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TERROR AT 50 FEET

Catapult on Summer Street

 

Acrimony over Seaport gondola plan speaks to need for expanded MBTA service

 

Much ink has been spilled in the Boston press over a plan by luxury developer Millennium Partners and its subsidiary Cargo Ventures to spend $100 million to build an aerial gondola system from South Station up Summer Street across Fort Point Channel to the possible future site of what may one day be either its 2 million-square-foot (Boston Globe) or 2.7 million-square-foot (Boston Business Journal) “office campus.” Millennium and Cargo have development rights on “at least three major parcels in South Boston’s Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park and adjacent Massport Marine Park,” according to BBJ. All of which is public land.

 

According to the Globe, “The proposed gondola system on the South Boston Waterfront would include a hulking terminal across Summer Street near South Station, 13 large towers spanning the one-mile route to the marine industrial park, and about 70 cable cars that can fit 10 passengers each, running every 9 seconds.” The cable cars are currently slated to run from 30 to 50 feet above the street.

 

An early version of the plan would have had the gondola system traveling as high as 160 feet and traversing a Mass Pike interchange to go directly to the Millennium campus, according to BBJ, but the company just released a scaled-back version that terminates on its Summer Street side—after pushback from state port authority Massport over safety concerns and from the owners of the future $550 million Omni hotel.

 

News coverage of Millennium’s Seaport project has focused on the gondola itself over the last several months. Which is understandable because it’s an easy target. In fact, my first reaction to the plan was that a giant catapult would be a better idea—if the developer’s goal was simply to get buzz for its project. But it’s a rather specific solution to a real transit logjam that could help keep lots of cars off Seaport roads daily. And, as Boston.com pointed out, it has been proposed before—in 2016, by the office real estate quarterly Blue by Encompass. So I don’t think that it’s just a marketing scheme. And I don’t think the support it’s garnering from South Boston politicians Mayor Marty Walsh, Rep. Stephen Lynch, Rep. Nick Collins, and Councilor Michael Flaherty is necessarily ill-considered either. Especially since Millennium is already discussing a “second phase” for the gondola project that will go—surprise, surprise—across the Reserved Channel into the heart of South Boston proper.

 

Millennium has an agreement with the city to spend up to $100 million to mitigate the negative effects to Seaport transportation of dumping a big new job site on an already crowded neighborhood, according to Boston.com. The existing transportation options in that district currently being the MBTA Silver Line restricted access bus service, some regular MBTA bus lines, cars, walking, and bicycles.

 

My problem with the proposed gondola system, then, is not the idea itself. I don’t think it’s practical, but I do think that some kind of elevated mass transit system makes a hell of a lot of sense if you want to avoid existing vehicular traffic and prepare for future global warming-induced flooding.

 

If crosswinds and storms are a serious concern for gondolas—and, in a Twitter dustup with project boosters, critics like former Mass Secretary of Transportation Jim Aloisi have made clear they are—then perhaps a sturdier alternative like a monorail would fit the bill.

 

Sure, the idea would trigger mocking laughter even faster than a gondola system, given how much of the population has seen The Simpsons’ infamous monorail boondoggle episode. But the biggest issue with any private alternative transportation proposal for the Seaport is that it would be yet another example of major corporations having too much power to set public policy agendas. Developers like Millennium both dominate policy that applies to their core business and literally get to change the face of the city by completing their developments. With little or no meaningful input and control by the various communities affected by its several projects around Boston. From the completed Millennium Tower to the nearly greenlighted Winthrop Square Tower.

 

From that perspective, Millennium is cooking up a new way to privatize what should be part of improved and expanded MBTA service. Just like the MBTA’s On-Demand Paratransit Pilot Program—currently extended to April 1—is already doing by contracting some of its “The Ride” service to Uber and Lyft. Instead of developing a municipal ridesharing program that’s a more equitable deal for both drivers and riders like Austin, Texas, did.  

 

If more transportation options are required, then better to focus on ideas already under study by government planners and transit advocacy groups like Transportation for Massachusetts. Create more dedicated bus lanes throughout the Seaport, add more buses, and build separated bike lanes. Also, consider one active proposal that hasn’t been mentioned much in the feeding frenzy around the gondola idea—revive passenger service on the unused Track 61 that runs from Back Bay Station to the Seaport. The MBTA is already adding a third rail to part of that track and using it to test new Red Line subway cars between 2019 and 2023. So it should be possible to fund its reactivation all the way out to Marine Park, as Rep. Collins proposed to the Globe last summer.

 

However this particular fight plays out, local and state governments should never invest in expanded transit alternatives to serve the needs of one particular corporation or group of corporations. And they certainly shouldn’t allow companies like Millennium to create unfunded mandates like a private gondola system that could simply shut down the moment there’s a market downturn or the initial investment is spent. Rather, Boston and Massachusetts should carefully plan public transit expansion that best meets the needs of all the communities it would serve. And properly fund it by taking the Big Dig debt burden off the MBTA, and increasing taxes on corporations (again, like Millennium) and the rich (like its owners) to pay for the markedly improved service that the public at large deserves.

