Entries by Steve Poftak

Pull Back the Curtains

Local news over the past few years has had plenty of stories about state government — corruption scandals, employee benefit reforms, and spending battles. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a way to dig behind the headlines and get the facts about where the state spends its money, what it pays employees, and what are the actual pensions received by state retirees? Now you do — www.massopenbooks.org — provides detailed salary, pension and state disbursement data. The disbursement data has multiple layers to filter down to what really interests you, and plenty bubbles up. Did you know the state spent $6.5 million on office furniture in 2009 or $7 million in the same year for interns at UMASS? Salaries reveal […]

Learning From A Tragedy

On the afternoon of January 9, 2009, the brakes on Ladder Company 26 failed and it ran down Parker Street in Mission Hill, cutting across Huntington Street, and crashing into a building, taking the life of Lt. Kevin Kelley and injuring the driver and several other passengers. Following the accident, the City commissioned an outside study of the Boston Fire Department’s fleet management practices that put forward some harsh findings about the BFD and provided a clear set of recommendations. The study found that the fleet’s management was largely haphazard, as evidenced by a vicious cycle of poorly qualified mechanics who either did questionable work or were unable to properly judge work done by outside vendors, so firefighters became reluctant […]

Heroes of the MBTA

It’s bloodsport in these parts to complain about the MBTA. But the latest MBTA scorecard makes one thing clear — their operations staff is doing a close to miraculous job keeping the system running in the face of massive deferred maintenance and dwindling equipment options. The Green Line is a prime example — in June 2011, their vehicles traveled an average of 3,663 miles between breakdowns, 33% below their goal. That’s just under 146 round-trips on the Riverside Line between failures. And the failures are having an impact, there was only a single extra vehicle above the required 150 available in June. The commuter rail has a similar issue, with just enough locomotives to provide service. Part of that is […]

Sidewalk Superintendent Series: Parking Spaces or Public Places?

A unwelcome phenomena in Boston is the use of public space for parking of vehicles on seemingly ‘official’ business. In a city where I’ve seen homeowners struggle for years to get approval for modest curb cuts, I marvel at the ability of these parkers to convert sidewalks and plazas into personal spots. Exhibit 1 is the John Adams Courthouse. Recently refurbished at an expense of $150 million, the redone courthouse has injected some liveliness into the previous moribund plaza between it and Government Center Plaza. New restaurants and outdoor seating have also helped. So what was the next logical step? Turn the brick plaza in front of the courthouse into a parking lot. Now diners get to sit next to […]

Examining Pension Talking Points

The state Senate approved a pension reform package yesterday. Reviewing the Senate’s debate, there are two oft-repeated claims from reform opponents that are worth parsing. Claim 1: State employees pay for their own pension. Reality: This will be true only for some new employees and only if a number of assumptions hold up over time. Those assumptions include existing rates of salary increase and service time duration. The assumption with the biggest potential downside risk is the continued achievement of the 8.25% expected rate of return for the state pension fund over the career of these new employees. There is a considerable school of thought, within academia and the investment community, that the return environment will be lower in the […]

Silliness Buried In the Casino Bill

The coming casino debate has a whiff of anticlimax, as it appears that passage is all but assured, given the lack of elected opposition. However, there’s one detail of the bill that cries out for correction. As a principle, the bill calls for a referendum to be held in each potential host community for a casino. Solid reasoning, right? Except, buried deep in the fine print, is an exemption for communities greater than 125,000 in population. In those communities, only the ward with the potential site needs to vote its approval in an election. The impact of this provision sets a separate standard for Boston, Springfield, and Worcester from the other 348 municipalities in the state. In Boston, wards vary […]

What We Learned From Sal DiMasi

Barring a successful (or incredibly lengthy) appeal, Sal DiMasi will spend the next 8 years in jail. It’s a jarring sentence that will consume almost half of his expected remaining years. For many of his former colleagues, this should be sobering news. There have been a string of scandals facing politicians in state government. For the most part, these have resulted in relatively short jail terms, if any. DiMasi’s sentence will likely be viewed differently — its longer and he was no ordinary legislator. DiMasi was, at least on a dissenting vote basis, the most powerful speaker in recent memory. He managed to get resoundingly reelected as Speaker despite ethics questions hanging over his head. Even after the trial, sitting […]

Boston’s Advanced Work Class Maze

In Boston, school starts tomorrow (except for K1 and K2, which starts on Monday). For those newcomers to the Boston Public Schools, congratulations, you’ve survived the much-feared school lottery (see previous comments here, here, here, and here.) Many lottery survivors are again tested by the Advanced Work Class “AWC”) program. 3rd grade students are tested and those scoring highly enough are invited to participate in Advanced Work Class, described as “an accelerated academic curriculum for highly motivated and academically capable students” by the district. These classes are viewed as the gateway to the prestigious exam schools and there’s clearly a link. About half the exam school students come from the public school (a surprisingly low number, in my view), and […]

Let Walmart In!

