The Little Transit System that Couldn't

“, “

Will he ever return?

No, he never returned.

And his fate is still unlearned.

>>>”Charlie on the MTA,” the Kingston Trio

For anyone accustomed to the nightmare of public transit in Boston,
the silver bus arrives like a fever dream. Its doors slide open with a
hydraulic whoosh, and a handful of passengers deposit suitcases in the luggage racks as they board.

“Feel the air conditioning?” prompts Dan Grabauskas as he takes a
seat, smiling. “It may even be too cold.” The new general manager of
the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Grabauskas is loving
this. The Silver Line connection to the airport is the T's one arguable
success in a decade of calamities. As the bus shoots through the
tunnel, the stops—Courthouse, World Trade Center—scroll across an LED

“It's all about making the ride as convenient as possible,”
Grabauskas says. “If you are a 19-year-old with an iPod in your ears,
all you have to do is look up to see when it's time to get off.”

Six months ago, the 42-year-old civil servant inherited this public
transit system, the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. To say it's
showing its age would be a cosmic understatement. Weighed down by
mismanagement and debt, the T is disintegrating in a predictable
pattern of crowding, breakdowns, and delays. Meanwhile, the $600
million Silver Line service to the airport averages 12 passengers per

Grabauskas has so far seemed like a breath of fresh air in a stale
underground tunnel. The former state transportation secretary, he is
best known for his work at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, where he
infused an ethos of customer service into an agency that had long stood
for the complete opposite. In his pressed suits and spit-shined shoes,
Grabauskas sweats the small stuff. Since he took the $235,000-a-year
job of running the T, for instance, new maps have replaced those
showing stations that haven't existed for decades. Signs and arrows in
a font similar to the one used by Filene's Basement have added a bit of
friendly panache.

It's his emphasis on cleanliness and customer service Grabauskas
hopes will revive the T's moribund performance—and bring back its
fleeing passengers. “A lot of what people are looking for are not
big-ticket items,” he insists. “It's also about the experience of our
loyal day-to-day riders.”

Too little, too late, T critics say. “Clearly what's needed is more
comprehensive than simply cleaning up stations and adding a few signs,”
says Michael Widmer, head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.
Grabauskas himself admits it will take not weeks or months but years to
turn things around at the T.

Boston's transit system today resembles the protagonist in the 1959
Kingston Trio song “Charlie on the MTA,” who was stuck on the city's
subway for eternity because he didn't have the nickel exit fare. Past
management decisions have left the T figuratively groping though its
own maze of tunnels, looking for the light. What happens over the next
few months could affect whether this cycle will ever be broken.

How bad are things at the T? One way of judging is to look at
customer complaints. In the first six months of this year, 15,678
complaints were made to the agency's customer relations department—an
average of more than 80 every day, and more than twice as
many as in the same period last year. “While I was at Fields Corner
Station, I suggested rather nicely that the lady in the token booth get
off her cell phone to more effectively distribute tokens and she
reacted rudely by attempting to throw tokens at me!” reads a typical
grievance about employee conduct, which accounts for more than a third
of the written criticisms. A rider on the Green Line's C branch
e-mails: “On any weekday, I can wait up to 30 minutes for a train, and
when it arrives it is so packed I cannot get on. This is unacceptable

As in past years, more than half the complaints are from bus riders,
bemoaning hostile drivers, late buses, and buses that just don't show
up. This despite the emphasis outgoing general manager Mike Mulhern put
on bus service, replacing hundreds of buses with newer,
compressed-natural-gas vehicles. Not all were replaced, however. During
Labor Day weekend, one spontaneously combusted on the Mass. Pike,
snarling holiday and Fenway-bound traffic as it burned to a crisp. At
least three more MBTA buses have caught fire since.

Of the rest of the complaints, a quarter concern the subway—mostly
the Green and Red lines. Those about the Green Line aren't surprising:
The oldest subway line in the United States, and the most densely
traveled, it's slow and often uncomfortably crowded. The T promised
replacements for the aging Green Line trolleys 10 years ago; last year,
it canceled the remaining contract for 100 long-delayed new trolleys
after the first 47 proved three times more likely to break down than
the wheezing, ancient models they were meant to replace.

