The Terrible T

Rena Kirsch is on the verge of making a big mistake. Clutching the bag of vegetables she intends to grill at her Jamaica Plain apartment in 45 minutes, she is boarding an outbound MBTA train at Hynes Convention Center. Her plan is to hop onto the D Line at the next stop, Kenmore Square.

But the regular rush-hour pandemonium is aggravated by a parade of baseball fans trekking to Fenway Park for the 7 o'clock game. Worse yet, the train stalls before pulling into Kenmore. A garbled voice comes over the intercom with a message cryptographers couldn't decode. Slowly, word makes its way back to Kirsch, as if in a subterranean game of telephone: The train is going out of service.

The Green Line is both the oldest subway line in the United States and the most densely traveled, and it is undeniably showing its age. When Kenmore Station was flooded in October 1996, commuters endured two years of diversions and delays until the damaged signal system was repaired. That was almost as long as it had taken to dig the tunnel between Boylston and Kenmore in the first place in the early 1900s. One hundred new trolleys were supposed to be in service on the Green Line three years ago at a cost of $220 million, but they're sitting idle in a train yard in Newton because they constantly derailed. Among other problems, the new trolleys have problems with their power systems, precisely the same thing that sidelined new Red Line cars the MBTA bought for $129 million in 1993, but which kept abruptly shutting down.

Standing on the platform with a sweaty crowd of Red Sox fans and thwarted commuters, Kirsch notices an MBTA employee in a reflective vest ushering people outside. “Derailment on the D Line. There's a shuttle bus upstairs,” he's saying, looking bored while waving people back out through the turnstiles. “Happens all the time,” another T employee unapologetically tells her above ground.

Rudeness among MBTA employees turns out to be as common as derailments, despite the fact that they're the highest-paid, or among the highest-paid, transit workers in America, depending on their job descriptions. While about 40 percent of customer complaints are about delays, another 25 percent concern employee rudeness. (Most of the rest are about the cleanliness of vehicles and stations.) This even before a T commuter train incredibly continued to make its scheduled stops this summer while a passenger was suffering a fatal heart attack. The T “tend[s] to treat people like freight,” former transportation secretary Kevin Sullivan once said. “We need to upgrade customer service. . . . You can't have a model where the customer is always wrong.”

Apparently, you can. When the T suspended seven customer service agents for three days after one of them hung up twice on a commuter calling to find out why the Canton Center train was late again, the Carmen's Union got the suspensions overturned. The T employee union is extraordinarily powerful and is one of the reasons the MBTA is grossly overstaffed, according to the advisory board that oversees the agency. Then again, it may be a good thing that the number of workers is so high, considering that absenteeism among the highly paid but notoriously surly operating personnel averages about 20 days a year per employee, according to the advisory board, which also calculates that for every operator taking one or two sick days a year, another is taking 35 or 40. Nearly 10 percent of the workforce can be counted on not to show up on any given day.

For passengers, it would probably be better if some employees didn't show up at all, judging from internal MBTA records of customer complaints. A blind passenger who accidentally entered through the back door of a bus griped: “The bus driver yelled at me in front of the other passengers and made me get off the bus and reboard through the front door. I was mortified.” “The train attendant saw me as I was going through the turnstile to catch the train,” another commuter recounted. “As soon as I reached the door, the bells started ringing and the train attendant closed the door in my face and smirked.” Yet another rider described being 10 feet from a waiting bus when “the driver closed the door and drove away, leaving me behind. The driver stopped at a red light a few feet away, but refused to open the door for me.”

There are no buses at all tonight at Kenmore, and Kirsch, a 29-year-old office manager and graduate student, is growing weary of carrying her bag of potatoes, asparagus, and squash. “My friends are going to be at my house in 15 minutes,” she says in resignation. She contemplates her options — she doesn't want to wait for a bus, assuming one will actually show up, because traffic is at a rush-hour-meets-game-day standstill. So she decides to take her chances on the C Line. That train, loaded down with detoured office workers, crawls to Coolidge Corner, where Kirsch finally disembarks. She sees two buses at the cater-cornered stop. But the light changes, and they both drive off before she can cross over to them. She would probably have caught at least one, she says, if the 66 bus had been running on schedule. It wasn't.

