Boston ‘T’ Troubles
A Bill of Particulars
“The T is an old and antiquated system,” said Advisory Board director and chief budget analyst Smith, sitting back in his chair in his corner office on Old South’s seventh floor. He wore a gray crew-neck sweater with an open shirt and was in a relaxed mood, well contented with the election results of the day before. Mayors White, Pressman, and Marino had won handily; and Somerville mayor Tom August, Foster’s big supporter on the Advisory Board, had gotten thumped by Eugene Brune, a sure new vote for the anti-Foster side.
Smith has served four terms in the State House and was defeated by Nick Mavroules of Peabody in 1978 in a close contest for the U.S. Congress. He has degrees from UMass/Boston and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He has lectured on public transportation at Boston University and M.I.T. He has probably not waged his last political campaign.
“You’ve heard it a million times,” Smith said. “The MBTA subway system is the oldest in the country, and every time they have added to it, the technology has changed. The T runs seven different kinds of vehicles. There is no equipment compatibility among the four lines. The physical structure of the T makes it impossible to run it right. Its political structure, where the mayors control the budget and the governor controls administration, makes it even worse.”
Smith is a great admirer of Robert Kiley, Kevin White’s former deputy mayor, who was made chairman of the T by Governor Michael Dukakis. Forty-five minutes after Governor King was installed in January, 1979, he fired Kiley as his first official act and appointed Foster in his place. It is normal politics for a new governor to put in his own man at the T, but the removal of Kiley was especially precipitate because (a) transit workers played a key role in King’s victory over Dukakis in the Democratic Party primary, and (b) these workers hated Kiley for his efforts to institute binding arbitration, something they saw as limiting the union’s power. He did achieve this goal, and in tribute, transit workers burned his effigy.
Smith thinks the MBTA suffered an important loss when Foster dispatched Kiley. “Kiley brought in a whole new management team with a modern orientation,” Smith said. “His attitude toward the Advisory Board was very positive. But Foster hadn’t been in more than a few days before the attacks on Kiley’s people began.
“By now the old-line T bureaucracy has reasserted itself. Inefficient management has taken over again. The ultimate loser is the consumer. The consumer winds up paying more money for less service.” Smith now seemed glum, slumped back in his chair.
“We are really heating up,” he said. “We have taken Foster to court already for his attempts to cut service. Now we hear he’s threatening to close the T down in the middle of December unless we give him more money, and we’re not prepared to give him more money until he has presented a plan for improving the system’s efficiency.” (Governor King has denied any thought of closing the T.)
Smith has no sympathy for Foster. He regards him as incompetent. Foster acknowledges problems but points to previous T administrations, including Kiley’s, for their causes.
This draws Smith’s scorn. “Foster has a habit of blaming others for his problems,” he said. “He blames Kiley for his own managerial inefficiency the same as he blames his wife for a mistake in typing his résumé that made him appear to have an engineering degree which he in fact did not have.”
But the charge against Foster is not, as one might think from the smell of ozone, that Foster’s T is a total wreck. On the contrary, Smith concedes up front that “outside of the buses and the Green Line, the T is operating pretty well. The consumer is basically feeling no pain on the Red, Blue, and Orange lines.”
The Budget Committee’s “bill of particulars” against Foster called for by Emily Lloyd’s amendment was then still in rough draft, though Smith let me look at a section called “The Bus Crisis.” The final document distributed at the November 13 Budget Committee meeting runs forty-six typed pages and purports to show that the Green Line is a mess, the bus schedule a shambles, the 1979 supplementary budget request ridiculous, and the proposed 1980 budget absurd, and that these truths demonstrate a need to throw Chairman Foster out.
The authors of the staff report salt these basics with a few charges of a possibly gratuitous nature. They accuse Foster, for example, of permitting the return of political patronage to the T, forgetting that Kiley, the Advisory Board’s favorite T chairman, was obliged to play much the same game when Senator Edward Kennedy wanted to find a nice place for an outgoing aide, Jim King. As the Globe’s David Farrell wrote, “Kiley put King into an important post where he did enormous damage to personnel and morale… and Kiley made a practice of serving the patronage needs of legislative leaders on Beacon and Capitol hills.”