Opposing Wal-Mart seems to be in vogue these days. Mayor Curtatone of Somerville is doing it, so is Mayor Menino. Menino, along with many community leaders, is opposing the expansion of Wal-Mart into Dudley Square. Their opposition is built on two objections – that Wal-Mart will damage the existing retail infrastructure in Dudley Square and that Wal-Mart is bad corporate citizen. But it’s a short-sighted attempt by government actors to tilt the playing field in favor of certain businesses. For one, the mega-marts are already here. The city has one – the Target in the South Bay Shopping Center (and Target’s masterful branding as the ‘good citizen’ compared to Wal-Mart is a whole separate story). But if you look at […]

The 28X Debacle: A Missed Opportunity in Transportation

What’s the 28X? It was the MBTA’s attempt to put a version of bus rapid transit on the existing 28 bus line. Route 28X would have converted portions of the bus route, particularly on Blue Hill Avenue, into a dedicated bus lane. It would have implemented many of the principles of bus rapid transit, like the dedicated lane and more widely spaced station stops, to allow faster service and greater throughput for one of the system’s most heavily used bus lines. And it would have done it with the help of federal funds and at an incremental cost to the existing system (as opposed to a large greenfield capital expense). As this space has noted before, there’s no money out […]

In Praise of the Indigo Line

This space generally takes a dim view of several MBTA expansion projects, but there is one we can get behind — the Indigo Line. What’s that? Its the MBTA’s expansion of the low volume (~1600 passengers per day) Fairmount Line to create more stations and improve the existing ones. The Fairmount Line is unique in the MBTA’s commuter rail network — its starts and terminates in Boston (South Station – Readville) and only has five stations. Officially known as the Fairmount Line Improvement Plan, the project will add four stations to the line. So what’s good about that? First, it will provide rail access to a dense urban population center that is currently dependent on slower buses. Take a look […]

Mr. Secretary, Open this Road!

Summer travels have taken me up and down the East Coast, and I continue to marvel at other states’ ability to implement open-road tolling, while Massachusetts continues to hem, haw, and plan pilot programs. I’ve seen the results of open road tolling in New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Delaware, and they are impressive. Drivers used to congestion and bottlenecks now proceed at regular speed. If congestion was an important measure of performance for MassDOT (and I respectfully suggest its not, as they don’t measure it in their performance reports), open road tolling would be a priority project. As transponders drop in price, they will become more pervasive (despite some objections) and the utility of open-road tolling will only increase. Also, […]

Lurking Over the Horizon

As the summer slumber descends on Beacon Hill, where sub-10 minute legislative sessions with just a handful of attendees is currently the norm, a September wake-up call awaits. Former Speaker Sal DiMasi, who was reelected to that post with 135 votes out of a possible 160 despite ongoing ethics violations, is due to be sentenced on September 8th. The prosecution is currently seeking 12.5 to 15.5 years for DiMasi’s sentence, a pretty serious number when you consider that he’s 65 years old. In the background of this case lurk the sentences given to Diane Wilkerson and Chuck Turner, who got 3.5 years and 3 years respectively for lesser offenses than DiMasi. Many observers will be watching to see if DiMasi’s […]

Mr. Commissioner, Open This Road!

One of the great mysteries of urban life is the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s penchant for blocking a lane on Storrow Drive for events. For events ranging from charity walks to radio station concerts to the Fourth of July celebration, DCR blocks a lane of traffic stretching from the esplanade to at least the first ‘rest pull-off’ on the westbound side of the Storrow. The impact of the lane closure typically backs up traffic onto the Leverett Connector and back into the tunnel , creating delays of a half hour or more in some instances. The stated rationale for the practice is visitor safety, with the row of parked cars serving as a barrier between vehicles and participants. In […]

Whoa! What Did DeNucci Know?