Even though buses carry 37 percent of its customers, the MBTA spends only 13 percent of its capital budget on them, putting the money instead into costly new commuter trains serving politically well-connected suburbs. On a typical weekday, only 62 percent of buses arrive on time. Which is not to say that the suburban commuter trains are running all that much more smoothly. The number of breakdowns on those lines has increased 40 percent since 2000, bringing the level of reliability down far below even the T's own targets. The worst trains, on the Attleboro/Providence and Framingham/Worcester lines, are late at least once out of every 10 trips. Under the highly publicized Customer Bill of Rights program it launched last year, the MBTA has doled out $400,000 worth of free rides to riders who experienced delays; 85 percent of the refunds went to commuter-rail passengers, even though they make up only 10 percent of the T's 1.2 million daily customers.

Having by now given up on public transportation altogether in order to make it home before her guests arrive, Kirsch shrugs and decides instead to take a cab. Not a single 66 bus drives by in the 10 minutes it takes her to hail a taxi.

Kirsch's rush-hour adventure is a microcosm of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's myriad problems. With a legacy of bungling, hamstrung by politicians and labor unions, the T is beleaguered by overcrowding, chronic lateness, shabby subway cars and buses, employee rudeness, and delays in promised improvements that are measured not in days or weeks, but in years verging on decades. Just for good measure, it also has the worst environmental record of any state agency. All of which has come to rankle even the transit agency's most ardent supporters.

Today, the T is at a crossroads. With a new funding structure and a new general manager, the MBTA is in a position to completely redefine the oldest public transit system in the country. This is, in the words of former T general manager James O'Leary, a “watershed moment” for a public transportation agency that has become the bane of many of its passengers' days.

Trouble is, the T is strapped. Mired in debt from rampant expansion in the suburbs in the 1990s, and saddled with legal commitments to build more, the agency must choose between further expanding the system or keeping what it does have in a state of good repair. It can afford to do one or the other, but not both, says Glen Tepke, a senior policy associate of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

“They underwent a lot of expansion in the '90s, much of it for commuter rail, to the detriment of taking care of the existing system,” Tepke says. “They are the oldest system in the country and have a lot of the oldest infrastructure in the country. It's alarming.”

Just dealing with the existing backlog of needed repairs would cost the T an estimated $800 million a year, according to an internal report. And that would merely get the system to a place where “all assets performed their intended functions without limitations” — running, in other words, the way it should be. Implicit in the finding is that the T is not running the way it should be.

But don't hold your breath. The T has no plans to spend more than a fraction of that amount. The MBTA's total capital budget averages about $562 million a year.

Of course, it's hard to spend more on repairs when the basic cost of operations is so high. The T is one of the nation's most expensive transit systems to run, topping the charts among metropolitan systems in both cost per hour and cost per mile of service. Nearly one-third of its operating budget goes to servicing its staggering $4 billion debt, more than any other major transit agency in America.

There are promises of more improvements and expansions. But promises by the MBTA are seldom kept. The most prominent example was the promised addition of 100 new low-floor trolleys for the Green Line from the Italian manufacturer Breda. The first new train was shown off on a special ride for VIPs in March of 1999; by September of that year, 42 of the trolleys were supposed to be in service. But the supermodern cars have a big problem: They constantly derail. Breda says that's because the tracks weren't adequately maintained; the T says it's because the cars weren't properly configured. To make its tracks compatible with the Breda cars, the T may have to spend $25 million more. Former general manager O'Leary suggests the agency could have avoided all of this if it had studied its own history. In 1979 it had a similar problem with an order of trolleys from Boeing Vertol. In the end, the T had to cancel the order for the cars that had not yet been delivered and spend millions fixing the ones that had. There were other problems with Red Line cars delivered in 1993 by a Canadian manufacturer, including electrical problems and faulty attachments that connect the gearboxes to the motors. Meant to last 7 to 10 years, the gearboxes gave out after 2 or 3.

“Part of the issue with the T is you're always under the pressure to go to the low bidder,” O'Leary says. “Sometimes going to the low bidder is the worst choice you could make.”

But another reason for the setbacks appears to be more basic: sheer ineptitude. Any large bureaucracy is going to have its share of embarrassing snafus, but the T is remarkable for its ability to screw up. Just before the busy Memorial Day travel weekend, for example, it launched a much-anticipated, brand-new Web site. Discovered to be all but useless by the few customers who had a chance to use it, the Web site almost immediately went dark.

