Boston ‘T’ Troubles

Boston’s public-transit system is universally loathed, but little understood. Our intensive investigation revealed that declining service, rising deficits, and howling critics are only part of the story. There’s more, much more. —Exclusive report by Carl Oglesby

In our January 2016 issue, “Out of Service” asks, “Will we ever fix the T?” This really is an all-too-ubiquitous question. Case in point: the following investigative piece from more than 35 years ago, aptly titled “Boston ‘T’ Troubles.” Read it and weep, folks—apparently we’ve been going nowhere for quite a while.

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This article first appeared in the January 1980 issue of Boston magazine.

In the Committee Room

Headed for the November 1 meeting of the Budget Committee of the MBTA Advisory Board, and never having had to find the Old South Building before, I found myself briefly lost in downtown Boston’s narrow, complicated streets and arrived late to find the meeting already well under way, and like the day outside, blustery and shot with light and shadow, heat and cold.

Emily Lloyd was running full blast against the T and its current chairman, Robert L. Foster. Lloyd is Mayor White’s traffic commissioner, a best-and-brightest type with what a lawyer friend of mine would call, not disparagingly, “a good mouth.” She is thirty-four, articulate, and energetic, with burnished red hair worn in a simple, expensive cut, a strong Welsh jaw, and sharp blue eyes that sometimes blaze.

They were blazing now, because she was up to speed on the subject of her current passion, the deterioration of the MBTA and the responsibility for this of Chairman Foster’s “mismanagement.”

In a voice appalled, her jaw dropping and her eyes wide with anger, she seemed to be facing someone down, but as I had only just entered, uncapping my Paper Mate at the door, still blinking from the TV lights that gave the scene in that small packed room so theatrical an air, I did not yet know which person there represented the offending T chairman. But my first thought at hearing Lloyd’s tone of voice was that I had stumbled upon a direct contest of wills and was possibly still in time to see the sudden, always unexpected first blow thrown, first blood drawn. Who in this room was her foe?

Emily Lloyd mostly stared straight at Mayor Joel Pressman of Chelsea as she continued her itemization of Robert Foster’s failures in public-transportation management, but I knew that Pressman could not be her target because they are on the same side. They are both members of the MBTA Advisory Board, representing the mayors and selectmen of the seventy-nine communities within the MBTA’s service area. The Advisory Board is controlled chiefly by Mayor White in alliance with Pressman and Lynn’s Mayor Antonio Marino. And what it wants out of the T, whose budget it must approve, is more service at less cost. When it gets more cost and less service instead, it becomes critical and upset and plunges into conflict with T management.

Somewhere in the scene, I was sure, either at the long center tables or among the observers in chairs along the walls of this narrow, yellow room off the mezzanine, was someone representing Foster’s side, and it must be whomever Lloyd was now disemboweling with her fierce derision as she said, “First he was telling us about buses that needed a windshield wiper, now he tells us he’s sending out substandard school buses!”

Sitting next to Pressman at the head table was Mayor Marino. Pressman is thirty-nine with a full head of fluffy reddish-blond hair and a tousled, boyish, poetic look. Marino, fifty-eight and almost bald, was the image of the authoritarian father, a small, solid man with an owlish frown. Marino is a political ally of White and Pressman in the Advisory Board’s struggle to make Chairman Foster stop cutting services and upping the bill.

With the two mayors at the head table also sat thirty-three-year-old James Smith, a sturdy preppie type with the petulant physical grace of a pulling guard. He is the director of the Advisory Board and its chief budget analyst as well as the chairman of the board’s Budget Committee. He is hired by the board as a whole, but it is correct to think of him as one of Mayor White’s three people on the Advisory Board, the others being Emily Lloyd, still speaking, and William Semich, seated across from her at the long table.

Semich is thirty-five, a sometimes acerb financial analyst who works out of Mayor White’s office, represents him as designee to the Advisory Board and its Budget Committee, and is given to dark three-piece pinstripes. Smith, Lloyd, and Semich work closely with Mayor White (who does not attend meetings), Pressman, and Marino in leading the board.

But where was the other team? Where was Lloyd’s opponent? Where was the T? Another man sat at the long table, down toward me in the open end of the room, a few empty chairs away from Semich. He was fiftyish with silver-gray hair. He wore a rumpled blue suit betraying a bad case of dandruff. He seemed to doze often, and I took him at first for a journalist. Sometimes he lay his head on his forearm and blanked right out for a minute or two. Then he would lift his head and gaze around the room with a look of sleepy distaste. It could not be this one, I thought, with whom Lloyd was currently tilting. He nodded out too often, and she never looked at him.

