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Starts & Stops

Despite a rough road for public transit, there are positive signs

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / May 1, 2011

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William Millar is president of the American Public Transportation Association, which provides a voice for transit in Washington, supports regional authorities such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and promotes public transportation across North America. He was in town recently, meeting with colleagues at both the MBTA and MIT, and attending a retirement party for a friend. Along the way, he paused for a Q-and-A, a condensed and edited version of which follows.

Q. What’s the state of the industry?

A. Like all businesses and government agencies, the last couple of years have been very difficult for public transit, with the bad economy, the reduction in revenues, and the high unemployment rate. Generally, most transit systems have had to face raising fares or cutting service or laying off employees — all very unpleasant things that nobody likes to do. But unlike the federal government, public transit has to balance its budget every year, and that’s the result.

But this year, a couple of things are going the other direction. With the recovery of the economy in many parts of the nation, and now the unemployment rate finally starting to come down a little bit, we’re starting to hear reports from agencies that are seeing increases in ridership. And, of course, in February the gasoline prices really started to take off, and many transit systems are reporting much more rapidly growing ridership because of the $4-a-gallon gas.

Q. Like other systems, the T relies on taxpayer support to balance its budget. What do you say to people who think transit should be self-sufficient?

A. The same critics don’t usually say, “Well, the local street network ought to pay for itself, the police department ought to pay for itself, the schools out to pay for themselves.’’ Public transportation is a public service. Yes, it has a direct benefit to users, and that’s part of why fares are charged, but the benefits of people using public transit accrue to the entire society whether you ever use it or not.

For example, the Texas Transportation Institute — they’re generally the people thought of as the gurus on urban highway congestion — in their biennial report on congestion across America found that drivers wasted $115 billion a year sitting in traffic last year, and that would have been $19 billion worse if it weren’t for public transportation.

Studies also suggest that 4.2 billion gallons of fuel are saved and 37 million fewer metric tons of greenhouse gases go into the air each year because people use public transportation. So whether you use it or not, you’re benefiting from cleaner air.

Q. Many corners of the MBTA really show their age, even as the system faces pressure to expand, while the T owes $9 billion in debt payments. Is there help on the horizon?

A. Keeping the system you have up to date, keeping it modern, and making improvements is always a very difficult thing to do. There’s a further complication now in that in Congress, of course, the mood has switched a bit from two years ago, with everybody talking about, “We need to invest in infrastructure,’’ to now, “We need to cut the deficit, we need to cut the deficit’’ — forgetting that the infrastructure, whether it’s transit or roads or airports, is what lays the foundation for a successful economy.

So we are urging Congress to look carefully before they swing that budget ax. Not everything in the federal budget is of equal value, and certainly investment in infrastructure, like public transportation, is a long-term return for some current expenditures.

It will pay back. You of all people, you Bostonians, know that. Hey, you built your first subway in 1897, and I rode on that subway yesterday. You get value from these investments for at least 100 years, maybe more.

Q. When you get on the T, what do you notice?

A. The first thing I’m looking for is the ease of figuring the system out. Boston, for many years, has had very clear maps.

Also, I had a CharlieCard with me, but I didn’t have any money on it, so I needed to use one of the electronic machines. Those oftentimes are very confounding, but I found the ones here in Boston to be very easy to use. That’s not always true. I was down in Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago. They’ve just started their first rail line there, and their ticket machines are absolutely impossible to figure out the first time you face them — even for somebody like me, a pretty experienced transit rider.

Then I begin to notice other things. Are the stations reasonably clean? Are they litter-free? Is there graffiti all over the place? I’m pleased over the years, Boston has really paid a lot of attention to that. Certainly from when I first started riding the T, maybe 40 years ago, it’s a big, big difference.

While I may bring a more experienced eye, I think I’m really looking for the same stuff as any commuter or any visitor to your city, which is, how do I use the system, how do I find out how to use the system, how do I pay for the system, is it all easy to do? And I would say the T is in the first rank of US systems in terms of ease of use.

For the MBTA’s general manager, vacation becomes working holidayOn a vacation to South Korea and China, MBTA General Manager Richard A. Davey took a busman’s holiday Friday, heading a few hours south of Seoul to tour the Hyundai Rotem plant where the first of a batch of 75 new coaches for the commuter rail are being built, under a $190 million contract.

Davey met with executives and toured the assembly of the four pilot coaches scheduled to be sent to Boston for testing in December. After the T puts those coaches through their paces on the local rails — without customers aboard — they will be added to the fleet, and Hyundai Rotem will be given the go-ahead to produce the remaining 71 at a new plant in Philadelphia.

Davey tweeted some photos, including a shot in front of one of the coaches and a few from inside, where the aluminum, bright lights, and electrical work — sans seats or interior paneling — gave the coach-in-progress the look of a space station.

Back at his hotel, Davey said by phone that he was impressed with the work and the size of the campus, where the company also builds defense equipment and industrial machinery and plants.

“It’s extraordinarily impressive. Not only did I see the four MBTA coaches in production right now, but in various stages they’ve got coaches for [Philadelphia’s] SEPTA, Los Angeles, Dublin, and a contract for Turkey and Korea itself,’’ he said. “It’s a huge campus. I’d say it’s 10 times the size of what we have in Everett,’’ site of the T’s main heavy-rail and bus maintenance shop.

The new coaches will be double-decker and will replace a set of single-deckers from the 1980s, providing more room as well as more amenities. Twenty-eight will be control cars, meaning they have an operator’s cab at one end. The MBTA uses push-pull trains, meaning the locomotive pulls from the front on outbound runs from Boston but pushes from the rear on inbound runs, without needing to turn around. The control cars allow the engineer to operate when the locomotive is in back.

The other 47 coaches will be “blind cars,’’ with bathrooms instead of control rooms. They are expected to begin arriving in summer 2012.

New to the US market, Hyundai Rotem won the T order in 2008, as part of an aggressive campaign to win American manufacturing contracts with low bids, well-placed connections, and promises of speed and quality.

The Korean facility may have been a production marvel, but the South Philly factory has been beset by problems and fallen far behind on its first production line, a SEPTA order for 117 coaches. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in February on material shortages, design flaws, inadequate equipment, and — in particular — cultural clashes between US laborers and Korean managers, whom the workers say have frequently disparaged them.

Davey said the T is monitoring that situation and expects its coaches to be delivered on time. “We want to be sure the company is treating its employees fairly and in an environment where they can focus on getting the job done,’’ Davey said. “They’ve made some positive strides to accomplish that.’’

The MBTA is in frequent contact with the company and has sent staff to inspect the Philadelphia plant, but Davey paid for the Korea trip out of pocket. He specifically built it into his first vacation to Asia, prior to hitting Hong Kong and Xi’an, site of the Terracotta Army in China.

“This is not a junket of any sort,’’ Davey said.

“But I happened to have the opportunity to visit, and I just wanted to reinforce our desire for quality coaches on time, next year.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com