 

If, after a deliberative public process, it turns out that a gondola actually makes sense for parts of Boston like the Seaport, then let the MBTA build and maintain it out of government funds. In a MassLive article last August when the plan was first being floated, Rep. Lynch “said he would prefer the gondola system to be part of the MBTA, rather than a standalone system.


“‘If it goes to a private firm, they can pretty much charge whatever the market will bear, which might not accommodate everyone.’”

 

If, as is more likely the case, there are a number of other tried-and-true ways to reduce traffic congestion in the Seaport while increasing development, then do that instead.

 

Just remember that if the city doesn’t construct major defenses around the harbor soon, then ever fiercer and more frequent global warming-driven storms coupled with ongoing sea level rise induced by that same warming—like the three nor’easters we’ve now suffered in a mere 10-day span as of this writing—will wipe the floodplain that is the Seaport cleaner than the surface of the moon within a few decades.

 

Rendering the entire debate over the Millennium gondola even more pointless than it would otherwise be.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.      

TOWNIE: MASS REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITIES FACE MAJOR BUDGET CRISIS

RTA bus

 

Gov. Baker’s proposed cuts throw gasoline on raging policy fire

 

February 21, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

A quarter-century ago, I lived in Lawrence for a few months. Because it was the closest place to Boston that I could find a cheap apartment on short notice. Unfortunately, I had a low-paying job in the city and couldn’t afford a car. So I took the commuter rail over an hour each way back and forth whenever I had a shift. Then at the end of the day, I was faced with getting to my apartment a couple of miles away from the station. Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA) bus service ran near my place. But even in the early 1990s with a state budget that looks more humane in retrospect, it was infrequent at best. And my bus dropped me off a few blocks away from where I lived when it was running.

 

Now that was during rush hour on a weekday. If I got home later than early evening—especially on weekends—MVRTA buses had already stopped running. I moved there in December. And until I moved back to Boston the following March, through what proved to be a very cold winter, I would often get off my train, watch all but a handful of people get into waiting cars and leave, and then begin the long, frozen slog home. Across the Merrimack River, on sidewalks that were mostly unshoveled and roads that were indifferently plowed.


Standing in the middle of Duck Bridge one Sunday night in mid-February during a fierce snowstorm, I experienced a moment of nearly perfect alienation. The scene was completely desolate. No vehicles were on the road. It was pitch black except for the occasional street light with the darker black of largely abandoned textile mills looming in the middle distance. Snow was piling up all around me. The brutal wind off the water cut through my coat. My sneakers were entirely insufficient to the task of keeping me consistently upright—let alone keeping my feet warm and dry. And I remember thinking that if I had slipped and fallen into the river, no one would have the slightest idea of where I’d gone until spring. Because in the era before ubiquitous cell phones or texters, I could not have typed “aaaaaaah” to my girlfriend as I fell. So who would be the wiser?


Fast-forward to this week, and that memory immediately sprang to mind when I read the transportation section of Gov. Charlie Baker’s annual state budget proposal. And discovered that he’s planning to level-fund the 15 regional transit authorities (RTAs) for $80.4 million, according to the Mass Budget and Policy Center, while most Bostonians are focusing on the ongoing fight to keep the MBTA solvent. Authorities like the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority… which is already cutting back bus, van, and Boston commuter service and eliminating that Sunday service I kept missing in the early ’90s. Since level-funding means a budget cut, given annual cost increases. And it’s not looking like the legislature is likely to swoop in to save the RTAs later in our now-normalized austerity budget process.


After all, if the legions of working- and middle-class Bostonians that rely on public transit can’t yet force elected state officials to properly fund the MBTA, the smaller numbers of riders in outlying cities like Brockton, Fitchburg, Lowell, and Lawrence are in even worse straits. Especially when many of them are immigrants who can’t vote.


Yet the need for public transit gets more dire the farther you get from Boston. If you don’t have a car in places like Athol, Greenfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield, literally your only inexpensive transit option is bus service run by your regional transit authority. Which I’ve already made quite clear is of limited usefulness at the best of times. RTAs don’t go everywhere riders need to go and don’t run many of the times riders need to use them. As I experienced during my brief, unpleasant Lawrence sojourn.


People without cars in the many parts of the state that aren’t reached by the MBTA’s main bus and subway lines are already at a major disadvantage in terms of their ability to access jobs, laundry, shopping, education, social services, daycare, and healthcare in the best of times. If RTA service continues to be whittled away year by year, eventually there will be no public transportation left in many locales. And taking an Uber or Lyft won’t be an option for people that can’t even afford a hike in bus fare. Even while those private transportation services are angling to replace public transit for those that can pay their largely unregulated fares.