But the serious claims against Foster’s management concentrate on the areas of the budget, the Green Line, and the maintenance of the bus fleet.
The Budget. Last summer, Foster submitted to the Advisory Board a request for a $26 million supplementary budget over and above the original 1979 budget of $250 million (Kiley had asked for $280 million for 1979). Foster had been saying since July that the MBTA would run out of funds by December 14 unless it radically cut back on service.
Smith and the Budget Committee countered with an analysis of their own, which purported to show not only that the $26 million supplementary budget request was unjustified, but even more surprising, that the original Kiley budget actually contained a surplus of $1.8 million.
I took this theory to John Launie, treasurer of the T and one of its senior officers. “If the Advisory Board can discover a $1.8 million surplus in the T’s 1979 budget,” I asked, “how can the T justify asking more than the $10.9 million supplementary budget already approved by the Advisory Board?”
This put the matter right in Launie’s wheel house. He was so ready for it he nearly overswung.
“Smith fights his whole war in the press,” he snapped. “Smith is a headline hunter, not a budget analyst. Smith dies with any question he gets from this body, because he is not competent to handle it.”
Launie is fifty-one, sturdy and round, with the bright, amused face, wiry silver hair, dark brows, and quick eyes. He was dressed in open vest with tie loose and shirt-sleeves rolled. He has a sharp, aggressive manner and speaks with a raspy voice and blunted consonants, but he is friendly and forthcoming if not abused. He has been at the T for thirty years and looks back happily on the days “when top management came up through the ranks.
“Kiley brought in a whole new management team,” he said. “He took the budget away from me.” Now, since Foster, he has it back.
“So you want to know how Smith discovered a ‘surplus’ in the T budget,” he said, rummaging in the pile of papers on his disorderly desk. “Take a look at this.”
He passed me a single typed sheet (see the chart below) bearing the title “Smith Method.” At the top half of the page a set of figures showed how Smith calculated the $1.8 million surplus figure. He took the T’s average weekly expenses for the accounting Period 7 (July 28 to August 24) and assumed that this weekly average would hold for the rest of the year. That added up to a total expenditure for the year of $1.8 million less than the $250 million originally budgeted.
Then on the bottom half of the page, Launie had calculated a 1979 budget based on the weekly expense average for the following Period 8 (August 25 through September 21). The parts of the year are of uneven expense. One month it snows. Another month the interest payments fall due. The average weekly expenses for Period 8 were a quarter of a million dollars higher than for Period 7. The higher figure, projected through the rest of the year, would produce not a $1.8 million surplus but a $6 million shortage. Then the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson and Company looked at the data the Advisory Board and the T were arguing about. Using Smith’s formula, they concluded that the T would finish the year close to $30 million in the red unless service was radically curtailed.
Even so, of course, Smith could still be right. The point is only that he is at least not right enough to impeach Foster for budgetary cause.
The Green Line. In a section called “Huge Hike in Trips Missed on the Green Line,” the staff report informs us that “there were 12,201 missed weekday trips on the Green Line over the second and third quarters of 1979—more than 184 percent as many as the 6,598 missed over the same time in 1978” (Kiley’s last year).
The problem with the Green Line is identical to the problem of the new trolleys—light rail vehicles (LRVs). Had the 175 LRVs the T ordered from Boeing Vertol of Philadelphia (150 in the original April, 1973, order and 25 more ordered in 1974) performed anywhere close to their design specs, the Green Line would be the jewel of the system today.
That the LRVs did not come through is a fact conceded on all sides, even by Boeing. Doors and air-conditioning units failed routinely. Derailments became commonplace. But to blame the LRVs’ failure on Foster seems simplistic and superficial to those who know the whole LRV story.
The story began on June 21, 1971, when our governor was Francis Sargent, and the chairman of the T was Henry Sears Lodge, and former governor John Volpe was in Washington as Nixon’s secretary of transportation, and Robert Kiley and Robert Foster were still far in the future. On that date, the T placed an order for two prototype LRVs from a German company, DuWag, for a total cost of $732 thousand, two-thirds to be paid for by a previously approved grant from the Department of Transportation’s Urban Mass Transportation Administration, UMTA.
