MassDOT Kicks Off Research On Options for ADA Paratransit Services

by Melissa Paciulli, Manager of Research and Development

MassDOT is excited to announce the kickoff of the research project titled “Optimizing ADA Paratransit Operations with Taxi and Ride Share Programs.”   This $152k research project has a project kickoff meeting scheduled for December 14th at MassDOT’s Headquarters in Boston.  This project is Championed by Ben Schutzman, from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), and the research study will be led by Professor Eric Gonzales at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  The aim of this project is to examine how optimizing programs to serve some paratransit trips by taxi or other mobility service in order to minimize overall system costs.  Rising ridership on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) paratransit services, such as MBTA’s “The Ride”, pose a challenge due to the high costs of operating these required services.

As of March 1, 2017, a pilot program now allows eligible ADA paratransit customers on “The Ride” to use taxicabs, Uber, or Lyft for subsidized trips.  The new research study seeks to gain insights about how the operation and use of the system is changing under the pilot program, and then to provide guidance for managing a multimodal-ADA program that gives customers more ride choices.  Although the scope of the project is tied closely to the MBTA system, the insights from this research are likely to have implications for the ADA paratransit systems elsewhere in Massachusetts.

When contacted recently, Professor Gonzales said, “I am excited to start this project with graduate student Charalampos Sipetas.  The project will allow us to use modeling tools to analyze how coordinating ADA paratransit services with taxis is changing the experience for customers and costs for transit agencies.  Our goal is to identify ways to provide cost-effective and high quality service for customers with disabilities as part of an equitable and sustainable transit system for the Boston region.”

Plug-in and Ride: The Promise and Potential Challenges of Electric Buses

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

The use of electric buses and other zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) holds great promise to help reduce vehicle emissions and promote a clearer, less polluting transportation sector.

Transit bus systems offer a great venue for deploying and testing the latest ZEV technologies. An estimated 40 U.S. transit systems now include electric-power buses as part of their fleet. To date, bus systems in California have been the greatest adopters of electric buses. The Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District began using electric buses in 2003 and currently has 14 in operation. Stanford University Transit presently has a fleet of 23 electric buses, which it launched in 2014. Foothill Transit in Northern California started using electric buses in 2010 and now has 30 in use. Foothill Transit has pledged to change all its buses over to electric power by 2030. Foothill Transit estimates that already, its annual electric buses eliminate the same amount of emissions as 2,424 gasoline-powered cars. A number of other California transit agencies have smaller fleets of electric buses.

Two UMTC Research Affiliates recently developed a comprehensive review of past and current electric bus deployments nationally. This research was led by Professor Eleni Christofa in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Professor Krystal Pollitt in Environmental Health Sciences. The review included discussions of the three main types of electric-power buses currently in use, and of different facets and impacts of transit agencies’ change to electric buses, including areas of challenge.

The primary type of electric bus in use today is the battery electric (BE) bus, and more than 20 U.S. transit agencies have incorporated BE buses into their operations, including the Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA) and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA). BE buses contain an onboard electric battery, which provides all their power. These batteries are typically re-charged through plug-in stations; BE buses also capture and then use energy from regenerative braking. BE buses have no direct vehicle emissions, but there may be atmospheric pollutants associated with the generation of electricity used for charging their onboard batteries. One potential challenge with BE buses is the short driving range (30 to 130 miles) before needing to be recharged, and the impact of the need for recharging on route scheduling. These buses will typically be recharged at bus stop charging stations during their routes for quick charges (5 to 15 minutes). Some transit agencies also utilize slower charging stations at a central location such as a bus garage, for when BE buses are out of service. Even with the quick charges, it is important that bus schedules be adjusted to reflect the charging time.

BE buses are more expensive to purchase than traditional diesel-engine buses ($750,000 per bus compared to $435,000 per bus, respectively); however, they have a longer expected lifespan than diesel buses. BE buses also save fuel and maintenance costs. Proterra has stated that overall, the lifecycle costs of BE and diesel buses are similar. The PVTA estimates that each of its BE buses will save the agency $448,000 combined in fuel and maintenance costs. The PVTA also calculated that each of its BE buses will eliminate 244,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions compared to their diesel bus counterparts.