 

That is no minor problem—lest readers think that only small numbers of people lack cars in Mass cities outside of the Boston metro area. It’s a major crisis. For example, according to a Governing magazine article looking at car ownership in US cities with a population over 100,000, 19.3 percent of Worcester households and 22.2 percent of Springfield households did not have a car in 2016. Meanwhile, my colleague Bill Shaner at Worcester Magazine just reported that “[t]he Worcester Regional Transit Authority Advisory Board voted to send proposed service cuts to a public hearing after decrying the possible changes as a ‘death spiral’ for the bus system.


He continued, “WRTA officials unveiled several possible measures to bridge a $1.2 million budget gap, due mostly to budget cuts to the RTA system at the state level. The possible measures include routes cut wholesale, cut weekend service, and diminished routes, which would increase wait times between buses.”

 

Both WRTA Board Chairman William Lehtola and WRTA Administrator Jonathan Church agreed that the system would “cease to exist in a few years” if the funding crisis continues unabated.

 

Meanwhile, the Republican reported that Springfield RTA “the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority has proposed a 25 percent across-the-board increase in fares and pass prices and a slate of service cutbacks, all to take force July 1.”

 

So make no mistake, this is a significant escalation in the war on Mass working families by Baker and any legislators that back similar cuts to public transit around the state. Cuts that RTAs have already been struggling with for years. As with the battle to save the MBTA and other public services, the RTAs can only be defended with a concerted fight from their riders. Whose goal must be to increase taxes on corporations and the rich in the Commonwealth, and to change state and local budget priorities to better serve the needs of all Mass residents.

 

Failing that, you’ll see a lot more people walking long distances in inclement weather statewide. And all too many of them won’t be able to escape their “transit desert” like I did. They will simply become more and more isolated. Until they literally disappear. The way I feared doing on a lonely bridge in the depths of a Merrimack Valley winter half a lifetime agone.

 


Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

CRISIS AVERTED

MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.
MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.

 

MBTA bus mechanics beat back privatization… at a cost

 

February 14, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Unionized bus mechanics represented by the International Association of Machinists Local 264 won an important victory last week when they agreed to a four-year contract with the MBTA—effectively ending a two-year effort by the transportation authority’s Fiscal and Management Control Board to privatize three bus garages, eliminate 150 good jobs according to IAM District 15 Assistant Directing Business Representative Mike Vartabedian, and crush the union.

 

The attack on the bus mechanics, and all unionized MBTA workers, actually began in 2015 when Gov. Charlie Baker (with plenty of help from his pals at his old stomping grounds, the right-wing libertarian Pioneer Institute) pushed a three-year suspension of the landmark anti-privatization Pacheco Law through the Mass legislature as part of the annual budget. The suspension applied only to the T. Shortly thereafter, Baker appointed the five-member FMCB—one of them, Steve Poftak, being a former Pioneer staffer like the governor—to get to work privatizing a public transit system serving much of eastern Massachusetts.

 

Because, you know, reasons. Most of them involving transferring as much public wealth into private hands as possible. And freedom. For the rich to get richer and the poor to starve.

 

The 1993 law, officially known as the Taxpayer Protection Act, protects unionized state workers and the people of Massachusetts from outsourcing and related corporate malfeasance in six ways that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance was thoughtful enough to summarize:

 

  1. Agencies seeking to contract out a service must prove not only that the move would save money, but that it would save money even if state employees were to work in the “most cost-efficient manner.”

 

  1. Firms cannot win business if they’ll pay less than the lowest amount the state pays its employees for similar services.

 

  1. Every privatization contract must contain provisions requiring the contractor to offer positions to qualified regular employees of the agency whose state employment is terminated because of the privatization contract.

 

  1. The contractor must add lost tax revenues to the cost of the bid if any work is to be performed outside Massachusetts.

 

  1. Private bids must also include estimated costs of monitoring contractor performance.

 

  1. Public employees have the opportunity to submit bids to keep the work in-house and “the agency shall provide adequate resources for the purpose of encouraging and assisting present agency employees to organize and submit a bid to provide the subject services.”

 

In suspending the law, the Baker administration meant to allow corporations free reign to eliminate huge numbers of good unionized public transit jobs and replace them with bad underpaid jobs with few or no benefits and little security. All in the service of reigning in costs at a quasi-independent transportation agency that is only having budget trouble because the state government—including the dominant Democratic legislative leadership that absolutely does not put its money where its collective mouth is—refuses to return to fully funding it based on its actual needs (see my 2016 column “Squawk or Walk” for more background). Rather than hobbling the MBTA with insufficient annual support and then dumping a huge amount of Big Dig debt on it for good measure. Because that might involve finally raising taxes on corporations and the rich. And corporations and the rich don’t want that. Just ask Raise Up Massachusetts—the folks pushing for the upcoming referendum fight for the “Millionaires’ Tax” that would devote money to properly funding public transit, among other worthy goals.

