Entries by Steve Poftak

MBTA Doing More With Less

Rather than big dollar expansion projects, the MBTA’s Key Bus Routes program stands as an example of modest incremental investments that can yield improved service (and potentially increased ridership). The program released its initial design for improvements to the 39 bus route on Tuesday and the results are promising. They are eliminating a handful of stops, moving some bus stops, marking them more prominently, and lengthening several of them. The goal is to lower the number of stops and create stops that are clear of illegal parkers and can be more easily used by drivers (as opposed to having them stop in the flow of traffic). The presentation also makes non-specific commitments to improved traffic signal coordination and technology-driven ‘anti-bunching’ […]

Public Pensions and Workforce – State Police Version

The recent announcement that State Police Superintendent Marian McGovern was going to retire prompted me to look into her compensation and her choices. (N.B. I don’t know the Superintendent and don’t question her commitment to public service. The point here is simply to look at the economic incentives provided by the current public pension system.) My first question was: Why did she wait so long? The State Police are “Group 3” employees and the only Commonwealth employees who do not have a retirement age factor in their pension calculation (only years of service). That contributes to relative early retirements — the average State Police retiree in 2009 was 53.7 years old while the average Group 1 retiree (the majority of […]

Final Thoughts on 38 Studios

First and foremost, this is an economic disaster for Rhode Island and a personal tragedy for the individuals and their families affected. Rhode Island is in much worse shape, employment-wise, than Massachusetts, ranking 50th (out of 51) in unemployment rate at 11.2%. Massachusetts is 14th at 6.3%. And this is a big layoff for that state, with 288 employees laid off in-state and another 91 laid off (primarily in Maryland). Over the past 10 years, Rhode Island has averaged 63 “mass layoff” events per year, at an average of 134 employees laid off per event. So 38 Studios demise is roughly twice that. One really puzzling aspect of this for me is how dramatically the company missed. This is the […]

Massachusetts’ Jobs-Unfriendly Regulatory Environment

I know this can seem like a talking point, but there’s some new data to back up the claim. The Kaufmann Foundation and Thumbtack.com have done a survey of small businesses to gauge “small business friendliness”. Massachusetts doesn’t fare so well — getting a D overall. We do well on ‘Networking Programs” but most other categories, like Regulation, Zoning, etc, are terrible. The data is based on a limited number of self-selected responses but its an interesting approach that indicates the importance of licensing and regulation on business creation. One of the most important ways to create new jobs (which we need) is to get new businesses started. So, it would make sense to lower the barriers that prevent people […]

Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past?

The Globe’s Adrian Walker has been all over Roxbury Community College this week, dinging them for failing to properly deliver financial aid to their students, to take advantage of the business community’s offer to start a job training program (which eventually ended up at Bunker Hill Community College) and to properly report its crime statistics. These revelations are a shame, given the leadership role that RCC could play in the revitalization of the area. But for long time observers, RCC has long been held to a much lower standard than other public entities. Back when I was at Administration and Finance in the mid-2000s, it was a running joke in the budget office about when the last time RCC had […]

The Struggles of 38 Studios

The State of Rhode Island is working hard, very hard, to make sure that Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios remains a going concern. It appears the state of Rhode Island is on the hook for $50m+ if 38 Studios defaults on its loan that is backstopped by a state guarantee. And let me be clear — no one wants the company to fail. Back when the deal initially went down, I said that Curt Schilling has every right to find the most lucrative deal for his company but that the state of Rhode Island was making a mistake. What the state did was make a big, concentrated, and multi-layered bet. Big — $75m big. Concentrated — $75m of a $125m initiative […]

Health Care Reform in Record Time

If you blinked over the past seven days, you might have missed the rollout of two major pieces of legislation that will dramatically restructure health care delivery here in Massachusetts. While the Governor put his proposal out over a year ago, it has taken the Legislature a long time to take up the issue. Suddenly, everyone is in a rush. The House rushed their bill out the door at an oddly-timed late Friday afternoon press conference on Friday, May 4th. They plan on debating the bill in a month or so. The Senate is in even a bigger rush — their bill came out on Wednesday, May 9th. Amendments are due by 5 PM on Friday. And debate begins on […]

Manufacturing Still Matters

Way back in 2006, Pioneer was interested in manufacturing. Our Measuring Up study on the cost of doing business in Massachusetts showed that manufacturing was still an important employer in the state and, importantly, was a source of good wages in the places it was located. More recently, we’ve been intrigued by the possibility of a resurgence in the sector based on rising costs at some of our off-shore competitors. Now, Brookings Institution has done a comprehensive study of manufacturing jobs across the country. In our major metropolitan areas (Boston, Springfield, Worcester) , manufacturing jobs account for 7% to 11% of total jobs. There’s been a roughly 30% decline in the number of these jobs over the last decade, but […]