The Lowell Sun’s Peter Lucas weighs in on the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative scandal (see my previous comments here and here) and performs a bit of (unknowing?) jiu-jitsu. The piece is driven by an internal leak from the State Auditor’s office where a DeNucci loyalist lets slip that the report leaked by Bump was actually conducted under the former Auditor: Although an investigation of the program covering 2008 to 2010 had been conducted by former state Auditor Joseph DeNucci, and a draft report written up, you would never know it. That audit, conducted before Bump took office in January, apparently sat on a shelf until Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, who had conducted a parallel investigation with DeNucci, released his explosive […]

Thinking Snow? SnowCOP Technology

What? You aren’t thinking about snow right now? Well, while you swelter, city workers are busy fine-tuning their snow removal technology. Yes, you read that right– Technology. If you think ‘snow removal technology’ just means plows and salt trucks, then meet SnowCOP, Boston’s snow removal data system. Each plow driver, public and private, carries a GPS-enabled phone which feeds data in Boston’s SnowCOP. The data is plotted onto a map of the city, which is broken down into 200 snow zones. The map shows the current location of the vehicles, as well as color coding each street to show whether it has been plowed in the last hour, two hours or longer. This lets Public Works Department (“PWD”) managers know […]

Start-Ups Needed. Desperately.

Massachusetts has had some good short term news, creating jobs at a faster clip than the rest of the country. (Although, given the weak manufacturing data and general market weakness, I’d be concerned about popping the corks prematurely.) But our state has a long-term problem. Massachusetts takes a long time to recover from recessions — It also took us almost two and a half times as long as the rest of the country to regain the jobs we lost in the ’90-’91 recession. We never fully recovered from the 2001 recession, while the rest of the country created millions of jobs before the 2007 recession hit. In the diagram below, you can see that the national number of jobs (the […]

Red/Blue Connector? Gone.

Last week, MassDOT did the right thing – effectively ending the Red/Blue Connector project. The project had some logic to it – the Blue Line ends abruptly at the Bowdoin Street station right near City Hall Plaza and the Connector would have extended it to the Charles/MGH Red Line station, connecting the two lines directly while giving Blue Line riders access to MGH and Red Line riders a single transfer trip to the Airport. The state committed to the project in a different time and place. The Big Dig was only supposed to cost a few billion dollars, most of that Federal money, so committing ourselves to some big transit projects must have seemed logical. The current reality is much […]

Pay No Mind to the Thieves from NH

How do we create jobs? If you read media accounts, you’d think it was luring companies to relocate from other states. And politicians feed that beast, issuing press releases every time a company relocates (scroll through the press releases from the Mass Life Sciences Center to see multiple examples). A few weeks back, the Globe had an entertaining piece on the “thief” sent by the New Hampshire to talk Massachusetts employers into moving over the border. (And New Hampshire seemed pleased with the attention, particularly to their low cost business climate.) Guess what? It’s all relatively meaningless. Of course the loss or gain of any jobs is important, but in the big picture, firms relocating in and out of Massachusetts […]

The MBTA Gets One Right

It has almost become blood sport in these parts to pick on the MBTA. I’m not sure if its the ability to gripe in real time through social media, the hyperavailability of the MBTA’s new General Manager Rich Davey, or the crushing maintenance backlog hobbling their operations. Probably a combination of all three. But they are doing some thing right, really right. If you are a regular rider and not using any of their tracking apps, you should give it a try. These apps turn the unknown of taking the T (how long do I have to wait for the next bus? When is the next train arriving?) and turns it into a known. You can now track 3 of […]

The New Normal: Job Creation In Massachusetts

Trying to figure out the jobs picture in Massachusetts is a challenging task these days. There’s a steady drip-drip-drip of bad news – exemplified by State Street’s announcement this week that 850 jobs are leaving Massachusetts. At the same time, the most recent monthly jobs announcement for the state shows an increase of 10,300 private sector jobs over last month, (but the unemployment rate remains unchanged at 7.6%, reflecting a change in the denominator countering the effect of the increase). The job market in Massachusetts has been surprisingly dynamic for years, with roughly 17% of total jobs being created or destroyed in a given year (regardless of economic conditions). Massachusetts has had success creating lots of firms, but there are […]

The Relentless Quest for Expansion

Some familiar faces are once again calling for new revenues for our state transportation system(on SHNS, sub req’d.). Its been well-documented that the system is woefully underfunded and we’ll need new revenues sooner or later. But I can’t join in with the chorus right now. First, I don’t think the state is doing a good enough job telling us what they are doing with their money and if its making a difference (see previous post). Second, I’m highly skeptical that new revenues would be spent to remedy the massive maintenance backlog on our infrastructure before another dollar gets spent on expansion. Many of these same voices calling for new revenues and decrying the lack of maintenance were also the ones […]