 

The expected script happily got flipped by the Machinists union and the labor-led INVEST NOW coalition, who fought hard for many months to demonstrate that privatizing the MBTA bus garages was a bad move. For everyone but the fat cats that stood to make millions off the misery of T workers and T riders alike. Since the already-overburdened, underfunded T bus system would basically collapse without the skilled union mechanics keeping its bus fleet in good order for short money.

 

The union coalition and allies like Attorney General Maura Healey scored major points when they demonstrated that only one private transportation company, First Transit, had submitted a bid to run the T bus garages in question. The same company that paid a $7.3 million settlement to the Commonwealth in 2012 after backing out of a contract to run the T’s The Ride, a door-to-door service for disabled commuters.

 

Advocates and labor-friendly legislators—including the author of the Pacheco Law, Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), himself—testified to the Fiscal and Management Control Board that First Transit’s action resulted in a $66 million deficit for the state, according to State House News Service.

 

Ultimately, the union’s grassroots campaign worked, and the FMCB, the governor, conservatives from both parties in the legislature, and the ideologues at the Pioneer Institute were forced to back off this latest privatization push. But all battles exact a cost. So while the T bus mechanics scored a solid win overall, their new contract looks to be a mixed bag. On the upside, it keeps all nine MBTA bus garages plus one support facility in Everett public and includes Taxpayer Protection Act provisions that will help provide Local 264 members legal cover against privatization until the law’s suspension ends later this year.

 

On the downside, it forces the workers to accept low cost-of-living raises over the contract term and allows the T to bring in new workers for worse money and benefits than they would have started with previously, according to the Patriot Ledger. And, like the Carmen’s Union contract that preceded it, the Machinists’ agreement allows the T to hire private contractors to perform work outside its 955-bus core service. But only if they “maintain the same procedures and quality standards followed by the machinists,” according to Commonwealth magazine.

 

Since the devil is often in the details of such statements, it’s hard to tell if that will really stop T management from undercutting the union should bus service expand. Which it very well might—since the Boston Globe reported that T capital expenditures have risen under the Baker administration, even while it has done its level best to ram through cuts in operating expenditures on the backs of workers. Like the 406 bus mechanics and fuelers in Local 264’s MBTA bargaining unit, who are essentially having $4.1 million a year in concessions forced on them in the service of a completely avoidable budget deficit.

 

Still, all in all, the contract demonstrates that fighting for justice in the workplace remains far better than not fighting. If the union had been defeated, many workers would have lost their jobs and their families would have been immediately thrown into poverty. Their replacements would have been un-unionized and unable to easily defend themselves against T management. So, readers observing this fight should think twice before criticizing the bus mechanics, and think carefully about their own work situation. If your bosses decide to outsource your jobs to some fly-by-night company tomorrow, could you and your co-workers defend yourselves? For nearly 90 percent of American workers who aren’t unionized, the answer remains “probably not.”

 

The only thing that can change that sorry situation is for workers to stand their ground. Those of you interested in doing that should check out the website of the main US labor federation, the AFL-CIO, for more information on how to form a union at your workplace: aflcio.org/formaunion.

 

It’s not easy to do, no lie. I lost a job for helping lead a union drive not three years back. Fortunately, all the other workers in my former unit at that employer are now unionized. So it’s worth the risk. And it’s necessary. And everyone who lives from paycheck to paycheck should consider it.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

REAL RIDESHARING

AH-TOP-PIC-200-DPI

 

Evolving the way the world moves … beyond Uber (and Lyft)

July 7, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The following column was written as commentary for the July 2017 episode of the Beyond Boston monthly video news digest — produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations. It’s aimed at suburbanites, but fun for the whole Boston area family.

Over the years, I’ve often written about how to improve public transportation in the Bay State. But this time out, rather than rehash my standing call for the legislature to raise taxes on the rich and corporations to properly fund such a necessary service, I’d like to take a different tack and discuss a topic germane to the future of both transportation in general and public transportation in particular. Specifically, the so-called ridesharing industry pioneered by corporations like Uber and Lyft.

Ridesharing is a transportation system in which riders and drivers interact via software on cell phones, rather than going through human dispatchers. The software allows riders to see which drivers are near them, and to have the closest one assigned to them. It provides price estimates for rides, features seamless automatic payments from rider to driver at the end of each trip — and it incentivizes simple but important things like drivers keeping their vehicles clean.

One would think this ridesharing system would be great for riders and drivers alike, but that’s not the case. The problem with ridesharing … is that it’s not really ridesharing. That is, Uber and Lyft and smaller companies like Fasten completely control their operations from top to bottom. Including the economic structure that determines how much riders will pay in fares — and what cut of those fares go to drivers. This system is non-transparent and largely unregulated.

An actual ridesharing system would be controlled by its riders and drivers. It could, and I would posit should, be publicly managed. In short, rather than allow ridesharing companies to assist in the dismantling of existing public transit systems like the MBTA by gradually privatizing them, those systems — or agencies set up by individual cities — could run municipal ridesharing services at cost.

