MBTA cuts affect Haverhill
The MBTA's oversight board signed off on revised plans to slash commuter rail, subway and bus service and close stations to address a steep decline in ridership.
The T's Fiscal and Management Control Board voted last week to cut spending by shutting down nearly two-dozen bus routes, cutting subway service and slashing weekend, peak and weekday service on the commuter rail.
The vote came despite pleas from local leaders, transit advocates and others who say the cuts will hurt low-income communities and workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.
The agency faces a $580 million deficit in the fiscal year that begins next July, caused in part by substantial declines in ridership amid the coronavirus pandemic. T officials say the cuts could ultimately include layoffs.
MBTA officials submitted a revised plan ahead of last week's meeting that restored some services from a proposal released last month. The revised approach reflects updated budget and ridership projections, as well as feedback from stakeholders, T officials said.
The new proposal calls for suspending 20 bus routes and shutting down weekend trains on seven of 12 commuter rail lines, including the Haverhill line. Service on all commuter rail lines will be reduced on weekdays. A previous cost-cutting plan called for ending weekday service at 9.pm.
The Newburyport/Rockport line would be among those keeping weekend service, but the frequency of trains will be reduced.
Subway and bus service would be reduced 20% systemwide, but service on the higher-ridership Blue line from Wonderland to Boston would only be reduced by 5%, T officials said. Ferry service from Hull and Hingham would be maintained during the weekday but on a limited schedule.
The revised plan still calls for closing five commuter rail stations, including Prides Crossing in Beverly on the Rockport line, and postponing some capital projects.
The cuts have gotten pushback from local and state leaders, public transit advocates and labor unions who say they will be devastating.
"The MBTA is the lifeblood of this region," Lynn Mayor Tom McGee said at a union-organized protest ahead of last week's vote. "And we can’t lose sight of the fact that people are working every day and depending on the MBTA so they can get to work and put food on the table for their families."
Transit advocates and environmental groups say the cuts will increase traffic and pollution and reduce access for T riders who depend on public transportation.
Recent polls have shown a majority of Massachusetts residents oppose the cuts.
The changes, some of which could go into effect next month, are still subject to an environmental review and an analysis to determine whether they have an outsized impact on minority communities.
MBTA officials say the cuts are temporary and services will be restored as ridership increases or if the state gets another infusion of federal funds.
The plans don't call for raising fares, which went up last year on the commuter rail and subway by about 6% to pay for system upgrades.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the changes are about right-sizing the T's service to its ridership.
The commuter rail is running with about 13% of its pre-pandemic passengers. Ridership is expected to remain low into next year, Pollack said, even with the rollout of vaccines.
"This was less about about a specific dollar amount and more about matching service to ridership," she said. "It's not designed to achieve a specific budget target."
— Christian M. Wade
Hazmat team tackles Freon leak at Haverhill facility
An early morning Freon leak at a Haverhill company located in the Broadway Business Park resulted in the evacuation of the building.
No injuries were reported, however, a couple of employees became lightheaded and were evaluated on scene by Trinity EMS, according to fire Chief William Laliberty.
Laliberty said the Dec. 10 incident at CF Cold Storage at 10 Creek Brook Drive resulted in the Fire Department calling in a Tier 2 hazmat response with assistance provided by the District 6 Regional Hazardous Material Team.
State and local agencies worked toward mitigating the leak, he said.
Laliberty said his department received a call about 2:20 a.m. from employees who were on the scene.
He said employees were allowed back into the building around 7 a.m.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, a Tier 2 hazmat response is requested when there is an incident involving hazardous materials that is beyond the capabilities of the first responders on the scene and could be beyond the capabilities of the public sector responders having jurisdiction.
Laliberty explained that levels of response to hazmat incidents range from Tier 1, the lowest level of response that involves five to seven hazmat technicians, to Tier 5, the highest level of response requiring 16 to 20 technicians.
— Mike LaBella
Mass. lawmakers spend big bucks
House Speaker Robert DeLeo didn't face opposition for reelection this fall, but he still vastly outspent every other lawmaker in the 160-member chamber.
The Winthrop Democrat spent $258,847 from Jan. 1 to Nov. 30 — more than double what he raised during that time — according to disclosures filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
DeLeo, the longest serving House speaker state history, was unopposed in the Sept. 1 primary and the Nov. 3 general election.
Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, didn't face any challengers, either, but she still spent nearly $162,000 over the past 11 months, according to filings.
Her campaign records list about $455,000 in transfers of campaign funds from one bank to another, which is also noted as an expense.
Three-quarters of the state Legislature — at least 150 lawmakers in both chambers — cruised to reelection with no opposition.
