ridership. The authorities are then required, in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to propose alternate services changes if the proposed options would disproportionately impact the underserved groups.

Discussions of the draft plan are aimed at clarifying what would constitute a major change and how the MBTA should be measuring impacts on vulnerable communities.

“We want to learn from you, and we want to talk about this policy, that’s really so important to a lot of changes we’re trying to make,” said John Lozada, manager of federal programs at Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). He asked for focus and feedback on what he said is “a critical policy to being able to implement what we think are going to be some very visionary changes for the MBTA.”

The MBTA’s chief administrator, Brian Shortsleeve, who attended the first half of the two-hour meeting, said the conversations are to help avoid inadvertent discrimination. Regardless of the final policy, he said, “we’re not going to raise fares at the T until at least January 2019.”

Laurel Paget-Seekins, the MBTA director of strategic initiatives, sketched out the mathematical formulas that will determine what would constitute a major change. These apply to bus, trolley, heavy and light rail, and commuter rail service.

Major changes are: A switch in operational hours per week of at least 10 percent for any given mode of service; for all routes, a alteration of route length of at least 25 percent or 3 miles; or for routes with at least 80 hours per week, a change in hours per week of at least 25 percent.

If minority or low-income populations are impacted more than 20 percent more than the general ridership, the proposed change would pose a potential disparate impact or disproportionate burden.

The mathematical method of determining the effects of changes on riders was met with some skepticism. Attendees asked that attention be paid to the “long-time injustices and transit limitations” in the region.

General amenities along the bus lines are inadequate throughout much of Mattapan and Dorchester, residents said.

The Fairmount Line, often subject to delays and lapsed service, was the topic of a community forum on Dec. 10 and remains a sore subject for many advocates.

“First of all, there needs to be a lot more security on that line,” said Tiffany Cogell with Talbot Norfolk Triangle (TNT) Neighbors United. “The train needs to be more frequent, and eliminating trains needs to be more than ‘well, we’re just having issues.’ There needs to be more accountability and more explanation to your patrons and riders who count on that.”

Neighborhood advocates have previously cried foul over the MBTA’s approach to Title VI protections, and the Conservation Law Foundation, Alternatives for Community and Environment, and the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition filed a federal complaint in July.

They asserted that the cancellation of late-night weekend service in early 2016 relied on flawed data, which incorrectly predicted that the cancellation would not overly burden low-income and minority communities. Further, they said, steps should have been taken to reduce the impact on those communities before the late-night service was terminated.