The committee was now discussing the 1980 budget Foster had submitted last October. Lloyd’s speech, which I had come in on, was an accomplished effort to explain the problems of this budget—a “dishonest” budget, she called it—as reflections of Chairman Foster’s managerial incompetence.

“Foster didn’t know anything about mass transit when he was installed at the T last January,” she concluded, her eyes flashing, “and he hasn’t learned anything since he’s been on the job!”

Burly young Director Smith now took the lead. He was the very picture of low-key Ivy League self-confidence as he followed Lloyd’s resonant outcries with his own more nasal enumeration of Foster’s limits.

“To meet a 4 percent cap budget,” said Smith, looking crew-strong and trim in his dark blue Brooks Brothers suit, “Foster seems to be telling us there will have to be a 15 to 20 percent decrease in service. This is not acceptable.” Smith was referring to the statutory limiting or “capping” of the T’s 1980 budget to a maximum 4 percent increase over the 1979 budget.

“Also,” Smith continued, “we don’t see where he’s picking up a lot of these extra costs. The Advisory Board will interview each and every MBTA department head in order to ascertain precisely what plans and what expenditures exist at the operating level to determine precisely what the 1980 budget really should be. These are just informational meetings, but we’ve got to determine what’s in that budget!”

Mayor Marino barked with a dark scowl, “Mr. Foster should be doing that!”

“Let’s do it, too,” answered Smith quickly, retaking the floor at once. “This is a unique opportunity!”

Smith proceeded to read an MBTA memo written by Foster some nine months before, shortly after Foster replaced Dukakis appointee Robert Kiley in the job as T chairman. The memo was hard to follow in Smith’s reading, but he helpfully summarized its main message: “This memo of Foster’s prohibits MBTA department heads from talking to the Advisory Board about their budgets. This review of the 1980 budget will be the first challenge to that.”

Like the Advisory Board of which he is co-chairman, Kevin White faults Foster’s budget, first because costs are rising, and second because services are shrinking. On October 26, White sent Foster a letter on Foster’s proposed budget for 1980. The mayor said:

You claim that these further cutbacks will take place because of the 4 percent cap on the MBTA budget required by the governor and the legislature, while mayors and selectman across the state have had to adequately meet public service needs, with some belt tightening, under a 4 percent budget.

Only one state agency, the MBTA, is also covered by that 4 percent cap. Since Boston taxpayers must pay 50 percent of the local share of the MBTA deficit, I am acutely aware of the great need for the MBTA to limit the growth of its budget. But I am also accurately aware of the great need for continuation of our present level of public-transportation service, and I cannot believe that the MBTA is unable to continue to provide these services at a reasonable cost to the public.

The Budget Committee meeting continued the attack on Foster along these lines. The mayor’s personal designee to the board, Bill Semich, took the floor. The young, gray-haired budget analyst declaimed sharply, “Things have gotten worse!” His voice was high, clear, judicious, angry. “We gave Chairman Foster two weeks to come up with a plan for returning service to normal levels, and Foster has responded only with still more cuts in service, including cuts on some of the most used and highest-revenue lines in the city!”

The latecomer by now could feel the emotional pressure of this attack on Foster: mayors Marino and Pressman awaiting their moment while White’s people, Smith, Lloyd, and Semich took the lead.

“For some reason,” said Smith, “with fewer rider-miles traveled, we’re having more fuel being used. We’ve got to be able to figure out how that happens. That means we’ve got to have total, detailed budget information.”

Now Mayor Marino spoke. He supported this thought of Director Smith’s. “Obviously,” he said with his back straight, “it’s impossible for us to do our job without this firm budget data.” All three of the mayors, White, Marino, and Pressman, were at this point a week from re-election: in none of the three races was the outcome the least in doubt. The State House and High Street had both opined that the campaign to nail Foster was pure politics, and the Advisory Board mayors had bristled about this.

Fluffy-haired Joel Pressman was boiling with confidence and combativeness. He had figured in a widely reported confrontation with Foster at an Advisory Board meeting the week before. The confrontation had developed because Pressman, speaking from the floor, tried to amend the agenda in order to make space for attacking Foster and his management, and Foster, after several sallies, told him to “sit down and shut up.”

Now Pressman had a resolution to introduce to the Budget Committee. He read it into the record in an angry, declamatory voice.

“Moved,” he began, “that the full Advisory Board be convened immediately to consider the Budget Committee’s recommendation that a formal communication be sent to His Excellency Governor Edward J. King to call for the immediate removal of MBTA chairman Robert L. Foster.”

Pressman recapitulated his problems with Foster’s T in a passionate defense of the motion he had just introduced.