Other MBTA gaffes have caused far greater inconvenience over considerably longer periods of time. The Orange Line was scheduled to be expanded with the addition of 46 more train cars (hand-me-downs, as it happens, from the Blue Line) and a new signal system by 1995. That has been delayed until 2004. Blue Line station platforms were supposed to have been lengthened by the end of 1998 to accommodate six-car trains; that work, too, is now not expected to be finished until the end of 2004. The Green Line at North Station was scheduled to be put underground, with its elevated tracks removed by this year. That has also been pushed back until at least late 2004. And the Silver Line, which was to have opened by 1995 to replace the elevated Orange Line through Roxbury that was removed in 1987, finally began limited service in July — seven years late and $173 million over budget. But there's a hitch: The Silver Line is not, as it sounds, a train. It's a bus. Painted silver. Which has community leaders even further outraged at the MBTA. “We literally don't trust anything that comes out of their mouths until we see it happen,” says one, Khalida Smalls, coordinator of the two-year-old, 500-member T Riders' Union. “That's just history working against them.”

The T's promise to replace its antiquated fare collection system with an automated system like those that are in use in New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Chicago is also seven years behind schedule, and the cost has nearly tripled, to $120 million. It is likely to be delayed again because of legal challenges by a losing bidder represented by former MBTA deputy manager Phil Puccia. Now a lobbyist, Puccia has persuaded key state lawmakers and business leaders to support his client. Meanwhile, the automated fare system, which could accurately identify transit patterns and move riders more efficiently, has already been held up until at least the end of 2004.

It's not the only example of political interference. When the T wanted to switch from Amtrak to a private company to clean and maintain its commuter trains, saving a projected $116 million over five years, union-friendly Democrats including U.S. Senator John Kerry and the late U.S. Representative J. Joseph Moakley rallied against it. The U.S. Department of Labor and Federal Transit Administration, citing labor regulations, reportedly threatened to cut off $200 million in federal funds unless the MBTA stuck with Amtrak. The T did, despite years of — and continuing — complaints about late trains with faulty heat and air conditioning and rude conductors who don't even bother to collect fares. (“The lost revenue from this practice must be staggering,” one Attleboro passenger complained to the MBTA this summer.) Now Amtrak says it won't even be able to continue operating the commuter trains after its current contract expires next summer.

An antiprivatization law passed by the Democrat-controlled state legislature in 1993 effectively prevents the T from subcontracting many of its other services, according to Charles Chieppo, director of the Shamie Center for Restructuring Government at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. The law was used in 1997 to block the T from proceeding with the process after it had already received competitive bids to operate the Charlestown/Fellsway bus routes. (The Carmen's Union even initially blasted the T's Customer Bill of Rights as a possible ploy to begin privatizing the agency.)

Meanwhile, MBTA employee unions have negotiated some of the nation's highest wages for transit workers, including the nation's top pay for bus drivers. The T's salaries for train maintenance workers are second only to those paid by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. A top-scale bus driver at the T makes $24.30 an hour, a Blue Line conductor, $25.27. Overtime alone cost the agency $25 million in the fiscal year just ended. And when a union T employee completes 23 years of service, he or she is also eligible for retirement with lifetime health insurance — no copayment required.

“We don't apologize for the wages we have bargained for collectively,” says Steve MacDougall, president of the Boston Carmen's Union Local 589, the largest of the T's collective bargaining units. “My members carry the most precious cargo there is: human life.” Comparing train technicians to airplane mechanics, MacDougall says his union's 4,200 active members are some of the most skilled and highly trained in the field. He says he doubts the T's high number of employees and rampant absenteeism can be pinned on his members, who he stresses are held accountable for every day they are supposed to work. “Every minute of a bus operator's, train conductor's, and train repairer's day is scheduled and accounted for,” MacDougall says.

Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA advisory board that represents the cities and towns served by the transit system, says there are simply far too many people on the payroll. “The T engages in pattern-bargaining so when [one union] gets a good contract, everybody gets a good contract. This is a political environment,” he says.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the successive administrations of governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci — for whom suburban Republican voters were a key constituency — pressed the T to spend nearly 40 percent of its capital budget for expansion in the 1990s, most of it on commuter rail. While the authority was building the Old Colony, Worcester, and Newburyport commuter-rail extensions, the average age of its urban bus fleet slowly crept upward. Of the T's 981 larger buses, 718 were between 6 and 15 years old by 2000. Of those, 380 were more than 11 years old. “When [Governor Bill] Weld came in, the fundamental difference was he didn't care about whether the system functioned well or not,” says Frederick Salvucci, who teaches transportation policy at MIT and was secretary of transportation under Governor Michael Dukakis. Weld “probably never took a bus in his life. He didn't care. He didn't care in his gut and his constituency didn't care. He didn't give a shit.”