UMASS Law School Revisited

I won’t bury the lede — the UMASS law school has been recommended for provisional accreditation by the ABA’s Accreditation Committee. The next step will be a consideration of that recommendation by the ABA’s Council on Legal Education. A commenter on a related post claims that the Council has always accepted the recommendation of the Committee. After receiving provisional accreditation, the school undergoes at least three years of review to move from provisional to full accreditation. That will be an ongoing challenge for the school but from the perspective of students, provisional accreditation gets them the right to take the bar in any state they want, so provisional is good enough right now. As a longtime critic of the law […]

Here We Go Again… Now It’s Medford

Several months back, the egregious abuses at the Chelsea Housing Authority showed the weaknesses in oversight of municipal housing authorities. The fact that it got away with that abuse for so long, even after federal and state audits, should give one pause. Now, the Medford Housing Authority is under scrutiny. This time, its not the Executive Director’s salary that’s in question. Rather, its his habit of hiring underqualified political favorites and widespread ‘irregularities’ in contracting. In addition, there are allegations of improper usage of funds by other employees. And, once again, we have the troubling spectre of the entity which is supposed to provide oversight — the Board of Directors — unable or unwilling to do its job properly. This […]

Feeling HOT, HOT, HOT….

Toll hikes are a tough sell in this area, but what if tolls were optional? And what if you were getting a premium level of service in return for your money? That’s the basic idea behind HOT (High Occupancy Toll) Lanes. These are segregated lanes that are tolled (usually at variable rates to keep traffic flowing) and run alongside ‘free’, untolled lanes. Think the HOV lanes on I-93 except they charge an open-road toll for vehicles that aren’t carpools. The toll would vary according to the time of day in order to keep traffic flowing (e.g. the price would be high during rush hour and decline during times of lighter traffic). Lots of other places are trying this concept out […]

The Hidden Transit Enemy? Dwell Time.

Transit riders (like me) love to complain about how long certain trips take. We wish trains, trolleys, and buses could go faster. But a lesser known factor making trips longer is dwell time — how long you spend at stops and stations waiting for people to board. New York City has instituted a “Select Bus Service” strategy on several key routes, instituting a couple of tactics to reduce trip time by reducing dwell time. (Its also worth noting that this type of bus-rapid-transit-like service is incredibly low cost to implement relative to almost any other transit expansion or enhancement). Most importantly, this service lowers dwell time by taking fare payment off the bus. Each station on the route has fare […]

If the State Takes the MBTA’s Debt, Then…

Multiple voices have suggested during this debate that the state take over the MBTA’s Big Dig Debt. Just today, MassDOT Sec’y added his voice to the debate noting that a debt transfer was not “a bad idea”. Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez responded that this was “not a realistic solution”. (SHNS, sub req’d.) This space has noted before that the term “Big Dig Debt” can be misleading, as it refers to transit projects funded as part of a side agreement to the Big Dig (and not funding of projects related to the roadway itself). But let’s play along with idea, if we transfer the $1.7b in debt associated with the Big Dig transit projects, what are the implications. In […]

The Political Elegance of the MBTA’s Deficit Solution

If you want the details of today’s MBTA deficit solution, take a look for yourself. Slide 4 is the key breakdown of the total solution. Service reductions account for only about 8% of the deficit reduction, fare increases account for almost 40%, and the rest is a series of budgetary nips, tucks, and rummaging through available pockets of cash. The fare increases total $72.9 million (below the $87 million to $135 million range in the original two scenarios). And they appear to have gained widespread acceptance. Imagine if the T had lead with just a request for a fare increase. It would have been ugly. Instead, they gave people a rough choice between service cuts and a fare increase. And […]

Sigh. Another MBTA Procurement Snafu?

As a sometimes commuter rail passenger, it’s depressing to contemplate that a plan to replace almost 20% of the commuter rail’s passenger cars is now at least a year or more behinds schedule. The need for an upgrade to the fleet was brought home to me in sharp relief during a recent trip to the Danbury Railway Museum. Among the old trains from the golden age of rail on exhibit was a passenger coach whose interior would have been indistinguishable from some of the older commuter rail coaches (that date back to the ’70s and ’80s). In procurement, hindsight is always 20/20. The MBTA took a much lower bid from a far less experienced manufacturer. And it looks like at […]