More cause for alarm are the complaints about the Red Line, once the
system's crown jewel. In one recent 30-day period, even more trains on
the Red Line were disabled (11) than on the Green (10). (During the
same period, the Orange Line reported four disabled trains and the Blue
Line three.) “My ride in was HELLISH this morning,” reads an entry on, a website popular with increasingly disgruntled MBTA
commuters. “It took one hour to get from North Quincy to Park Street!”
Another Red Line rider tells of a stifling subway car smelling of
rotten eggs. Later in the day, this same traveler took another ride.
“Wouldn't you know, must have been the same train. Still no A/C. Still
smelled like rotten eggs.”

The website is run by Mark Richards, a software engineer who started
it after coming home to Boston from Japan, where the subways run
comparatively flawlessly. His 100 volunteer “spotters” comb the system
and write in. “The T can say whatever they want, but the evidence is in
the performance,” Richards says, “and the performance—I hate to be
crass, but it sucks.”

One big reason for the problems, says Richards, is the MBTA's
management of its subcontractors. The commuter rail system used to be
run under contract by Amtrak, which was criticized for high operating
costs and chronic lateness. That came to a head three years ago when a
61-year-old passenger from Wellesley suffered a heart attack and died
while his train continued to make stops. The T paid $3.9 million to the
man's family in September, blaming Amtrak for having had faulty
emergency procedures. Yet delays have continued in the two years since
the T handed over the commuter rail contract to a new consortium led by
former MBTA and Amtrak managers. “When the T was thinking about going
out to bid on the commuter rail contract, they assured the public that
a new contract would bring much better service,” says Richards. “In
fact, it's actually become worse.”

Just as troubling is the job being done by Kone, the company that
maintains the T's elevators and escalators, which are so unreliable
that a group of riders has sued the MBTA under the Americans with
Disabilities Act. “The elevators have always been not so hot, but this
year, by the T's own statistics, the problems tripled,” says Helen
Hendrickson, an organizer with the Boston Center for Independent
Living. She says elevators at key locations like Harvard Square have
been out for months at a time.

Taken together, the complaints, lawsuits, and statistics point to a
system that is falling apart precisely when spiraling gas prices are
giving people a reason to turn to public transportation. And while most
issues relate to inconvenience, there are also safety concerns. On the
same day 52 commuters were killed by suicide bombers in London, Green
Line riders in Boston got a scare of their own when two trains collided
near Arlington Station, causing a tense evacuation during which the
passengers were given little information. Not long after the Green Line
incident, the fire department issued 21 notices of legal violations
relating to blocked or inadequate tunnel exits on the Orange Line.
Making matters worse, since 9/11 only one emergency drill has been
performed in Boston's subway with the Boston Fire Department—a second
is scheduled for next month—and only one with departments from
surrounding towns and cities. The T itself admits its 25-year-old
communications system is “unreliable and obsolete” and doesn't allow
rescue workers to communicate with MBTA officials. “One of the things
we learned from 9/11 is we found a lot of police and fire couldn't talk
with each other,” says state Senator Jarrett Barrios, cochair of the
legislature's joint public safety committee. “It's frustrating [that
the T hasn't acted] given that we've known since 2001 that it's been a
problem.” In July the T finally approved a $7.9 million contract for a
digital communications system. It won't be ready for at least two


On his first day driving to his new job (a spokesman says that while
the general manager doesn't ride the T to work, he does take it to
appointments), Grabauskas heard on the radio about the lawsuit over
broken elevators. “I said, 'What, I don't even get a honeymoon?'” he
jokes. The way he's dealt with the issue since that day, however,
suggests there might be hope for the system.

