Finally, finally, finally the State House debate on a transportation funding law is over — at least for this year — and it's pretty clear that most normal people never want to hear the words "transportation finance" again.
After a whole lot of drama between legislators and Governor Deval Patrick, the House and Senate passed a bill that raises taxes, places a slew of demands on the Department of Transportation, and earmarks a big chunk of change — $800 million per year by 2018 — to pay for the T, MassDOT personnel, regional transit authorities, and some big-budget construction projects.
But what does this new law mean for the average commuter? Here's what you need to know:
Taxes: Tax hikes on gas and tobacco— an additional 3 cents per gallon, and $1 per cigarette pack — start Wednesday.
MBTA fares: No more budget-busting fare hikes. Because of the new law, the MBTA can raise ticket prices only once every two years, and can increase prices no more than 5 percent each time.
Dunkin' Donuts Station? By Jan. 1, MassDOT will have to solicit a proposal for companies interested in buying or leasing the naming rights to subway, bus, or commuter rail stations.
Tolls: MassDOT has 90 days to come up with a plan to reinstitute tolls between Exits 1 and 6 on the western end of the Pike, which haven't existed since 1996.
Tolls, part two: Transportation officials must also study whether it would be feasible to establish tolls along the state's borders.
Premium parking: The T must institute a premium parking program at three high-traffic lots, where a maximum of 10 percent of parking spots will be reserved for people willing to pay a little extra for an assigned spot.
Return of the Night Owl? The T must issue a request for proposals from businesses and organizations willing to sponsor late-night T service.
Commuter rail ridership is on the rise
If you've noticed that commuter rail trains are slightly more crowded of late, the numbers back you up: Ridership during peak commuting hours this spring rose 2.7 percent from last fall, according to data released this week by the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co.
The March number is the highest ridership count since spring of 2009. But compared with that time last year, the growth is a little more modest: It represents a .9 percent increase since the spring of 2012.
Commuter rail ridership counts are conducted twice per year, once in the fall and once in the spring, when independent counters spend two weeks tabulating the number of passengers boarding and exiting trains during peak hours at the system's major stations.
The average daily number of rush hour rides taken during the two-week count this March was 82,944, up from 80,748 in October 2012 and 82,191 in March 2012.
Scott Farmelant, spokesman for the commuter rail, said the growth was probably caused by improved on-time performance, as well as the expansion of weekday service to Worcester.
Between last fall and this spring, the Needham line had the largest growth, with ridership jumping by 9.1 percent.
The counts are taken on inbound trains from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and on outbound trains from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Morning drizzle means a wet ride to Wonderland
Friday morning's commute was a wet one for everyone in the Boston area, but few people experienced the downpour quite like Scott Fisher, who shot a YouTube video of the unfortunate leak that occurred inside an MBTA bus on Route 441 to Wonderland Station.
Visualize rivulets of rainwater streaming onto the bus seats. The video's worth a few chuckles: Check it out at Boston.com/starts.
Speaking of late-night T service
It's perhaps the chief complaint heard from just-arrived college students in Boston: Why isn't the T open past 12:30 a.m.?
Now, a T-affiliated group has a solution: If college students want late-night T service, colleges should pay for it.
In a report released Friday by the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee — a group of riders, advocates, and T employees who advise the transit agency — the organization proposed overhauling the T's college discount program to provide the funds necessary to operate the subway system later into the night.
The idea, based on the Chicago Transit Authority's U-Pass program, requires that participating colleges and universities buy unlimited-use subway and bus passes for all of their students. The passes would be discounted more deeply than the T's current college pass program, which provides a flat 11 percent discount rate to students who opt in.
In exchange for buying passes for their entire student population, the colleges are assured that the revenue is dedicated specifically toward paying for late-night transit.
"The main reason for considering a revamped unlimited college student pass program in the Boston area is to generate revenue for the MBTA — potentially enough revenue to run overnight service," the report said. "Providing overnight service in exchange for colleges buying into the program will make students and colleges more likely to accept such a program."
If just half of the college students in the Boston area were provided with the unlimited transit pass at a 50 percent discount, it would bring in about $43 million in revenue per year, the report said. The Rider Oversight Committee estimated that running a late-night transportation service would cost the T less than $10 million per year.
Of course, there are other challenges hampering the T from operating late-night service. One problem is that the few hours the subway is closed each night are the only time T staff can make repairs on the aging system.
Still, the report might serve as ammunition for mayoral candidates who promise to push the T to extend nighttime service.