The second main type of zero-emissions buses are those powered by hydrogen fuel cell batteries. Fuel cell battery electric (FCBE) buses store hydrogen onboard in storage tanks and the hydrogen is then supplied to the fuel cells to generate electricity to power the vehicles. There are no emissions, as water is the only by-product for FCBEs. There are presently seven U.S. transit agencies operating FCBE buses; the electric bus at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) uses FCBE technology.

With a typical purchase price of $1.2 million, an FCBE bus is much more expensive to purchase than a conventional diesel bus ($435,000) or a compressed natural gas bus ($500,000). FCBE buses also require special training for bus operators on using the technology and special hydrogen storing and fueling facilities; these are typically located at bus depots to allow vehicles to be refueled at day’s end. On the plus side, the fuel economy for FCBE buses has been reported to be double that for compressed natural gas or diesel buses.

The third main type of zero emission buses are fuel cell hybrid (FCH) plug-in buses which use a combination of both onboard batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. To date, only 7 U.S. transit agencies have used FCH buses, mainly in short-term demonstration projects. Transit agencies that have tried FCH buses have consistently reported significant downtime for the buses, due to issues with the batteries, the fuel cell systems, and the hybrid integrator, and to challenges in diagnosing specific problems.

Currently, BE buses seem to hold the most promise for wider deployment and use.

 

Don’t Get Derailed: The MBTA Is Still a Safe Transit System; Investment in Infrastructure Is Needed to Keep It That Way

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow, and Eric Gonzales, Professor, University of Massachusetts-Amherst 

The Green Line had six trolley derailments in 2016, according to the recently updated National Transit Database, and as described in a recent Boston Globe article. Combined with two subway maintenance vehicle derailments, this positioned the MBTA as the transit agency with the most derailments last year in the United States.

So what is behind this data? Why should we look closer?

Greenline

In 2015, the National Transit Database derailment figures began including derailments of vehicles not intended for passengers, including maintenance vehicles. This increased the MTBA’s reported annual derailments slightly. It is also worth noting that these published figures do not include derailments for commuter rail systems, as those incidences are instead reported to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The MBTA is this country’s fifth-largest mass transit system, based on daily ridership, and has the busiest light rail system (Green Line and Ashmont-Mattapan high-speed line). Derailments are less common for parts of the MBTA system beyond the Green Line. In 2016, the MBTA had its first derailments on the Orange and Red lines since 2001; both derailments involved vehicles that are not for passengers.

Sensationalizing this data only serves to create poor public opinion, and the MBTA leadership feels confident the MBTA system, including the Green Line, is safe. In 2016, none of the derailments resulted from a collision, and no passengers or employees were injured in a derailment. The number of annual derailments for the MBTA is down significantly (over 75%) from a high of 29 derailments in 2007, and the MBTA is committed to reducing derailment on the Green Line further through improved maintenance and monitoring. Even when no one is hurt, derailments impact service delivery and can shut down lines or stations for hours.  They can also undermine riders’ support of and trust in the MBTA.

There are, however, other challenges to the MBTA system, including its age and need for additional funding, as well as for maintenance. The Green Line is the oldest subway line in the United States, with tunnel sections dating back to 1897, and it is one of the oldest light rail systems above ground as well. Other systems topping the 2016 list of derailments include New Orleans and the San Francisco Municipal Railway, which are also historic systems. This is another reminder of the importance of funding investments in maintaining and rebuilding aging infrastructure. The challenge isn’t limited to the MBTA. The U.S. DOT estimates a nearly $90 billion backlog in transit infrastructure maintenance, just to preserve existing systems. In 2015, the MBTA’s maintenance backlog was over $7 billion, and it would need to spend about $765 million annually to eliminate the maintenance backlog over 25 years.