“Since January of 1979,” he said, “the T has missed almost 55,000 bus runs compared to 25,000 missed in the same period in 1978, even though the 1978 period included the great blizzards. In the first quarter this year, about thirty buses a month were being fixed at the Everett shops. Here in the third quarter, it’s only about five and a half a week, a drop of 33 percent in productivity. The average cost of repairing a bus in the first quarter was about $8,000. Now it’s about $10,000.”

Pressman’s voice dipped to mockery. “I hope it’s not coming across that Joel Pressman,” he said, indicating himself with his thumb, “is taking personally the events of last week,” meaning his run-in with Foster, which he now proceeded to tell of again, concluding as before that “Foster told all the people to sit down and shut up when he told Joel Pressman [thumb gesture] to do so!”

And now Joel Pressman surged to his peroration. His face was flushed.

“Others have said, ‘Give this man Foster a chance, the problems go back to before his time.’ But I say we as mayors have to do our jobs. The public out there has lost confidence in the T under Mr. Foster. People are losing pay because of failures of the T to provide scheduled service. No way was this man a transportation expert, no way should the people of Massachusetts Bay accept the costs of educating him on the job. This man has got to go!”

Pressman abruptly made a self-deprecating little shrug, immediately turning off the anger vibrations, and sat back in his chair. He seemed content. There was a moment’s uncertainty, then Emily Lloyd looked around the room with her bright white teeth smiling and said, “Second the motion.”

Semich was quick to speak in favor of Pressman’s motion. He tilted back his head and said, “Mayor Pressman was not told to sit down by Mr. Foster, he was shouted down! Mr. Foster does not understand how to manage a public operation. He is trying to run the MBTA as if it were his private empire.” The Advisory Board, he went on, had requested the tape of this meeting in which Chairman Foster presumed to give Mayor Pressman harsh orders. “MBTA management has promised to supply us with a copy after they have prepared the transcript,” he said with an ironic smile, as though to say, “Any transcript we will ever see from those jokers at High Street is going to tell us a lot,” and there was a snicker of acknowledgement of this likely street truth, that the T would probably alter the tape or the transcript or something Nixonian like that, rather than let the record of such a disgraceful performance by its chairman be released to the public. Lloyd and Smith, Marino and Pressman, the several Budget Committee staff people along the wall, all snickered slightly.

At which point entered Paul DiNatale, a twenty-eight-year-old public-information officer at the T, specializing in media relations. I had spent a morning with him in his cubicle at 50 High Street a few days earlier in an effort to understand the arguments about the T from the standpoint of management rather than of its critics. DiNatale was cautious but not unfriendly, a good-looking man with dark hair in a styled cut, a wide, well-trimmed mustache, dimples, a compact athletic build. Sometimes, as when he talks of his boss’s enemies, his dark eyes sparkle.

DiNatale came in quietly, stood a moment just in the doorway, then advanced into the spill of the TV lights to take an empty chair against the wall opposite me. He sat on the edge of his chair and looked around the room, nodding slightly to me and a few other reporters, then returned his gaze to the action at center stage where the light was brightest and hottest.

Semich was concluding his speech in support of Pressman’s demand for Foster’s head. He ticked off the problems with Foster: the budgetary disputes calling into doubt the accounts for 1979 and 1980; the LRVs and the Green Line; the cuts in bus service and the failure of the maintenance program; the “hostility” the T exhibited toward the Advisory Board; Foster’s failure to produce a plan for resuming “normal service” without further supplementary budgets. “There’s a real problem at the T,” said Semich, “and something has to be done to straighten it out soon!”

Mayor Marino now took up the attack. “We’ve only asked to be shown that some desire exists in the T management to improve the service,” he said, “and all we get is requests for more funds. We didn’t expect miracles, but we did expect some hope. We see no improvement, no plans for improvement. What else can an advisory board do? After ten months we’ve got nothing from Mr. Foster but resentment that this board exists!”

The blue-suited cat napper at the foot of the table stirred and lifted his hand. “Mr. Chairman,” he said in a hesitant, soft voice, “my name is Sumner Kaplan, and I’m the designee from Brookline to the Advisory Board, though not a member of this committee. I wondered if I might be permitted to say a word.” Emily Lloyd turned to look at him, then smiled expectantly. Smith nodded that he should speak.

“We all recognize that serious charges have been made against Chairman Foster,” Kaplan said quietly, “but I think we ought to be careful about politicizing the Advisory Board.”

A quick twinge of subsurface tension rippled along the table. Lloyd smiled more brightly but looked away.