The DuWag car reflected a well-thought-out design custom fitted to the Green Line’s special problems, such as tight curves and narrow tunnels.
But in the fall of that year, the Nixon administration announced a “New Economic Policy” aimed at reducing foreign imports and relieving the growing deficit in the United States balance of payments. Urban mass-transit systems were being discussed seriously again in Washington, too, and it was noticed that no United States manufacturer had built a trolley since 1951.
The Nixon strategy for LRV procurement seemed correct and timely: let’s take the technical and managerial talents cultivated in the space programs, the skill and experience of a company like Boeing, and apply them to the regeneration of America’s urban mass-transit systems! That will give us an important new civilian spin-off from the aerospace industry. It will help develop a defense contractor prepare a new home in the civilian market. It will help develop a needed national resource in mass-transit systems. It will keep the jobs and the money at home. It will marry new-age high technology with a system whose physical foundations were laid in 1897.
Thus, there were many good reasons for doing what Nixon told Volpe and UMTA to do: cut off the MBTA’s LRV grant unless the T cancels the contract with DuWag and goes in with San Francisco and Philadelphia (the latter shortly dropping out) to help develop a standard light rail vehicle suitable for use in several North American cities.
The T wasn’t wild about the idea, but UMTA did withdraw its grant to support purchase of the DuWag cars, and there was little the T could do about it. The state secretary of transportation and construction, Barry Locke, disputes this. He says flatly, “I wouldn’t have bought the LRVs. Too much technology. Our system’s too rough. Let San Francisco or Duluth be the guinea pig. We could have said no to UMTA. We are a sovereign state, you know. As a result of a lack of understanding of how Washington functions, our people were suckered into this bad buy, and now the riders are suffering. We should have insisted on the car we wanted.”
In April, 1973, the T and Boeing signed the contract for 150 LRVs to be delivered for $44 million. A year later, UMTA awarded the T an additional $7.6 million for purchase of another 25 LRVs.
The LRV program ran into trouble at the start and never got right. When the first LRVs were delivered to the T in September, 1976, for testing, they were already two years behind schedule. Four cars were rushed into service the last day of that year because of the severe snowstorm that disabled many of the under-maintained, overage Green Line trolleys. The LRVs thus opened their service career in Boston with a show of gallantry, but within three months all LRV service had to be suspended for a week and a half because of numerous derailments and other problems. Boeing was directed to stop deliveries until the problems were corrected.
One hundred and thirty-five vehicles had been delivered by the summer of 1978, when T chairman Kiley directed Boeing to stop LRV shipments because of the cars’ continuing bad performance. In September, 1979, T Chairman Foster appointed a special attorney to work out a solution to the LRV problem with Boeing. Badly burned by the whole experience and by this time out of the trolley business, Boeing agreed in November to pay back $40 million to the MBTA. Foster aims now toward rebuilding the Green Line, possibly with Hawker-Sidley cars from Canada.
The Buses. The problem with the T’s buses is worse. The “bill of particulars” against Foster drawn up by the Budget Committee states that “never in the history of public transit in the region has the number of bus trips missed even remotely approached the record-breaking levels of 1979.”
The problem of deteriorating bus service is completely a problem of deteriorating maintenance operations. The vehicles are there, though often broken down. The drivers are there, though often demoralized. “In Tewksbury,” says one former bus driver, “I broke down once every two or three months. In Boston, it was once a day. One day the bus has no heat. The next day the windshield wipers don’t work. The next day there are fumes in the cab or the brakes fail or the transmission falls out. Buses are being driven fifty, sixty thousand miles without a change of oil. The guys used to care, but now it’s just cover your ass and let it go.”
I spent a day last November with a dozen or so trainees in the T’s Management Institute, a program for bringing new managers up from the ranks. One of the sites we toured was the Charles C. Cabot Transportation Center in South Boston, a sprawling garage and yard where part of the famous struggle to repair buses and rebuild bus engines is being waged. It is a new facility, completed and occupied by the T only in 1977, with two huge low buildings, one for the buses and the other for cars of the Red Line.