The Patrick Administration’s Guide to the Public Records Law

(Co-authored with Pioneer’s partner, Muckrock, which has extensive experience with public records requests at the federal, state, and municipal level) Hot on the heels of “Sunshine Week”, when MassPIRG celebrated the Patrick Administration’s commitment to transparency, we thought we’d collect some best practices in transparency we’ve learned over the years from the Administration. Massachusetts’s Public Records Law was created to allow citizens to access important government documents and provide another avenue of government oversight. After all, the documents are paid for by our tax dollars and in some cases, such requests are the only avenue to provide public accountability. But over the years, Commonwealth bureaucracy has developed increasingly “creative” interpretations of transparency, saving the public the trouble of having to […]

State Spends Millions — No Paper Trail

Our next adventure in accountability and transparency in state government starts with the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, helmed by Greg Bialecki. That office (or at least one of its subunits) oversees the Capital Access Program. The intriguing thing about this program is that a single private entity, the Massachusetts Business Development Corporation (“MBDC”) is named in statute as the manager of the program (and recipient of funds). The state retains oversight through a contract that is renewed every two years and a statutorily-mandated “annual review and assessment of the performance of the MBDC.” So, we were curious what the program was achieving with the millions it has received from the state over the years. On January 20, […]

Transparency and Accountability for UMASS Law School

(See correction/clarification below) In an effort to aid in the Governor’s quest for greater accountability in state government, Pioneer turned its transparency efforts towards the UMASS Law School. Pioneer has long been a critic of the law school project but let’s see how the school’s own data grades it. First problem: Neither UMASS nor the Board of Higher Education ever laid down any initial performance benchmarks in any of their planning documents. They told us where they would go in the future, but not where they were starting from. Second problem: UMass was not wild about releasing the information on these benchmarks. 10 separate follow-ups were required to get what we wanted. And the Public Records Law? Treated as a […]

The Boston Foundation Whacks Steve Grossman

The Boston Foundation has put out an interesting document, City of Ideas: Reinventing Boston’s Innovation Economy. In it, they conclude that that state lottery (run by Treasurer Grossman) is a drain on poor communities, returning far less in local aid then their citizens pay in. In Saturday’s Globe, Op-ed writer Renee Loth picks up the theme, noting that Exacerbating the trend [towards disproportionate taxation of the poor] is the state lottery — basically a kind of voluntary taxation. The top 20 communities in lottery sales — mostly low-income towns like Chicopee and Lynn — contributed $1.25 billion more in 2011 than they got back in unrestricted local aid. What’s missing from this analysis is an understanding of how the Lottery […]

Fund the MBTA or People Will Die!

Got your attention? The Metropolitan Area Planning Council got mine earlier this week with their finding that implementation of the MBTA’s two deficit reduction scenarios would cause “roughly 10 avoidable” to “about 15 avoidable deaths per year”. That’s right, 10 – 15 death per year. Digging further into the report — what’s causing most of the deaths? Almost all of them are caused by the possibility that service cutbacks will move people from transit to driving, resulting in a decline of 8.3 minutes per day in average walking per new commuter. That 8.3 minute decline in daily walking becomes….wait for it… 9 – 14 deaths per year. So I guess the desired conclusion is that the MBTA should be funded […]

Saved by the Nanny State!

Yesterday’s Globe brought news of an initiative by the City of Boston to move folks out of emergency rooms and into Community Health Centers, for treatment of non-acute conditions. That’s a laudable goal, but it brings to mind the inconsistency of the city’s full-throated opposition to another group of non-acute healthcare providers just a few years back. Back in 2008, the mayor warned of dire consequences, saying that permitting these health care providers to operate “jeopardizes patient safety” and that they “will seriously compromise quality of care and hygiene.” As a result, Boston didn’t get any MinuteClinics. Lots of other Massachusetts communities (including Newton, Braintree, Quincy, Cambridge, and Medford) have them. Did you miss the stories about the utter collapse […]

Psst. Hey MBTA, Could You Use $60 Million?

I had the pleasure of doing Bradley Jay’s radio show on WBZ a few weeks back. We talked about the MBTA, but what really lit up the phone lines was our discussion of potential savings from reform of the T’s Ride paratransit program. Most of the callers were concerned that eligibility reforms would take away their transportation. But it appears that the MBTA could save a lot of money just by restructuring the service, before even dealing with eligibility issues. The state’s Inspector General has come out with a report that analyzes the Ride alongside other paratransit programs operating within in the state and determined that a key difference in business practices between the Ride and other paratransit providers results […]

What Exactly is the MBTA’s “Big Dig Debt”?