Fares would be regulated in ways that would ensure riders the best fares — which poor and working class riders would be able to consistently afford. A small percentage of each fare would go to the municipal rideshare service to develop and maintain the necessary software and infrastructure. Then all the extra money that presently flows into the coffers of Uber and Lyft top brass and investors would be paid to drivers in the form of the best possible wages.

Such a service would be an excellent adjunct to public trains and buses, and would make it much easier for everyone to get from point A to point B. Plus it would be far more democratic because it could be organized to ensure that riders and drivers would play a large role in managing the service. It could even be run as a hybrid of a consumer and a worker cooperative. And democratically controlled from top to bottom. Restricting the growth of Uber and Lyft to something like their natural share of the private transportation market by its mere existence.

Going the public route — or at least a similar nonprofit route being experimented with by RideAustin in Austin, TX — would satisfy the needs of the loyal base of Uber and Lyft clients by providing comparable service at a better price point. And it would also satisfy the needs of a whole new layer of riders who will be able to afford access to new municipal ridesharing services on a regular basis — in addition to public buses, trolleys, and trains. All while paying living wages to drivers. Who are, after all, the backbone of the current corporate ridesharing system. But who are also the most exploited by it.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

ACTION CALL: SAVE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION WITH INVEST NOW MASS

Photo of giant Charlie - Chris Faraone

Photo of giant Charlie by Chris Faraone

  

March 21, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Over the long four months since the election of President Donald Trump, this column has focused more on national politics than usual — with special attention to the promising wave of broadly progressive grassroots activism that has resulted. However, it’s important that our newly restive populace also keep related developments on the state political scene on their radar. So, here’s the first installment of an occasional “Action Call” series to review hot-button issues in Bay State politics, and to point readers toward forward-thinking advocacy groups they can join to take action in the public interest.

This time out, a look at the public transportation crisis. We may have just dodged a bullet with Gov. Charlie Baker backing off a plan to cut weekend commuter rail service for a year to ostensibly save $10 million while making upgrades to the rail lines — which would doubtless have been disastrous for the regional economy. But the MBTA — and 15 regional transit authorities across the Bay State — have been in serious trouble for some time. Though not for the reasons most news media focus on.

The origin of the present dilemma goes back to 2000, when the state eliminated the T’s “backward funding” system where any costs it could not cover with fares and other income were simply paid by state government, and replaced it with a “forward funding” system where the T received an annual outlay at the start of each fiscal year based on a fixed percentage of the state sales tax. Later, the budgets of the other regional transit authorities were “reformed” along similar lines.

Making the deal worse for populous eastern Massachusetts, debt that should be part of the state budget was loaded onto the T in “exchange” for getting the cut of sales tax revenue. Then those revenues failed to meet projected targets, leading to more debt. All of which caused the rising fares, worsening service, and diminishing investment in physical plant and rolling stock that riders have been made to suffer through — even as T ridership grew 15 percent between 2004 and 2014.

The solution to this problem is to return to funding the T and the regional transit authorities as the public services they are, and to stop pretending that they’re businesses — or that eliminating good union transit jobs and slashing desperately needed services with various privatization schemes will do anything more than line the pockets of favored consultants and contractors. Such a move will require tax increases on corporations and the rich that they will fight tooth and nail to stop. And that’s why large numbers of people will have to take to the streets to make it possible.

Readers interested in taking action to defend and expand public transportation statewide should check out the big new labor-community activist coalition, Invest Now Mass. Its member organizations range from T workers unions to public transit advocacy groups to civic associations. According to Invest Now lead organizer John Doherty, the coalition plans to pursue organizing in five areas: investment, equity, economic development, climate, and transparency. Plug in at its website: investnowma.org. Anyone interested in having an Invest Now organizer give a public talk in their city or town can click the “Host a Speaker” link in the “Take Action” section of the website or contact Doherty directly at 617–592–2230.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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PLAY TO WIN: UK LABOUR PARTY LEADER SHOWS THE AMERICAN LEFT HOW TO MOVE BEYOND SYMBOLIC POLITICS

jeremy-corbyn-labour-can-win-a-snap-general-election-video-interview-politics-the-guardian

September 29, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last week—as is the case many weeks every fall and spring in Boston—notices of small scripted protests by an array of area progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups got me thinking about the rut the anti-corporate American left has been stuck in for decades. Most especially about the damage done by the habit of ineffectual symbolic political action on a host of important issues. Combined with tailing after a corporate-dominated Democratic Party establishment. Which, time and time again, ignores or actively betrays its base on key issues like jobs, education, healthcare, global warming, and military spending. As it’s done during the current presidential race.

But what if there was a way to change the whole political game for the oppositional left? After all, we almost saw such a tectonic shift happen this year with the Bernie Sanders campaign. There have also been glimpses of a more vibrant, creative, and successful progressive politics from the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements over the last five years. What if left activists could get back to a mass politics that can really win solid victories for working families?