There are also legal obligations related to the Central Artery construction. Nearly 60 percent of the money in the T's capital plan over the next four years is earmarked for projects required in connection with the Big Dig. All told, the T is obligated to undertake six major expansion and modernization projects. They are expected to cost a total of at least $3 billion, of which there is money for only half.

There's another potentially expensive obligation looming for the MBTA. State and federal documents obtained under public-records laws show it is the worst polluter among all state agencies. Not surprisingly, it missed a deadline for fully converting its bus fleet to cleaner-emissions vehicles by the end of the year 2000, though it converted its buses to low-sulfur diesel fuel in April. The Conservation Law Foundation, which sued the T in 1998 to cut emissions, projects the buses are still spewing out 225 tons of smog a year, not the 89 tons the agency claims it's coughing up.

But buses comprise just the blackened tip of the T's pollution iceberg. “There are chronic and widespread violations throughout the entire MBTA system,” says Bob Varney, the federal Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator. “They have what I would call institutional problems.” The MBTA has 403 pending cases of environmental violations and resolves fewer than half of such cases by the deadlines, according to the state Attorney General's Office.

Two examples illustrate the T's historical aloofness toward environmental problems. One involves a South Boston power plant the T abandoned several years ago. Filled with asbestos and heavy equipment that oozes lubricating oil, the neglected plant began to rot, threatening to leak into nearby water supplies. As vandals broke into the building to strip it of its copper, its toxic insides became exposed to the outside world.

The state Department of Environmental Protection warned the T about the power plant in 1997. But there was no significant response until the AG's Office filed suit two years later. The agency finally sealed off the building and was supposed to have rid it of asbestos more than two years ago, under an agreement reached in court. Much of the asbestos is still there.

The second case concerns the Readville rail yard on the Boston/Dedham line, where lead and arsenic have seeped into the ground. The T put up a fence around the yard but not, for some reason, all the way around it. After the Department of Environmental Protection became aware of the high lead levels, it found water pistols and baseballs on the site — evidence that neighborhood kids were playing there. The AG's Office went to court, but three years later the T still has no cleanup plan. “The MBTA's record on environmental compliance is the worst of any state agency or authority,” says Attorney General Tom Reilly, “and nothing illustrates this more clearly than its handling of the Readville Yard.”

When Reilly's office asked the T to prioritize its 78 outstanding concerns, the agency responded that it had tagged only one environmental violation as a priority — and a low priority at that.

“It's reflective of the lack of investment in the current system,” says former T general manager O'Leary, who served under governors Ed King and Dukakis. “In the last 10 years there has been such an emphasis on expansion, some of the investment in environmental cleanup suffered. . . . For the last decade you've had Republican governors who have not been strongly committed to public transit, not supportive of investing in the system that's required.”

Today, all of this is Mike Mulhern's problem. Mulhern, who became the MBTA's general manager on Valentine's Day, worked his way up from a bus driver's seat to the top job at the agency. He's making all the right noises about fixing things. He has reorganized his environmental division, for example, and brought in a new assistant general manager for environmental affairs. He has vowed to improve bus service, planning to spend $195 million for 516 new buses over five years. “I think I can have an enormous impact not only on cleanup of emissions on the bus fleet, but assuming the responsibility for changing the agency's image,” Mulhern says confidently. “Where there's a problem also lie great opportunities.”

The T also has a new funding mechanism meant not only to discourage further politically motivated suburban expansion but also to force the agency to get back on fiscal track. This dramatic and complicated but little-noticed overhaul, called “forward funding,” has ended the state's anachronistic practice of reimbursing the T for operating deficits 18 months after the fact — a process that effectively amounted to carte blanche for the agency to spend almost whatever it pleased.

“Forward funding really requires the T to manage more responsibly than it has in years past,” Mulhern says. “And the first order of business is to keep the core system in a state of good repair.”

Fred Salvucci is more blunt. “If you want things to get better, then figure out what's a reasonable expectation for what the T can do with the money they've got. Set some priorities. Put some more money on the table so we can get, first of all, better quality on what's already here. Hammering the T — because you've given them mandates to do more than there is money to do it — may be a good spectator sport, but it just doesn't get us anywhere.”

Rena Kirsch isn't getting anywhere, either. Still in midcommute, she's not at the moment concerned about the question of whether the MBTA should spend its money on maintenance or expansion. All she knows is that she's given up on waiting for the bus and is finally sitting in the back seat of a cab. She'll be on time for her guests, but just barely.

Peering into her bag of sweaty vegetables, she has a thought. “It's a good thing I didn't buy milk,” she says.