The back-and-forth over the MBTA finances has seen a great deal of attention to the MBTA’s $5.2 billion in debt. A portion of that debt has been tagged with the nearly toxic label ‘Big Dig Debt’, and it’s important to be precise about what that actually means. The MBTA’s debt comes from three sources — $1.85 billion from spending since the 2000 start of forward funding, $1.65 billion that was transferred to the MBTA under forward funding and was related to previous transit projects, and $1.7 billion in funding for projects mandated under a Big Dig-related agreement. (N.B. All above figures are from the MBTA Advisory Board’s Budget and Fiscal Analyst Brian Kane’s invaluable Born Broke report. Kane, of course, […]

Driving Costs at Boston Public Schools

Education spending is one of those things that makes everyone feel good — we all want the best for kids, right? But that good feeling begins to fade when you see that many of the drivers of increased spending aren’t directly related to classrooms. In the (laudably detailed) proposed budget for FY13, Superintendent Johnson notes that health insurance is flat for the upcoming year but will increase by $7.7m in FY14 (on a base of $127.7m in total benefit spending). As noted in a 2010 research report, spending on health benefits increased by more than the increase in state education aid from 2000 to 2007. In other words, all the additional tax dollars the state spent on education during that […]

Manufacturing’s Moment?

Manufacturing has a bad image these days. For those of us inside Route 128 , it can feel like there’s nothing left. But the reality for the rest of the state is very different. Manufacturing still employs approximately 260,000 people or 8% of the workforce. And these people are working in good jobs at good wages – in the areas where manufacturing is still going on, wages in the industry are above the area median. If you’d like to know more about manufacturing in Massachusetss, I’d encourage you to look at work by the state’s Commonwealth Corporation and Northeastern’s Barry Bluestone. With Obama’s State of the Union, there’s increased attention to the industry. (I’m happy to see the attention paid […]

Carmen Ortiz is Making Beacon Hill Nervous

Think you’ve had a tense few weeks at work? Consider potential targets of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s probe into wrongdoing at the state’s Probation Department. The Globe Spotlight Team and the Ware Report detailed the madness, absurdity, and outright corruption of the Probation Department. It’s tough to do it justice in a few words — rigged hiring, pay-to-play promotions, alleged quid pro quo between department leaders and legislators, and on and on. On January 17, the Globe reported that the US Attorney’s office had “essentially completed their investigation” and indictments were imminent. Given the number of legislators mentioned prominently in the Ware Report, this had to be cause for concern. Tick, tick, tick. Still waiting. Ten days later, the Lowell […]

The Weakest Link?

Like most places, Massachusetts uses elections to insure accountability in government. Don’t like how things are being run? Vote’em out. So, it’s interesting to note that some of the most egregious breakdowns in public accountability over the past few years have occurred in that netherworld between bureaucrats and elected officials — the board of directors. To be sure, the private sector has struggled with how to insure the accountability of boards of directors, but the public sector seems to be far behind in this area. What are the key indicators of weak governance? Review the peformance of the Essex Country Regional Retirement Board, the Chelsea Housing Authority Board, and the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative Board. In each case, a board […]

Meet the Transportation Dashboard

How well did the Patriots do this weekend? That’s easy. Look at the scoreboard. How well has the state spent your tax dollars since the enactment of transportation reform? Well, that’s harder. There’s some reports that highlight the changes in management structure and some of the cost savings. But what about the things that really matter to the customer. Some of those measures are in a .pdf file on the MassDOT website, if you know where to look. (And the MBTA actually is a bit more forward with their data.) Pioneer thinks something bolder, more public, and customer-focused is needed. Using simple desktop tools, we put together a transportation dashboard with public data. It’s far from perfect, but we hope […]

9 Keys For Reality TV Chefs

(What, you think we can only do policy?) There’s been a proliferation of reality cooking shows — Top Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, Iron Chef, Chopped, and so on — as well as spinoffs and brand extensions. For those aspiring chefs seeking to success on these shows, some pointers: 1. Always cook something. Seems obvious, but every competition has some person who makes a crudo or carpacchio. It’s not a slicing-and-marinating competition, folks; you need to cook. 2. Never do a duo. The indecisive or overly ambitious chef will decide to take a main ingredient and go for multiple preparations on a single plate. The problem is that you are competing against yourself — one preparation is going to be better than […]

Beacon Hill Budget Games

I’m a bit perplexed at the latest round of expectation-setting from Beacon Hill regarding the FY2013 budget. First, it turns out we still have a structural deficit. But, didn’t the Governor tell us that the FY12 budget “eliminates the structural deficit I inherited from my predecessors”. And MTF President Mike Widmer came close to concurring, noting the near elimination of the structural deficit. Now, we find out there’s a $550 million structural gap. (Plus the cost of pushing out the pension fund, but that’s a bit harder to understand.) Working from MassBudget’s curiously well-informed preview of the FY13 Governor’s Budget, I next learn that the Consensus Revenue Estimate says we’ll have an additional $840 million in available funds for the […]