The way forward, it seems, is not yet to be found on our shores. However, it might be on view in the United Kingdom … where Jeremy Corbyn just won yet another vote to remain the leader of the Labour Party.

Who is Jeremy Corbyn?  Think of him as the Bernie Sanders of the UK. But one who has gotten a good deal farther politically than the original Sanders has to date. In his context, being the leader of the Labour Party is kind of like being the head of the Democratic National Committee. Except that the levers of actual power are more built into the Labour Party structure than the Democratic Party structure. And the party sits within a parliamentary political system where its leaders have a lot more control over what their elected officials do than their American counterparts. At the same time, Labour members get to vote directly for their party leaders—unlike Democrats. So when a socialist like Corbyn wins leadership elections twice in under a year and a half, it means that he has the power to help spark changes in his party of the type that Sanders can only dream of presently.

Since Corbyn first ran for Labour Party leader last year—on a platform well to the left of Sanders that calls for an end to austerity policies that hurt working people, renationalizing the once-public UK rail system, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and refusal to support Clinton-style “bomb diplomacy” (sorry, “humanitarian intervention”) in the Syrian war—he has increased the number of voting party members and supporters from 200,000 to over 600,000. Even while fighting a running battle with the corporate-backed acolytes of the neoliberal warmonger Tony Blair for full control of the party. Many of those new members are disenfranchised young voters of the same type that supported Sanders.

What Corbyn is doing with those young folks is fascinating. Upon winning his second leadership election by 61 percent last week, he didn’t talk about beating the ruling Conservative Party in the next general election. Instead he’s planning to deploy the growing militant grassroots of his party to win political victories in advance of the next election. Which looks like a completely different strategy than the one Sanders is taking post-primary—so far focusing his new Our Revolution organization on electing more progressive Democrats to office. Even as that party remains in full control of its Clintonite corporate wing. [Although in recent days, Our Revolution is starting to sound more like Corbyn’s similar Momentum organization—which is all to the good, and perhaps unsurprising given that the two insurgencies have long been in touch.]

And what issue is Corbyn focusing on? Public education. Namely stopping the Conservatives from increasing the fairly small number of UK public exam high schools known as “grammar schools.” He is calling for the large socialist camp coalescing around Labour to defend the egalitarian tradition of quality public education for all in Britain. Rather than allow the grammar schools to continue cherry-picking middle and upper class students, and helping them get into elite universities over the heads of working class students. Thus attempting to perpetuate the ancient British system of class privilege in education long after it was formally constrained. The Labour left is also likely to push to end the charter school-like “academy” (or “free school”) system that is allowing corporations to run many public secondary schools in Britain. Lining their pockets, threatening unionized teachers, and further limiting opportunity for working class students in the process. The Conservatives, for their part, plan to expand the academy system to 100 percent of secondary schools and many primary schools besides. If allowed to proceed unchallenged.

Street protests are absolutely part of what the reviving Labour Party and its allies are doing to challenge the corporate wing of their own party and the Conservative Party. Plus, Corbyn supporters have the possibility of leading their party to victory in a future general election, and starting to implement significant democratic socialist reforms thereafter. Echoing their predecessors in Labour leadership at the conclusion of World War II. Reforms like massive public jobs programs, building lots of good public housing, expanding government-funded lifelong educational opportunities for all, deprivatizing the still-impressive UK national health system, rolling back the assault on unions—while cutting the military budget and raising taxes on the rich and the corporations to pay for it all.

So their protest campaigns against conservative policy initiatives are not limited to small numbers of people waving signs and chanting slogans at the wealthy and their minions in business and government like latter-day Don Quixotes. Corbyn and his supporters are taking control of the Labour Party away from its discredited neoliberal leadership and using it to build a democratic socialist movement in the UK. That very project has been attempted in the Democratic Party before by movements like the Rainbow Coalition – and has been crushed every time. Based on that kind of experience, some American leftists feel that the structure of the party precludes such maneuvers from succeeding. A position potentially strengthened by Sanders’ dispiriting loss in the primary—after what was arguably the strongest attempt to take over the Democrats from the left in history.

Positioning the left—the actual left—for political victory in the US will therefore be extremely difficult. No two ways about it. And it’s not clear whether trying to commandeer the Democrats like Corbyn’s movement is doing with the UK Labour Party or building up small left-wing formations like the Green Party into a national powerhouse or some combination of the two strategies will lead to the desired outcome.