“Our function,” Kaplan went on, “is to let Governor King know we’re not getting the information we want from Chairman Foster. The politicizing of the Advisory Board is part of our problem. We’ve got enough to do analyzing budgets without politicizing the Advisory Board.”

Pressman stiffened. “T management under Foster doesn’t have a grand design or any sense of how to address the T’s problems,” he cried. “To point that out is not to politicize the Advisory Board!”

Semich hit the next half-beat behind him: “The Advisory Board has been low profile and apolitical. If it becomes political now, that’s because of the problems with the current management of the MBTA.”

But Emily Lloyd appeared to have sensed something solid in Kaplan’s objection. Were the anti-Foster campaigners perhaps moving this thing a little too quickly? Could Pressman have broken out too soon with this motion against Foster? And even if the Advisory Board’s case against Foster were airtight, still perhaps it needed to spelled out formally, stated in full and with back-up data, especially if one were asking the governor for Foster’s head.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “I want to propose an amendment to Pressman’s original motion. We should request that the staff of the Advisory Board be instructed to draw up a bill of particulars on the performance of the T under Robert Foster’s management. Then at our next meeting we’ll have this bill before us and be able to vote on Mayor Pressman’s resolution more responsibly.”

“You mean,” said Semich with a smile, “like an impeachment proceeding?”

Lloyd laughed shortly, as though she were unsure if she should. “Yes!” she said forcefully, covering. “We ought to lay out a chronology of Bob Foster’s failures first, then take up Mayor Pressman’s motion.”

Marino cut in heavily. “The question of politics has come up over and over, and I resent it,” he said, glaring at Kaplan. “There is no political motive in this resolution.” He was just starting to form his next word when, suddenly, from the side, a new voice shot into the discussion.

“Then why don’t you wait till next week, if this is not political?”

Everyone was shocked still for a moment. A Budget Committee meeting is not the most formal setting in government, but even so, an angry interruption from an unrecognized observer was rare. We all turned to see who had shouted.

It was Paul DiNatale of the T. He had taken a stiff, almost theatrical pose in his chair, sitting in good classical style with his chest out and his hands solidly on his knees. Arms straight, back straight, he turned in his chair to look squarely at Mayor Marino, who was blinking across the table.

“What?” said Marino.

DiNatale wore a blue blazer and gray slacks and a red tie and a white shirt. “If this resolution to have the governor throw out Chairman Foster is not political, why did you introduce it now, just a week before the elections?”

Pressman came to and jumped up. He leaned across the table, shouting, “Have that man identify himself!”

DiNatale held his pose, hands on knees, elbows turned out, a strong stance. “Why now?”

“Have that man identify himself for the record,” Pressman shouted.

“Why don’t you wait a week?” said DiNatale. “If there was no political motive to this, why did you do it now?”

Pressman got louder. “That’s illustrative of what we’re up against,” he shouted to us on the other side of the room, pointing with his whole arm across the table at DiNatale.

Lloyd had turned around to face DiNatale and was saying, “No, this amendment takes care of that,” meaning that her call for a draft bill of particulars against Foster necessarily delayed voting on Pressman’s anti-Foster motion till after the elections. Thus, in her view, Pressman’s motion was now “depoliticized.”

DiNatale didn’t seem to buy it. He stared past Lloyd to mayors Marino and Pressman. “Why now?”

“Who is this man?” Pressman shouted, beside himself, leaning over the utility table.

“This is one of Foster’s people,” said Jim Smith calmly.

“Have him identify himself for the record,” Pressman shouted again.

“He’s from the T,” said Mayor Marino, pulling on Mayor Pressman’s arm to get him to sit down.

“My motion takes care of this,” pleaded Lloyd.

Pressman would not sit down. “This is illustrative of the kind of treatment we get from Foster and his people,” he said. “This is illustrative of the type of attitude we’ve been up against out of Foster from the beginning! He won’t talk with us, he just shouts and tries to intimidate us!”

At last Marino and Smith calmed Pressman and restored order. DiNatale did not restate his question, nor did he identify himself for the record. He sat there while the committee, self-consciously seeking to reassert its dignity, quickly added a word or two on Lloyd’s amendment, voted it up, then voted up the whole amended package. The staff would present the case against Foster in documentary form at the Budget Committee’s next meeting. Then the committee could vote on Pressman’s motion—“more responsibly,” as Lloyd said.

DiNatale held his pose another moment. Attention was returning to the main table. Then he rose and strode quietly out of the room, all eyes drawn to him again as he moved. Another two beats and Globe reporter Charles Radin jumped up and followed DiNatale out the door onto the mezzanine balcony. We in the room could hear his voice echo in the hall as he cried, “Paul? Paul?”

The committee adjourned till November 13.