Dysfunction Junction

The Winchester commuter was lucky: She'd survived the logjam of bodies that fills North Station when rush hour collides with a FleetCenter event, and she'd found a table for a quick meal. Then again, the table was the top of a garbage bin, and the meal was a doughnut. But scenes like that are commonplace these days in North Shore commuter hell.

“A lot of people ask, 'Why can't we be like South Station?'” says FleetCenter general manager John Wentzell. “Believe me, we want to be South Station — and that is the eventual plan.”

It's a promise that's been on the table for almost a decade now, however. And no one, including the MBTA (which owns North Station) or the FleetCenter (which maintains it), knows what “eventual” means — or even who's in charge of the planning.

The cramped, purportedly temporary station is the result of the high-stakes negotiations that led to the 1993 deal for a new Boston Garden. That agreement called for the T to build an underground garage, which serves as the FleetCenter's foundation, and a temporary commuter rail station. The new stadium developed by FleetCenter owner Jeremy Jacobs would include a “permanent” North Station.

The blame for what one of North Station's 26,000 daily commuters colorfully describes as a “livestock funnel” rests squarely on four parties: the state, the city, Jacobs, and the T. First, no one paid attention to the design of the “temporary” station. Then the timetable and plans for a permanent North Station were largely left up to Jacobs. He declined a request for comment.

FleetCenter and MBTA officials do agree on this: The situation is a mess. FleetCenter officials say they try to control the flow of people when their events coincide with rush hour but admit their hands are tied since the T owns North Station. “We always hear how we need more chairs, tables, those types of issues,” FleetCenter spokesman Jim Delaney says. “We tell (commuters) we don't own the property. We can't blow out walls.”

But the MBTA could at least make the station that opened in 1994 more user-friendly, especially considering that traffic has increased by nearly 50 percent since then. Need a bathroom? The entire North Station has one each for men and women, both down distant hallways.

Bob Egan, the MBTA's project director for North Station, says he didn't assume his post until 1999 and doesn't know the details of the original agreements or, for example, why there's not a single water fountain in the entire station.

“I'm not sure who's in charge of putting in a water fountain,” Egan says. “It must be some part of a development contract.”

Couldn't the T just go ahead and put in a fountain?

“We probably could.”

Then why haven't you?

“You'd have to ask our real estate department.”

Thus passes the bureaucratic buck.

Hopes that North-of-Boston rail commuters will ever see a facility like the comparatively luxurious South Station hang less on the MBTA than on the self-interest of Jeremy Jacobs, since the permanent station will be the lobby for his proposed $500 million development on the old Garden site.

Until then, all they can do is avoid North Station when there's a Celtics game, a Bruins game, or a concert at the FleetCenter. Or if they're thirsty.