On that Friday afternoon of a long weekend, the bus garage was no beehive. Three repair operations were visible as we passed through, but some of the lifts were still being hooked up by plumbers and electricians. Our guide for this part of the tour was Cabot’s assistant automotive maintenance foreman, a large middle-aged man named Bob Sestito with shiny, black, wavy hair, large features and belly, and an angry air about him. He complained that Kiley’s people accepted the plant from the contractor without properly testing the lifts, that eight out of the thirteen lifts were inoperative from their installation, and that he, Sestito, had personally seen two buses fall off lifts at Cabot within a few weeks of each other when the bolts on the lift platform were sheared because they had been screwed in, as Sestito put it, “by a carpenter who didn’t know the first damn thing about how to torque a bolt. Why nobody got hurt we’ll never know.”
Sestito’s anger seemed to put most of our group off. They trailed out behind as we strolled through the garage. I stayed with him, though, because at this point he was the one with the rap. He was just now storming about the yellow school bus we were passing.
“I was starting to get a little ahead of my schedule on the engine-rebuild program,” he said with a dark frown. “We were sixty to go in June, and now we’re only about twenty. We were building the fleet back up. Then they go and lease thirty school buses from New Hampshire that immediately start breaking down. I bet we didn’t get twenty dollars worth of service out of that one”—the yellow job we just passed—“before its brakes went out, and now we’ve got several hundred dollars and a lot of man hours sunk into it already, and it’s still not on the road. And while we’re working on it, we’re not working on the fleet.”
One of our group noticed that the bus-wash system was broken down. Sestito laughed sharply and grinned. “It must be the last one the manufacturer made,” he said.
“Why is that?”
“When this authority buys something, they buy the last one, so when the thing breaks down, they can never get spare parts.”
The bus-maintenance problem did not just suddenly appear. As Foster pointed out to me, “In mid-December of 1978, more than a month before I came on as chairman, bus drivers refused to leave the drivers’ lounge because of the broken-down buses they were being asked to drive. The Advisory Board certainly can’t claim that was my fault.”
In late October, 1979, state auditor Thaddeus Buzcko reported on his office’s formal examination of MBTA accounts for 1978, Kiley’s last year in charge. “Our inspection revealed,” he wrote, “that preventive maintenance (i.e., oil changes, tune-ups, lubrication, tire changes, transmission fluids, etc.) is totally absent. As a result, a high incidence of bus breakdown and complete failure takes place.”
How could this be? Is it possible that the T does not know about lubricating and oiling buses? Didn’t Kiley ask for an owner’s manual? Didn’t Foster know the tires sometimes have to be changed?
“No, that’s not the problem,” says a neutral source close to the dispute. “The thing is beyond blame. You can’t blame it on any one individual. It’s beyond individual responsibility because it’s beyond individual control. That’s what’s so awesome about it. The thing to see about both Kiley and Foster is that they are both terrific managers. All in all, Kiley’s staff and Foster’s staff are as competent as they should have to be. Foster is probably going to get sacked. The T will get the money they want, but Foster’ll have to go. That’ll be the compromise they strike. But it won’t change anything. Staff competence is not the problem.”
That rang true to me. The further back we trace the train of causes that tossed us up in the current mass-transit crisis in the Hub, the less confidently we can blame one individual or another for these troubles. We cannot blame the Nixon administration for wanting to help deal with the balance-of-payments problem by selling U.S.-made LRVs to federally subsidized U.S. buyers. We cannot blame Robert Kiley for buying buses, the American Motors Generals, that right away started falling apart when again it was the federal government that stipulated the purchase. We cannot even blame the federal government for wanting the T to economize. We cannot blame Robert Foster for being the duty officer when the buzzards came home to roost.
So if we cannot blame the T’s problems on Kiley’s liberal whiz kids, neither can we blame them on the reconquest of the system by career incompetents in baggy pants. Then where to turn?
Barry Locke, state transportation and construction secretary, sat me down in front of his floor-to-ceiling windows in his sixteenth-floor office in the McCormack Building looking down on the Charles River and Back Bay and Cambridge. A slight, intense man of forty-eight, wearing metal-frame glasses and dressed in the shirt-sleeves and open vest seemingly de rigueur for the executive elite of government, he folded his hands behind his head and said, “If you’re gonna write a story looking for quick solutions and easy blame, you might as well write for the Globe. If you’re not gonna do that, you have to go back to beginnings.”