Grabauskas doesn't even try to defend the T against the charges in
the lawsuit. “They're right,” he says. “Kone was lazy. They didn't live
up to the contract, and neither did the MBTA live up to its contract. I
don't make excuses for our shortcomings.” (Kone blames the breakdowns
on antiquated MBTA equipment.) Since he took charge, Grabauskas has
personally monitored the elevator service and prodded the contractor.
During his ride on the Silver Line, he boasts that 100 percent of the
elevators and 97 percent of the escalators on the T are up and running.
Meanwhile, since Kone's contract expired late last year, the MBTA has
temporarily renewed it twice, despite the earlier problems. It insists
it can't find a lower bidder.

The elevator issue fits a strategy Grabauskas says is modeled after
the “broken windows” philosophy used by police departments to reduce
crime. The idea is that when you solve the quality-of-life problems
that cause neighborhoods to spiral into disorder—broken windows, trash
on the street—crime will decrease as well. Grabauskas hopes a new
emphasis on cleanliness and service will bring riders back, which will
give him more money to throw at serious maintenance problems. In
addition to installing new maps and signs, he has started a campaign to
clean commuter rail stations and overhaul 160 North Shore commuter
trains. He's pushing a project to replace every elevator in the system
over the next 10 years. He's even hoping to appease cyclists by
outfitting more than 250 buses with bike racks.

All of this pales in comparison with the changes planned for the
subway. The newly renovated Aquarium Station is a gleaming vision of
what a world-class transit system can be. Overhanging the rails is a
shiny metallic light fixture reminiscent of a whale skeleton, while
tokens have finally been replaced by fare cards like the ones long used
by most other major systems in the world. Called CharlieCards, after
the Kingston Trio's hapless rider, they will be in use at every station
by 2007, part of a $200 million automated fare-collection system that
is 14 years behind schedule and has cost nearly five times as much as
originally projected. Then again, customers who have used the new
system in a pilot program on the Blue Line have already complained
about it, saying it's too complicated, causes backups, or just doesn't

The new fare system also means that now-obsolete token takers are
being forced out of their booths (and off their cell phones) and
transformed into roving customer-
service agents. Initial reviews
are good. In a T survey, 57 percent of respondents said they found the
agents very or extremely helpful. Even in's poll on the
same issue, 41 percent of respondents called the customer service
agents extremely helpful.

As for the concerns about security, behind the fare gates at Airport
Station is a new state-of-the-art monitoring booth from which officials
can watch over other stations on closed-circuit cameras. Other booths
are located in South Station and North Station, with more in the works.
In addition to the emergency-communications upgrade, the T plans WiFi
and cell phone service.

Of course, all these improvements cost money, and Grabauskas faces a
financial crisis that may scuttle his ability to do anything but hold
on with his fingernails. Following years of overspending and
mismanagement, a policy called “forward funding” was imposed on the
MBTA requiring the agency to raise its own money from fares and
advertising, supplemented by an assessment on cities and towns it
serves and a one-penny share of the state's five-cent sales tax. The
policy was approved in 1999; by the time it was implemented in July
2000, the economy had crashed. “Twenty minutes after the committee
finished its work, the sales tax went to hell,” Charlie Chieppo, a
former analyst at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research who
helped put the plan in place, says with a sigh.

At the same time, the T was stuck with $4 billion in inherited debt,
due mostly to the rampant expansion of commuter rail in the 1990s. Debt
now accounts for fully a third of the MBTA's budget, even as ridership
has declined along with the economy. The T's daily ridership of about
1.2 million has fallen by about 7,000 riders per day since last
year—and by 100,000 per day from five years ago. Twisting the knife,
costs have gone up faster than projected, driven by the increased price
of healthcare, an extended orange alert after the London bombings, and
stratospheric gas prices. Meanwhile, contracts covering 80 percent of
the T's unionized employees come up for renewal in June. In spite of
passengers' complaints about them, the people who work for the MBTA are
some of the best-paid transit workers in the country—bus drivers, for
example, make up to $55,203—who can retire after 23 years of service
and still have their health insurance fully covered.

