Starts & Stops

As readers tie high cost to low ridership, MBTA considers changes to parking lot fees

The T introduced a pay-by-phone system as an alternative to the cash boxes in use at many commuter rail stations. The T introduced a pay-by-phone system as an alternative to the cash boxes in use at many commuter rail stations. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / February 20, 2011

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In reader e-mails and conversations at stations, I consistently hear from people who think the MBTA overcharges for parking, especially on the commuter rail. Most of those are honor-system lots — meaning a cash-box payment system, with no gate or attendant — where the T charges $4 a day.

That might not sound like a lot to everyone, but it adds up: roughly $80 a month, on top of train passes that range from $135 (Zone 1) to $265 (Zone 9) a month. And the parking feels particularly exorbitant when the train is late to arrive, as has often been the case this winter.

The MBTA board voted in late 2008 to double the parking fee from $2. That coincided with the economic collapse that has hampered commuter rail ridership across the country, and it may explain why the MBTA’s commuter rail has been slower to rebound than its peers, as reader Rick Patoski of Marblehead posited in Starts & Stops last fall.

Some have suggested the price may be driving people away from the underutilized Greenbush train, as it has Chris Jones of Scituate, whose new Prius made his 62-mile roundtrip commute a better and faster deal by car; he had been paying more than $300 a month to park and ride for a door-to-door commute that sometimes took two hours. He called the parking fee “outrageous . . . on top of a very costly T pass.’’ But he said he might return, if parking was discounted.

Others have proposed variable pricing — lowering the price at empty lots, while keeping it at $4, or even raising it, at those that fill up at dawn.

The last time I wrote about this, MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera said that the T had no plans to change the price and that T officials did not believe parking prices influenced commuter rail ridership.

But in an interview last week, MBTA General Manager Richard A. Davey said he is contemplating lowering the price at those lots that are now mostly empty; he said he would be reluctant to raise prices at crowded lots.

He has also asked the T to explore “premium parking’’ spaces that would cost more but guarantee a commuter a spot at a busy lot.

In Davey’s first meeting with riders last spring, he called the cash-box system an unacceptable “carnival game.’’ Since then the T has introduced a pay-by-phone system to allow people to pay by credit card, and obtain a receipt, instead of stuffing cash and coins into the cash box. The T is also now offering a monthly prepaid parking pass.

So far, about 16,000 people have enrolled in the pay-by-phone system, and 500 purchased the $70 monthly passes in February, the debut month.

Still, thousands continue to use the cash-box system. When I wrote last month about the T’s attempt to crack down on those who have repeatedly parked without paying, several readers wrote to say that they were sure they had received tickets for failing to pay on days when they had — and sure that someone was skimming off the top.

Rivera said at the time that the T has a “CSI’’-type system with multiple safeguards, including a plexiglass interior wall that allows the collector to view payments without touching them, and a tamper-resistant system that automatically pools the money into one sealed container. The collector also takes a detailed photo documenting whether a slot contains the appropriate number of folded bills or coins, Rivera said.

Reader John Leith, a lawyer who has an interest in photography, was skeptical. Unless they were using a costly, medium-format camera held parallel to the plane of the box, the results are probably open to interpretation, he said.

Leith, who has ridden the commuter rail for 26 years, said he used to receive a failure-to-pay notice at least once a month at Norwood Central, despite being sure he had paid. Now he uses the phone system — and parks in lots that are much emptier than they once were. The new system is “a welcome change,’’ he wrote. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I don’t receive any violation notices anymore.’’

As for the accuracy of the T’s photos, Rivera shared a recent example from a Greenbush lot. It was not as detailed as advertised, but it was fascinating nonetheless — clearly showing which slots had cash and which did not, although not showing so clearly how much money was in each slot.

“It really makes you (well, me) wonder what the collections would look like if the fees were reduced,’’ Leith wrote by e-mail, after seeing it.

Contentious commuter rail union negotiations to reach a crucial point next weekend Some readers have asked if the difficulties on the commuter rail this winter reflect labor strife. State officials say they do not believe that to be the case, though things are less than harmonious between management and many of the unions at the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., the private consortium that operates the MBTA’s commuter rail for a fixed rate of more than $250 million a year.

As is often the case, the sticking points are wages and benefits — in particular, MBCR’s desire to stop paying 100 percent of health insurance premiums, a rare perk for employees, and to seek union health concessions in exchange for pay increases and other incentives.

When MBCR took over from Amtrak in 2003, federal law and the agreement with the T compelled it to retain Amtrak’s employees and match their pay and benefits. Those deals expired in 2008. In the meantime, many of MBCR’s costs — steel, electricity, and employee health insurance — rose substantially, eating into the company’s margins.

The railroad engineers were negotiating separately, while train conductors and 12 mechanical and maintenance unions formed a coalition. After the engineers rejected a tentative deal last year, the conductors split off to join them. Those two unions reached a tentative deal with management last month and are voting on it through March 17.

Management and labor leaders hope the deals pass — and are not thrown off by the other 12 unions, who could strike or seek White House intervention as early as next week.

“Just as in the last ratification process, we fully expect that members of the crafts represented by the coalition will undoubtedly attempt to dissuade our membership from voting in favor,’’ Mark B. Kenny, national general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, wrote to local engineers in a letter obtained by the Globe. “While it is highly inappropriate for other unions to intrude into the ratification process of another union, it should be made clear that we wish our brothers and sisters in the coalition the best of luck.’’

In an interview, Kenny’s conductor counterpart, United Transportation Union General Chairman Roger Lenfest, expressed a similar sentiment. “If that were to happen, I would consider it most unbrotherly,’’ he said. “The agreement that we reached did not put any other union at a disadvantage.’’

Meanwhile, the mechanical and maintenance unions that form the majority of the workforce — and toil behind the scenes — went before the National Mediation Board with MBCR for more than 20 sessions over more than a year, with the national board finally advising arbitration; the unions declined, and the board declared them at an impasse and released them from mediation.

Now they are in a 30-day cooling off period that expires this coming weekend. Here is where it gets interesting for riders: Starting Saturday, the unions have a right to strike, though the unions, MBCR, or the governor could appeal instead for the White House to convene what is known as a Presidential Emergency Board, rare for commuter rail. The steps could extend the process as many as 270 days — among other things, creating uncertainty at a time when the T will be developing plans to seek firms to bid on the next billion-dollar commuter rail operation and maintenance contract.

MBTA General Manager Richard A. Davey, not party to the negotiations, is keeping watch. “I’m encouraging, from afar, the parties to reach voluntary agreement,’’ he said, adding that he has not seen any evidence that the matter has affected rail service. “We have an obligation to our customers to ensure that there is not an interruption of service, so we’re obviously monitoring the situation.’’