The MBTA’s proposed Wi-Fi project and accompanying monopoles remain in limbo after the most recent meeting of the T’s Finance Management and Control Board. The Board voted to extend their internal review of the project for another two weeks until their next meeting on August 14. Board members have asked MBTA staff to research additional aspects of the project and report back to them on the 14th. While a decision on the project is needed, the more time that is taken to examine the details of the project gives more time for other communities to become engaged and for all of us to research various aspects of the process and proposal.
At the Control Board’s meeting on the 31st, there were a large number of elected officials and residents (including strong representation from Manchester) from a growing number of communities with significant concerns about the proposed towers that the Wi-Fi project supposedly needs. At the June 26 meeting, just the towns of Andover and Manchester provided comment. At the meeting of July 31, half a dozen different communities attended with us with more than double this number sending in letters expressing concern. In addition, our entire federal Congressional delegation has requested that the FCC undergo a more thorough review of the historical and environmental impacts. Our state delegation, led by our own Senator Bruce Tarr and Representative Brad Hill, joined by a growing number of fellow legislators, are urging a revamped project or possibly starting over with a new bidding process.
As part of the T’s staff review provided on July 31, a new analysis of the proposed project shows marginal net revenue for the MBTA over the 22 year length of the contract the T has with the Wi-Fi vendor. In addition, it was reported that the Wi-Fi system only needs 35 foot towers. 74 foot towers are proposed to allow the vendor to lease space higher up on the towers to other telecommunication companies. Staff acknowledged the poor job they and their vendor have done communicating with the public and municipalities.
One of the challenges facing the MBTA is, if it is determined the project should not go forward as currently configured, how do they terminate the contract they have with the project vendor? Unfortunately, there is no termination for convenience clause in the contract. Breaking the contract could be costly in the short-run but a better contract with a revamped project could overcome this cost in the long run. Alternatively, renegotiating with the current vendor for a retooled project may provide a win-win solution.
Members of the control board asked for more details on past and future communication efforts with the public, for more information on how the contract was executed and under whose authority, for more details on the construction impacts, for an update on rider demand for upgraded Wi-Fi service, and for a clear and concise matrix showing who is responsible for what in regards to the project. The answers to these and other details of the project will be shared at the August 14th meeting of the Control Board.
Our request for a presentation on the project is on hold pending the outcome of the Control Board’s review. We are told if the project continues we can schedule a time for project proponents to attend a public forum here in Manchester. Our efforts continue to get more towns engaged. We will be assisting Andover in the coordination of a “summit meeting” of all the communities being impacted by the proposed new towers scheduled for later in August.
Letters to the Governor and to the MBTA Finance Management and Control Board can still be effective. The Selectmen encourage you to take the time to share your views. Look for additional updates after the August 14th meeting of the Control Board.