Few incumbents faced challengers in the primary, either.
Overall, lawmakers who didn't face opposition spent nearly $3.3 million in campaign funds, according to a review of campaign finance disclosures.
House lawmakers not facing opponents in the primary or general election spent more than $1.6 million.
In the Senate, uncontested incumbents dropped more than $1.7 million, according to campaign filings.
Expenditures included traditional campaign costs, such as consulting fees, campaign staff and fundraising events, as well as contributions to other candidates in contested races and money transfers to state party leadership.
Expenditures also included tens of thousands of dollars spent on flowers, gifts for constituents, pizza parties for staff members, liquor, credit card and car lease payments, and hotel stays and travel.
Charities were also been big beneficiaries, with lawmakers sprinkling unspent campaign funds around in their districts by sponsoring or donating supplies to nonprofit groups.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, spent $22,566 this year despite facing no opposition. He spent some of that on consulting, paid off campaign credit card debt, and chipped in $2,000 to the state Republican Party.
But he also dropped $750 on a turkey dinner for senior citizens at the Friends of North Reading Council on Aging's Thanksgiving event.
State campaign finance officials say candidates are allowed to spend contributions on just about anything as long as they can justify it as campaign-related.
Lawmakers and their campaigns defend the expenditures, saying they were made in accordance with state laws and campaign finance guidelines.
Some point out that campaigns need to stay active even when they aren't facing challengers.
Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, says he limits his campaign spending in election cycles when he faces no opposition.
Finegold spent about $50,000 on consulting fees, debit card payments, fundraising and other expenses from Jan. 1 to Nov. 30, his campaign filings show.
"I've been pretty frugal," he said. "I try to limit the spending, because you obviously want to save that money for when you have a serious contender."
Political observers say spending by unopposed candidates has become increasingly common and often blurs lines between campaigning and personal use. They say it's more common in states like Massachusetts, which lack competitiveness in legislative races.
"It's happening all over the country," said Pete Quist, research director with the National Institute on Money in State Politics. "What’s really important is that this spending is transparent, so that voters and people who are deciding whether or not to challenge them can decide whether the expenditures are questionable."
Quist said the definition of what is campaign-related is often stretched, such as using contributions to make monthly lease payments for a personal vehicle in an election cycle, especially when a candidate faces no opposition.
He said enforcement of state campaign finance laws is mostly triggered by complaints.
"That really gets into a tough spot on enforcement when you try to differentiate between personal and political use for these campaign expenditures," he said.
— Christian M. Wade
44 sugar glider animals need new homes
MSPCA locations in Methuen and Jamaica Plain have taken in 44 newly surrendered sugar gliders, a record number of tiny marsupials for the organization, a spokesperson said.
Ideal potential adopters will have experience with small mammal care. Sugar gliders are known to be playful and curious, and enjoy spending time with others of their kind, as well as humans.
Because they are marsupials, they have a natural affinity for pouches –– or shirt pockets. The animals thrive on a protein-rich diet –– like cooked eggs or commercially available sugar glider-specific pellets –– green leafy vegetables and some fruit, according to the MSPCA.
The 27 males and 17 females were surrendered from a home in Hampshire County, according to the organization's spokesperson. The previous owner is said to have become overwhelmed as the animals began to reproduce.
Most of the sugar gliders are now a year old –– with one 13 years old –– and are described as friendly, social and healthy.
Mike Keiley, director of adoptions centers and programs at MSPCA-Angell, said adopters are needed now more than ever.
“Sugar gliders are extremely social animals and can make great pets,” he said. “But they are exotic animals and need specialized care.”
Some of the females are currently pregnant, Keiley said, and will be held back from adoption until they give birth.
The MSPCA continues to manage animal adoptions by appointment for safety reasons during the pandemic.
— Breanna Edelstein
Plans change for Tuscan developer with Haverhill ties
Developer Joe Faro and his team have been forced to pivot plans for the long-awaited Tuscan Village in Salem, New Hampshire, in response to the ongoing pandemic.
Proposed updates to the 170-acre mixed-use property are being presented to selectmen and members of the Planning Board for input and approval.
Notably, Faro, who has close ties to Haverhill, is pointing to a portion of the property originally slated to be an office park, a need that was obliterated when the pandemic forced workers to stay home whenever possible.
“Coronavirus has been devastating for the office market,'' he said. "There’s not a built-to-suit office market happening right now.''
Instead, Tuscan developers are proposing a change of use to “life science development,” including 8,000 square feet for limited office use, labs, research and development, as well as bio-manufacturing.
