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Starts & Stops

Even on vacation, you can’t escape the foibles of transit

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / September 11, 2011

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After a summer hiatus, Starts & Stops is back. (In the interim, I was working on a Sept. 11 project and making the most of vacation time.) I hear it was a quiet summer at the Department of Transportation while I was gone.

First, some summer-travel observations: Rapid transit rides in Sydney and Melbourne, in Australia, cost 2 1/2 times more than the T fare; Sydney has a great ferry system, but the trains I rode were even more trash- and food-strewn than the T’s. The Barcelona Metro charges a comparable fare to the T, but the system is much cleaner, and the countdown signs on the platforms are remarkably accurate.

Barcelona also had the first left-handed entry turnstiles I’ve seen, reminding me of the day I shadowed a customer service agent at South Station and watched lefty tourist after lefty tourist swipe their CharlieCards on the wrong side and walk into a closed gate. But the special turnstiles seemed to be interspersed randomly with the right-handed gates, diminishing their utility. Another strike against the Barcelona Metro: It has few escalators and elevators, forcing riders with disabilities to confront stairs.

On the roads, I successfully navigated great swaths of asphalt with minimal incident - the “drive on the left’’ reminders in tourist-heavy pockets of Australia helped - and in Spain got out of a threatened $275 ticket for an illegal turn on red in San Sebastián after the police officer turned out to be a Red Sox fan. “You do drive like that in Boston,’’ the officer acknowledged.

With the column resuming, I hope to answer more reader questions about transportation, so please keep them coming. Meanwhile, some recent news:

Radio bracelet helps quickly find boy lost on the T

On Thursday, an autistic 15-year-old from East Boston with a subway fascination wandered off from school and wound up on the T. For the Transit Police, such missing-person searches can last hours and consume considerable manpower. But this time, the department found the boy in the subway at Downtown Crossing in a matter of minutes, after deploying just two officers.

The difference, Deputy Chief Joe O’Connor said, was a bracelet the boy wore that transmitted a traceable radio signal. Known as SafetyNet, the bracelet is made by LoJack, the company better known for tracking stolen cars, and is marketed to caregivers of people with cognitive conditions.

LoJack charges subscription fees for the bracelets, but to promote the system it provides free receivers and training to police departments. The T has had the system since January, but this was the first real-life call here, O’Connor said.

BP Energy wins bid to supply power to the MBTA through 2015 The largest electricity user in Massachusetts - that would be the T - locked in the price for much of its power through 2015 last week.

The MBTA uses 435,000 megawatt-hours of electricity a year to run its lights, buildings, and transit systems - enough for more than 40,000 homes.

For all that power consumed, the T is still “the greenest game in town,’’ said Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey - the former MBTA general manager - given the hundreds of thousands of cars it removes from the roads.

For the first time, the T will also spend some of its power budget on renewable energy - though the Sierra Club called it a marginal first step.

Like most residents, the T’s electricity comes from the grid. But instead of getting a monthly NSTAR bill, it has a multiyear contract to purchase power from a supplier. Of six bidders, BP Energy Co. prevailed last week with an offer of $65.72 per megawatt-hour through 2015. That covers 70 percent of the T’s power needs; for the rest, it will pay a fluctuating market price.

Power on the grid comes from a range of suppliers - fossil fuel and nuclear plants, hydroelectric facilities, waste-to-energy (trash-burning) plants, and greener sources. In addition to paying for the power it uses, the T also intends for the first time to spend $2 million to promote the production of renewable energy, subsidizing the equivalent of 20 percent of the power it draws.

To do that, it will purchase renewable energy certificates from a waste plant. The Sierra Club’s Drew Grande said those certificates are not nearly as green as wind or solar, because trash facilities generate air pollution.

Though wind and solar are more expensive, the T’s considerable reach as an energy customer could spur the creation of more such facilities - potentially lowering the cost of those options in the long term and making them more competitive with traditional power, Grande said. Sierra Club members agreed in a flurry of e-mails.

“I got all 750 at my new’’ e-mail address, Davey said. Finances constrain the T for now on this matter, he added, but “I think we’d like to hear more from the Sierra Club on other things we could be doing.’’

Riders union wants safer, reliable T

With fare increases, service cuts, or both looming in the coming year, several members of the T Riders Union spoke at the last board meeting, urging the T to make service safe, reliable, and affordable.

“I am here for those individuals who are working who could not make it today, and most importantly for those individuals who could not afford the T,’’ said Gwen Vincent of Dorchester, a riders union member. “What we say to you today is, most graciously, enough is enough. The service is, for lack of a better word, not adequate. It makes people late for work. It makes me late for work.’’

Board chair John R. Jenkins thanked the union for being valued stakeholders but made no promises, given a “very tough decision process here as to how do we meet the fiscal responsibilities we have . . . without putting the burden on any particular group.’’

T promotes state agriculture

Acting MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis - formerly deputy general manager and chief financial officer - made his first appearance as GM on Tuesday. He was at Back Bay Station plugging a T campaign to promote farmers’ markets and local agriculture, along with Agricultural Resources Commissioner Scott J. Soares and state Representatives Byron Rushing and Linda Dorcena Forry.

The T has posted ads in 500 Red Line and Orange Line cars promoting state agriculture. Riders who point smartphones at the Quick Response codes (known as QR codes, those square-looking bar codes) on the posters - including one printed on a cartoon cow - see a list of markets, orchards, and the like, as well as a searchable map.

Several of the markets and even some of the farms are accessible by subway, bus, or commuter rail, but the technology stops short of providing personalized, step-by-step transit directions.

Rushing and Forry, both Boston Democrats, encouraged the effort and said they hope to see it expand to buses, given a desire to promote access to produce in inner city neighborhoods, where fresh fruits and vegetables can be in short supply.

Farming and food production aren’t entirely unfamiliar to Davis, who came to the T in 1995 after serving as an executive with dairy company HP Hood - despite not being much of a milk drinker.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at