“What's actually happened is worse than the worst-case scenario,”
says taxpayer advocate Widmer. “It's an open question whether forward
funding will succeed.” This spring the T canceled the after-hours Nite
Owl bus service and cut back harbor ferry service to help balance a $16
million shortfall. That proved little more than a Band-Aid. This year
the transit system is expected to go another $20 million into the red.
For the first time, the T has been authorized to withdraw up to $10
million from its emergency fund. “Either the sales tax is going to have
to get better, or someone is going to have to take a good look at
another way to finance the MBTA,” says Paul Regan, head of the MBTA
advisory board, who credits Grabauskas with doing a good job trimming
spending. “He's doing the right thing, but he's doing it with one hand
tied behind his back.”

Actually, both of Grabauskas's hands are tied behind his back—the
other one by requirements put on the T to expand. A report three years
ago by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Pioneer Institute
found that the system could afford to expand or maintain existing
service, but not both. Yet the T has been on a commuter rail binge
since the 1990s. Because of a legal agreement to offset the
environmental impacts of the Big Dig, the state is also required to
improve subway service, by extending the Green Line to Somerville and
Medford, connecting the Red and Blue lines at Charles Street, and
restoring trolley service to the Arborway branch in Jamaica Plain—but
none of these things have happened. Now the state has another lawsuit
on its hands, this one brought by the Conservation Law Foundation to
make it live up to its legal commitments.

Its failure to expand the subway isn't the only thing dogging the T.
Since 1995 it has been mired in a battle over the Greenbush commuter
line to the South Shore, now under construction. Originally projected
at $57 million, the project's cost has jumped to $597 million, largely
because the wealthy suburb of Hingham forced the T to bury the train
line in a tunnel under its historic downtown. Now the legislature has
given initial approval to another commuter rail extension, to New
Bedford and Fall River. Perhaps the most problematic expansion of all
is the next phase of the Silver Line, a $780 million project to connect
downtown to the airport and waterfront. Strong neighborhood opposition
to dig a necessary tunnel in the South End or Chinatown has threatened
to scuttle the project.

Over the past few months, the state has proposed stepping in to pick
up the tab for the New Bedford line and the Green Line extension and
nixing outright the Arborway service and Red-to-Blue-Line connector.
The Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit, however, may force Grabauskas
to build these after all. And even with the state's paying for some of
these expansions, the T will have to come up with the money to operate
them. “For the 50 miles of empty cars going back and forth to Fall
River and New Bedford, you are talking about more than $17 million a
year,” warns Chieppo. As for the Silver Line, Grabauskas made the risky
decision to put off the project's last phase—linking downtown to the
new convention center and the burgeoning waterfront, with more buses
like the ones that go to the airport—hoping to shore up community
support and try again next year. But 22 groups, including the Sierra
Club, the Chinese Progressive Association, and the T Riders Union, have
banded together to oppose it, demanding the project be converted from
buses to light rail.

Grabauskas's decisions in the coming months will determine whether
the MBTA becomes a world-class system or sinks further into third-world
unreliability. Next year he will almost certainly make the pitch for a
fare increase. It could be a tough fight. “It's reasonable to think
about raising fares, but it's tricky because if you do that and don't
improve the service, you drive people away and you get in a debt
spiral,” Widmer notes.

At the same time, a consensus is building on Beacon Hill that
leaving the T to languish under its current funding formula is a recipe
for crisis. “We can do a lot of things, but at the end of the day, it's
really about increasing the state commitment to the MBTA,” says Steve
Baddour, Senate chair of the state transportation committee. “I'm not
sure we have the option of not assisting them.”

Even with more money, the T, like its double-long buses, can't turn
on a dime. There will be many, many more uncomfortable commutes before
it's running smoothly. “The way to fix the system is by admitting our
shortcomings and assuring people that we are focused on issues they
care about,” Grabauskas says. “But a lot of what we need to do are
capital improvements, and those take time. Come back and see me in
three years, and you can see the work we've done.”

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