“We have an opportunity to work with one of many global companies that are talking about researching, developing and maybe even creating pharmaceuticals like the coronavirus vaccine, right here in, Salem, New Hampshire,” Faro said.
Other possible changes to the village’s master plans include nixing a 165-unit assisted living facility and 20 senior living duplexes for more residential units.
Selectwoman Cathy Ann Stacey said she is "not happy" about those possible losses, as well as a lack of workforce housing in Salem.
Faro responded that his team is working to “get some workforce housing in town, maybe not in Tuscan Village,” but nearby, possibly at the existing Tuscan Kitchen location, he said.
While those conversations and planning efforts are ongoing, retail spaces and restaurants are taking shape with more major projects expected to rise in the spring.
Pressed Cafe's core shell and site work is complete, according to developers. It is slated to open Spring 2021. A relocated Tuscan Market, along with L.L. Bean and Drive Custom Fit are about ready for tenant fit ups.
Chipotle could open in Tuscan Village in March, with other nearby tenants slated for opening in May 2021. The Beach Plum is under full construction with occupancy scheduled for April 2021.
What developers are calling “the crown jewel of the project” –– a five-story artisan hotel, banquet facility and wedding venue, along with 91 luxury apartments –– is expected to see construction come spring and open during Fall 2022.
— Breanna Edelstein
Exposure feared after NH speaker dies of COVID-19
The speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives died of COVID-19, a medical examiner ruled after the Republican's unexpected death, raising concerns that other members of one of the world's largest legislative bodies might have been exposed at their swearing-in.
Dick Hinch, who was sworn in Dec. 2 as leader of the state’s newly Republican-led, 400-member Legislature, died Dec. 9. He was 71 and had been starting his seventh two-year term in the state House.
His death was announced by his office, which did not give details of what it called “this unexpected tragedy.” Hinch is the first New Hampshire speaker to die during the session, according to House Clerk Paul Smith.
The swearing-in of the House and the 24-member state Senate was held outdoors at the University of New Hampshire because of the coronavirus pandemic. Hinch was photographed wearing a mask, though it did not cover his nostrils.
More than a quarter of House members, most of them Democrats, skipped the ceremony after learning the day before that several Republican lawmakers had tested positive for the virus after they attended a Nov. 20 indoor GOP caucus meeting where many attendees weren’t wearing masks.
At least one Republican blamed Hinch’s death on a culture pushed by anti-mask forces.
“I believe the peer pressure exerted by those in the Republican Party who refuse to take reasonable precautions is the ultimate cause of Speaker Hinch’s passing,” Republican Rep. William Marsh, a retired doctor, said in an email to The Associated Press.
Acting Speaker Sherman Packard and Senate President Chuck Morse issued a statement they were “committed to protecting the health and safety of our fellow legislators and staff members who work at the statehouse in Concord.”
They said they will consult with the state Department of Health and Human Services and the legislature's administrative office regarding any additional steps needed beyond the current contact tracing and COVID-19 protocols in place “to ensure the continued protection of our legislators and staff.”
Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette would not say whether Hinch had tested positive for the coronavirus before his death and couldn’t say when he began showing symptoms. The state will investigate, she said, including tracking down people whom Hinch might have exposed.
“Part of the case investigation is to investigate the date of onset of symptoms, and then we go back a couple of days from there and do all of the contact tracing,” Shibinette said.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu told reporters that Hinch’s death was a “just a stark reminder, unfortunately, that this virus doesn’t care if you’re in a long-term care facility, or if you’re an elected official."
“No one is immune. It’s spreading in our community; it doesn’t affect the elderly, it affects everyone, everywhere, and we have to stay vigilant,” he said.
Democrats called on Sununu's office to provide testing for all statehouse staffers, as well as any lawmakers who attended the swearing-in ceremony. A spokesperson for Sununu said the Department of Health and Human Services has told legislative leaders that the necessary resources will be made available for testing.
The House held several sessions inside an arena last spring to allow for appropriate social distancing — with about four dozen Republicans who refused to wear masks in a separate area.
Packard, who represents Londonderry and is serving his 15th term in the House, will remain the acting speaker until the full House membership meets Jan. 6.
Republicans won majorities in both chambers in November. Hinch previously served as majority leader for the 2016-17 session and as minority leader when Democrats were in control the past two years.
In an emotional speech when he was elected speaker Dec. 2, Hinch urged lawmakers to view each other as “friends and colleagues,” rather than members of opposing parties, particularly during a pandemic.
“I’ve been working with members of our caucus in good times and in bad for a number of terms. Long nights, stressful days, but charging ahead for what we believed was the proper course,” he said. “Through that time, I’ve worked to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table.”
— Associated Press