Gonzalez gets smooth ride, but echoes complaints about MBTA

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BOSTON — As snow swirled above, Jay Gonzalez scoured the subway for voters, extending a handshake to the few commuters who decided to brave Thursday morning's daunting weather.

The Democrat who is seeking to unseat Republican Gov. Charlie Baker later this year said he was not disappointed by his relatively smooth ride aboard commuter rail, subway and bus, although a more harrowing journey might have underscored his contention that Baker has not invested enough in transit.

"No. That's what people should expect," Gonzalez said around 10 a.m. in Harvard Station before boarding the 75 bus out to his campaign office in Cambridge near the Belmont line. "And there's not a lot of snow yet, and hardly anyone is riding the T today, so you'd expect that it would go smoothly at this point."

A Needham resident for the past couple years who has a Charlie Card and commuted by Green Line when he lived in Brookline, Gonzalez has felt the frustrations experienced by Bay State motorists too. Responding to a challenge that Jamaica Plain transit commuter Brendan Halpin publicly issued to elected officials, Gonzalez has opted to spend five days commuting via the T, starting Thursday during the so-called bombogenesis snowstorm.

"As your governor, I want to approach the T in a very different way," Gonzalez told one commuter - an MBTA worker named Marcus, who did not want to disclose his last name.

"What's your name again?" Marcus responded, seeming to warm up to Gonzalez's pitch. When Gonzalez first introduced himself as a candidate for governor, Marcus said, "Good. Let's get that other guy out of there."

The Boston Carmen's Union has clashed with the Baker administration over the handling of the T, claiming workers have been scapegoated for problems caused by a lack of infrastructure investment.

Deficiencies with T equipment boiled over shortly after Baker took office in 2015 when snow and cold knocked out train service. The governor responded by commissioning a study, achieving new oversight of the T through the Fiscal and Management Control Board, securing greater leeway for T management to privatize work done by public employees, and initiating a winter resiliency program to replace dinged-up third rail and outfit trains with plows.

Since 2015, the T has invested $100 million to prepare for winter weather, installing 23 miles of third rail, more than 21 miles of third-rail heating that clears snow and ice off the power source, and 80 plows for Red and Orange line trains, among other investments, according to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

"I don't think he's taken enough ownership of it," Gonzalez said of Baker's approach to the T.

The chief disagreement between many Democrats, Gonzalez included, and the Republican governor, is over funding. Gonzalez thinks the state should raise more money - through a proposed new tax on incomes over $1 million - to boost the state subsidy for the transit agency serving much of eastern Massachusetts.

"The exact amount I would need to dig into," Gonzalez said.

Baker has contended that he inherited a transit system suffering from neglect, and while improvements are in the pipeline - including hundreds of new subway cars - administration officials say it will take time before those investments can deliver faster and more reliable service for riders.

"From my point of view, the T went years and years without making the kinds of investments in its infrastructure or its operating policies that it should have been making. The T is moving aggressively to deal with those issues and has been for the past several years," Baker said Wednesday.

During the Patrick administration, the state shouldered the burden of financing major capital projects for the T such as the Green Line Extension, noted Gonzalez who was the secretary of administration and finance for Gov. Deval Patrick.

"That was something I developed," said Gonzalez, who took over as Patrick's budget chief in 2009 and stayed on in that role through 2012.

Former Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a Democrat who is also seeking the governorship, plans to take the five-day T commuting challenge too, according to a spokesman. Bob Massie, a Somerville Democrat seeking the Corner Office, said he plans to "explore the failures" of the state's transportation system. Massie's campaign office is about a mile from his home and he does not plan to start making that commute by T, he told the News Service.

On the campaign trail, Gonzalez said problems with the MBTA have been top of mind for people he has met in Greater Boston.

Gonzalez encountered a range of opinions as he surveyed riders Thursday, including a Cambridge commuter who said the T was "pretty solid."

Another commuter, Renato Aquino, was wearing earbuds and sitting by himself when Gonzalez introduced himself.

"It's getting really bad," said Aquino, a cook commuting from Dorchester to Cambridge. His dissatisfaction with transit service gave Gonzalez an opening to lay the blame at Baker's feet.

"His whole approach has been we don't need to invest more money in the T. We just need to jack up fares on riders," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez had a pretty smooth commute. His commuter rail train arrived on time at South Station and there was no delay on the Red Line to Harvard. The biggest hitch occurred in the Harvard bus tunnel where Gonzalez's aide, Kevin Ready, opted for them to take the number 75 bus so they wouldn't need to spend around 20 minutes waiting for the next 74.

At 1:23 p.m. Thursday, the MBTA announced that all commuter rail trains were experiencing "significant delays" into and out of South Station due to an Amtrak signal issue. At 2:06 p.m., the T notified riders, "Amtrak has isolated the signal issue and regular Commuter Rail service is resuming from South Station with residual delays."

Gonzalez planned to spend the day at his campaign office dialing up Democrats to appeal for their support and then catch a car ride home.

"The life of a candidate involves lots of phone calls," Gonzalez said.

At South Station, Ready saw someone he knew - Kat Fahey, who was commuting downtown from her home in Roslindale.

Fahey said, "Oh man" and laughed when Gonzalez told her about his plans to commute out to Cambridge, but she said she has been able to rely on the Needham commuter rail line, which stops in Roslindale.

"We moved to Roslindale because the Needham line is reliable," Fahey said.

On the eve of Thursday's storm, Baker said he was not thinking about the political ramifications of the T's performance, and Gonzalez said his interest in the T is a response to concerns he has heard from riders rather than a political ploy.

"I'm not trying to turn this into a political anything. I am reacting as a candidate to what I'm hearing on the campaign trail, and as I said, it is the issue by far that I hear the most complaints about," Gonzalez said.

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