But one thing’s for sure. Corbyn’s success is built on grassroots activism. If we’re going to see similar successes for the American left at the national level, progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups in cities like Boston will have to do better than calling sporadic underattended rallies, marches, and teach-ins—coupled with desultory lobby days where their peonage to the Democratic establishment is generally on display to their detriment. And start winning real political battles instead of scoring points on phantom targets.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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SQUAWK OR WALK: MORE PROTESTERS NEEDED TO SAVE MBTA, PUBLIC TRANSIT STATEWIDE

AH MBTA

Photos by Chris Faraone

March 18, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last week, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board—appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2015 to run the transit authority—voted to hike fares by 9.3 percent. Claiming the move is absolutely necessary to stop the T’s perpetual budget crisis from worsening. Which is just pathetic. Because if ever there was a manufactured crisis, our state government’s refusal to properly fund its multiple mass transit systems is a prime example.

In 2000, the Commonwealth reversed its previous “backward funding” policy of simply paying any MBTA costs that fares didn’t cover at the end of each fiscal year. The move to so-called “forward funding” has been a disaster for mass transit in the Bay State ever since. The goal was to make the MBTA function like a for-profit company—which would somehow do more with a restricted budget allotted at the start of each fiscal year—and less like the indispensable public service that it is. The funding policy was later adapted for the other 15 regional transit agencies statewide. But in practice, as is often the case with such privatization moves, it has forced them all to struggle for survival. Leading to endless deficits anddoubling MBTA fares since its introduction.

There is a straightforward solution to this non-crisis. The state must go back to fully supporting the MBTA budget, must increase the mass transit budget statewide, and must raise taxes on the rich and corporations to cover any conceivable budget shortfalls for such an important public good.

But that simple, just and obvious solution isn’t “realistic” to neoliberal legislators, pundits and advocates that prefer to squirrel around the edges of the problem in ways that let the rich and corporations that they serve off the hook. While allowing critical mass transit systems to continue to deteriorate. And I count all five members of the Control Board among the “realists”—including union leader Brian Lang,whose yes vote on the fare hike was especially disappointing. Although he did successfully push some amendments that softened the blow for low-income riders.

The problem is not the lack of solid policy solutions. The problem facing MBTA riders in the Boston area and riders across the other regional transit agencies statewide is a lack of a big enough popular movement to push through such solutions. And therefore a lack of political power.

This is not to say there aren’t transit advocacy groups. There are over a dozen area organizations with solid track records in transit policy. Most are members of the Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) coalition—which has made good progress toward the broad goal of properly funding public transit statewide through the passage of initiatives like the 2013 Transportation Finance Act. But even such gains are constantly under threat, and difficult to defend—let alone build upon—without lots of active public support. As we’ve seen with the state reneging on the portion of the act that “guaranteed” that MBTA fare hikes would never be more than 5 percent every two years going forward. So much for that, right?

What’s missing is basically a larger statewide version of the T Riders Union (TRU)—a project of T4MA member Alternatives for Community and Environment. Many of you will already be familiar with TRU because if there’s a media-savvy protest on transit issues in Boston, they’re probably at the center of it.

The problem is similar to the one I outlined last week when discussing the difficulty labor unions have turning their members out for public protest actions in light of the success of the BPS student walkout. Groups like TRU, and their allies in coalitions like T4MA, can turn out dozens to protest key government meetings as they did for the most recent MBTA Control Board meeting and the series of  public hearings on the fare hikes before that. They can occasionally turn out more people, hundreds, for rallies and marches. But they can’t turn out thousands, and tens of thousands, on transit issues.

Yet that’s what’s needed. If a political movement doesn’t have money like big business, then it needs lots of people protesting to have significant effect on the progress of key public debates.

Numbers like the 2,000-plus BPS students that turned out last week—in the right places at the right times—can change what’s politically “realistic” overnight. Smaller, largely symbolic protests generally cannot do that.

Also, smaller organizations and coalitions have a hard time mustering enough troops to deal with the everexpanding number of issues in a broad policy area like mass transit. For example, MBTA advocates don’t just have the fare hike to deal with. There’s also the late night bus debacle. And the unrelentingattacks on unionized transit workers. And the idea of privatizing more services by handing them off to companies like Uber and Lyft (because handing Commuter Rail service off to corporations has beenworking so very well). And the increasingly savage Green Line Extension fight. And that’s just Greater Boston. Start looking at the crises facing the regional transit agencies, and there are dozens of other issues that need more public attention.

That’s why it would be great to see TRU—and all the transit organizations already on the ground—get stronger. And it would be awesome to see groups like TRU sprouting up all over the state wherever they don’t currently exist. The more grassroots, the better. All linked together more tightly than they are today. In every neighborhood, town, and city served by the MBTA and the regional transit agencies. Because that’s what’s ultimately going to make it possible to win the simple, just solutions that will get mass transit out of hock in Massachusetts, and back on the global cutting edge.

The more people in the streets for transit justice, the better the outcome for Massachusetts. A pretty simple political equation.