Although rapid transit remains a safe way to travel compared to travel by car, recent crashes on commuter railroads in other parts of the country are drawing attention to the limitations of existing infrastructure. Investments are necessary to ensure safe, reliable, and efficient mobility for the economic competitiveness and vitality of cities like Boston for decades to come.

 

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DC Metro : Getting Back on Track

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

One year ago, in March 2016, the entire Washington, DC, subway system was closed for 29 hours for emergency inspections. This shutdown came after a number of electrical fires oin the subway system, involving fraying third-rail electrical cables. In January 2015, a Washington Metro train encountered heavy smoke near the L’Enfant station due to a third-rail electrical issue and was forced to cease service. One passenger died from smoke inhalation and others were injured. On March 14, 2016, an electrical fire, caused by the same electrical issues as the Nee L’Enfant station incident, occurred near another station. There were fortunately no fatalities. Still, the Metro management shut down subway service a few days later to allow for a system-wide inspection of all third-rail power cables to proactively address system safety before further incidents.

Run by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Metro is the second-highest use rapid transit system in the United States, behind just  the New York City subway system, in terms of passenger trips, serving over 700,000 riders per weekday.  Metro is just over 40 years old and faces the many of the same challenges as older US transit systems, including inadequate funding and maintenance backlogs.

In May 2016, WMATA introduced SafeTrack, a comprehensive accelerated maintenance and repair program for implementing safety recommendations and needed upgrades to rail infrastructure.  SafeTrack involves the use of “surges,” intensive work on specific sections of the rail network and the shutting down of one or both tracks in those sections during this work, together with the reduction of Metro operating hours at night and on weekends to make more tracks available for maintenance.

Last week, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on its audit of the SafeTrack program.  GAO found that WMATA did not following leading management practices and “(1) comprehensively collect and assess data on its assets, (2) analyze alternatives, or (3) develop a project management plan”  prior to implementing SafeTrack.  In response to the GAO findings, Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Weidefeld stated that WMATA didn’t have time for comprehensive data collection before starting SafeTrack, because safety issues and delayed maintenance had reached a critical point and needed to be addressed as soon as possible. GAO recommends that WMATA develop a full asset inventory and a project management plan for those needed projects that may not qualify as major capital projects.  WMATA is now working to address GAO’s recommendations.

The GAO report found that SafeTrack “will require an additional $40 million in fiscal year 2017 funding.” It is not yet clear where that funding will come from.  Although many transit systems are challenged by inadequate funding, Metro is specifically impacted by one funding issue not faced by other large US transit systems:  Metro has no dedicated funding or revenue sources for its operating budget. WMATA relies heavily on year-to-year subsidies from the governments of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, which each have budget constraints and funding priorities of their own. In 2016, 47% of Metro’s budget came from local and state subsidies and 45% from fare revenue. In contrast, for the MBTA, 62% of the budget comes from dedicated revenue (such as the sales tax) and 33% from fares.  In New York, the MTA’s budget relies 36% on dedicated funding, 52% on fare revenue, and 8% on local and state subsidies.  WMATA currently has an almost $300 million annual budget gap.

DCMETRO

The Federal Transit Authority (FTA) provided some funding for SafeTrack repairs and maintenance. Increasingly, business leaders, DC officials, and others are calling for a dedicated source of funding or regional sales tax surcharge to support Metro operations. So far, these requests have faced opposition from Virginia and Maryland officials.  Proponents argue that dedicated funding is not only important for Metro system safety, but could relieve traffic congestion and spur economic development as well.

Also, last week, board members of Metrolink, the regional rail system in Los Angeles, met with the Metro Board Safety Committee to share Metrolink’s firsthand experience with the importance of making safety a priority.  The Metrolink officials showed a poignant video that Metrolink made following the most deadly crash in Metrolink history, a 2008 crash in which 25 people were killed when a commuter train collided with a freight train.  The video focuses on commitment and responsibilities of the Metrolink board regarding safety.  At the meeting,  Metro board member Michael Goldman suggested Metro could create its own video on the safety in the Metro system for its board members and the public.

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