Meet the Pillars of the Clean Economy

Yep, your friendly MBTA bus driver and local garbage collector represent the two largest sectors of the “clean economy” according to a new report. The report, by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the prestigious Brookings Institution, totals up the employment of the “clean economy” sector. And, to be fair, is pretty upfront about its methodology and reasoning. What concerns me is that the incredibly broad contours of the ‘clean economy’ (which even includes the HVAC tech who allows me to keep my office at a cool, energy-sucking 62 degrees in summertime) are quickly conflated with ‘clean energy’, ‘cleantech’, ‘green economy’ and other buzzwords. Then the data about the size of the sector enters the policy discussion without an understanding of […]

Learning the Wrong Lesson

Cutting through the bureaucratese of the assembled emails and memos from MASSDoT in this weekend’s Globe was a chilling phrase: according to the District 6 (i.e. metro Boston) highway director, We don’t write things down because they trigger a formal event. The article proceeds to detail a confusing he-said, he-said, he-said over what the Transportation Secretary, Acting Highway Administrator, and District 6 Engineer knew about the falling light in the Big Dig tunnel and what they did about it. I won’t unravel that tale here. But the macro-point is that the culture deep within MassDoT remains one of opacity and concealment. The irony is that no one (well, almost no one) blames the current administration for issues related to the […]

Muni Health Leap of Faith?

This space has written previously on the muni health portion of the budget, currently sitting on the Governor’s desk. I’ve heard from several folks that my assessment of the municipal review panel is too harsh and that their power is highly circumscribed in the budget. The key clause is this one (Line 786 of Conference Budget): (d) The municipal health insurance review panel shall approve the appropriate public authority’s immediate implementation of the proposed changes under section 22 or section 23; provided, however, that any increases to plan design features have been made in accordance with the provisions of section 22. If the panel does not approve implementation of changes made pursuant to section 22, the public authority may submit […]

A Platform You Can Believe In

Finally, a political party I can support unreservedly: Switzerland’s Anti-PowerPoint Party. Its mission? Ban PowerPoint in their country, citing its tedious demotivation of employees and (loose, very loose) estimate of $2.5 billion in time and productivity wasted. The intellectual godfather of this party would have to be Edward Tufte, who anti-PowerPoint polemics include a detailed assessment of how PowerPoint dependence contributed to the Columbia shuttle disaster. And other creative types have shown the life-draining aspects of the medium, including its impact on the Gettysburg Address. So why the animus to PowerPoint? It’s become a crutch for lazy presenters who don’t bother to master their material — writing out their speech (or at least their notes) verbatim then reading their slides. […]

Hold the Victory Lap

The Conference Budget contains substantive reform to municipal health care. But let’s be clear – it looks a lot more like the weaker Senate version than the stronger House version. Happily, the Conference Budget’s municipal healthcare reform is free of the ‘poison pill’ provision that actually raised costs. This provision was slipped into a redrafted amendment which presented to members as a “technical amendment” by the sponsor, Senator Clark. That’s a phrase typically reserved for correcting obvious errors that don’t change the intent of the underlying legislation. To his credit, Senator Marc Pacheco was the only voice in the chamber to ask if he could review the amendment to make sure nothing substantive had changed. (State House News Service transcript, […]

Have Much Drinking Should You Do At Ed Meetings?

OK, I tried in my previous post to give a higher level policy analysis of why you should care about the unfolding scandal regarding what appears to be an egregious corruption at the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative and Merrimack Education Center. Next, we’ll move on the prurient details: When was the last time you had nine drinks? Each guest at the non-profit Merrimack Education Center’s 2008 annual meeting Friday dinner averaged 8.8 drinks at the event. The dinner the next night was a model of decorum with the average plummeting to just under seven drinks per person. All told, the weekend event had a bar tab of $154 per attendee.

Big Trouble in the Merrimack Valley

No one is happier with the Whitey Bulger arrest than John Barrenco. It’s knocked the problems with the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative off the front pages, but there’s a big problem up in the Merrimack Valley area and it appears that a lot of people are going to be in trouble by the time it’s all sorted out. First, a disclaimer: All items below are based on allegations and all the accused are innocent until proven guilty in court of law. With that out of the way, a quick synopsis of the allegations against Barrenco – he served, for a number of years, as the head (or was effectively in control) of both the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative (a public […]