Think that over. Then act. Before public transit is just a memory.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

BARGAINING AGAINST OURSELVES: MEANS TESTING MBTA FARES WILL DECREASE PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR MASS TRANSIT

Untitled drawing (4)

Image by Kent Buckley

November 30, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

As the latest round of the ongoing neoliberal campaign to shift the cost of mass transit in Massachusetts from state government to individual riders gets in gear—a necessary step along the road to privatizing the MBTA—regular readers will be unsurprised to find that I am in agreement with progressive transportation advocates like Alternatives for Community and Environment that are against T fare hikesof any kind next year.

However, there is a related fare reform proposal being floated that also needs to be vigorously opposed early in the game: The idea of means testing T riders and giving poor people lower fares.

Supporters of the proposal include Monica Tibbits-Nutt and Brian Lang—two members of the powerful new MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board that is tasked with bringing public transit costs to heel in the Bay State at a time when the T’s annual operating deficit is expected to rise from a projected $170 million this year to $240 million next year to $427 million by 2020. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has also voiced support for the idea.

I don’t doubt that Lang (president of Boston’s hotel and food service union UNITE HERE Local 26), Tibbits-Nutt (executive director of the 128 Business Council), and Pollack (former associate director for research at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University and onetime Conservation Law Foundation staffer) are well-meaning in their concern for low-income riders in the face of constant pressure for regular fare hikes.

But I think their push will create a two-tier system that undercuts the core principle of public services: universality. As the tremendous success of the Social Security program informs us, society as a whole does better when public services like mass transit contribute to the common good. If we start giving a better deal to one relatively powerless group like poor riders, then other more entitled groups like middle class riders will stop seeing support for the T as being in their best interest. Driving another nail in the coffin of the idea of public transportation as a human right and a critical public service when the governor’s seat is held by a Pioneer Institute privatizer like Charlie Baker and when a Democratic legislature has just suspended the anti-privatization Pacheco law for the T for the next three years.

Also, such a weak policy initiative can be undone as easily as it is enacted. Poor riders can have their discount taken away in a political heartbeat. And that’s the danger of mass transit advocates inside and outside government trying to forestall a necessary battle in the public interest with piecemeal reform. That’s the danger of hewing solely to politics of the “possible”—the politics of least resistance—and of buying into Maggie Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal capitalist ideology. To forgetting about democracy. To absolving corporations and the rich of their responsibility to pay taxes, and privatizing government. Thus killing off public services while guaranteeing ever greater profits for the one percent.

Last spring, the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung predictably tried to put a positive spin on the means tested fare discount plan by inferring that it is somehow akin to progressive taxation—the opposite of Thatcher’s vision—where the poor pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes and the wealthy pay a higher percentage. But while declaring that the single fare system is a regressive tax on the poor, she tripped lightly past the fact that if we had a genuinely progressive income tax in Massachusetts we’d not only have plenty of money to properly fund the T without regular fare hikes, but would also be able to significantly expand the system. And get all those suburban SUV cowboys and cowgirls on a public bus or train once in awhile—which would be good for both the environment and for reminding conservative suburbanites that they live in a democratic society. Not a Randian individualist dystopia.

The constitutional amendment campaign by the labor-backed Raise Up Massachusetts coalition would go part way towards that goal if enacted by raising state income tax on just the rich and by dedicating some of the funds to mass transit. Which is helpful. But, absent a public groundswell an order of magnitude larger than the Occupy movement, we’ll apparently have to wait for a progressive coalition with the political will to fight for a full progressive taxation amendment that will really solve the problem of properly funding public services like the MBTA.

Meanwhile, former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi (a sometimes controversial figure himself) amply demonstrates what could be done to save the T without major tax reforms in a recent article in Commonwealth—starting with forcing state government to take back the billions in “legacy” and Big Dig debt it dumped on the T years back, shifting up to 10 percent of highway dollars to mass transit each year for five years, and committing the billions in freed-up revenue toward desperately needed system maintenance.

Aloisi points out that the highest possible fare hikes under the law passed in 2013 that limits T fare hikes to 5 percent every two years would only result in an additional $20-23 million in new annual revenue when its operating deficit is rising and the bill for deferred maintenance—that will allow the system to reach a “state of good repair”—is $7 billion (and rising). And that even the 10 percent fare hike that some legislators insist the 2013 law allows would only bring in around $40 million in new annual revenue. So fare hikes are only going to alienate more people from the T in an era when it needs strong public support more than ever.

There’s lots more political drama to come over the next few months before anything is set in stone, but my general admonition to transportation activists would be to echo what a mentor of mine, longtime labor activist Tim Costello, told me over and over again in situations like this years before he passed away: “Don’t bargain against yourselves!”

In other words, mass transit advocates should not start the current fight with a weak political proposal like trying to give low-income T riders lower fares and exposing a lot of other better off—but still economically vulnerable—riders to a stiff hike. They should fight to defend and expand public transportation on democratic principle.

If it becomes necessary to make political accommodations along the way during the hard grassroots fight it will take to make that goal a political reality, then at least public transit advocates will be bargaining from a position of strength … and will end up winning more than they started with.

Rather than less.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.