“Let’s hear it,” I said.
“As a result of years and decades of neglect,” said Locke, “mass transit developed certain problem areas, and now they have caught up with us. Mass transit, especially in Massachusetts, has been underfunded since World War II, when the country grew dependent on the auto. Now that there’s an energy crisis, people want to see a restoration of mass transit overnight, but how can you do that when there are only two companies manufacturing buses in the United States?
“What is happening in the MBTA is happening all over the country. The problems mass transit is facing are problems that no single person can be blamed for. This should not be reduced to a contest between the ins and the outs. We’re all in mass transit together, and politics should not enter into it. Nobody should try to use the T for political gain. It’s too important to all of us. The Advisory Board ought to be held just as tightly accountable as the T management. It ought to be a partner in the process, not just a constant critic. Nobody denies its watchdog role, but it comes from the same kennel as everybody else.”
Robert Foster is bigger than news photos led me to expect. I met with him for several hours in the sitting room of his High Street office. He is a strapping, serious man with a dead-earnest cast to his face, try as he might to soften the effect by wearing big friendly looking glasses with blue-tinted lenses. He is a tough guy but cordial and not defensive. Only thirty-eight when called by King to chair the T, he had not known the new governor but had worked for King-backer Martin DeMatteo as manager of R.E.S.C.O. (Refuse Energy Systems Co.), a Saugus waste-treatment plant. He supposes DeMatteo was the source of his recommendation to King.
“Is it all finally just politics?” I blurted out to Foster. For I was coming to think that the controversy about the T was much less a controversy about human error and its rectification that a continuation of the permanent feuding inside the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
“You’re right,” said Foster. “That’s the most succinct way to put it. That’s the forest. We could look at some trees, but that’s the forest. I took this job because it is a hell of a challenge, and I’ve never so far in my career turned down an opportunity. But I didn’t realize it would be this political, or that I’d be subjected to so much personal abuse from the media, including the electronic media.”
Jim Smith and Joel Pressman and others on the Advisory Board had been saying that Foster was the abusive one, I reminded him.
Foster smiled slightly but with real amusement. “First week of May,” he said, “I told Smith we were going to have a 1979 supplementary budget of more than $20 million. Incredibly, Smith said to me, ‘What? Who the hell do you think you are?’ Inside a week, Smith and his staff came in, concerned about details. Smith was saying, ‘I don’t think we can afford to give you those kinds of monies.’ And this began the polarization of the T and the Advisory Board. We pointed out to him that he wasn’t to give us anything, we were just trying to see what sort of budget would be needed for the desired service. But when he said that—‘Who the hell do you think you are?’—that had some bite to it. When I saw his eyes, I knew I’d said something wrong.”
Foster is not down on his predecessor. “Kiley did quite a reasonable job when he was in here,” he said. “He did a good job. Kiley’s not the problem. Look, hey, the MBTA is about 6,500 people and 1,600 vehicles. It serves a population of 2.5 million people and moves 160 million passengers a year. And it’s in trouble because mass transportation in general is in trouble, not because one guy left and another took his place.”
But the current polarization seems to bother him, even to confuse him. “I think I understand politics,” he said. “Pretty well, in fact. So how come I can’t establish a dialogue with the mayor of Boston relative to the question of a fare increase—and not just about the fare increase, which all parties agree must happen, but about the whole financial structure of the T? How come?”
The November 13 meeting of the Advisory Board Budget Committee was mobbed. Everyone came to hear the Pressman motion voted up or down, the motion calling upon the Advisory Board to ask King for Foster’s head. We were in the same narrow, yellow room sweating under the same TV lights. DiNatale was there.
“No one in this room,” cried Mayor Pressman, “would try to fault Mr. Foster for all the problems the T has. But look at the performance figures! I don’t fault him for everything, but Mr. Foster has to go, and the governor has to make a search for someone who has the expertise to run the T.”
The motion passed six to one. Immediate pandemonium ensued as the TV lights were shut off and the equipment packed. This was what the media people wanted, and now they were off. No interest in the rest of the agenda, the actual discussion of the 1979 and 1980 budgets.
But the committee seemed to have no taste for anticlimax either, so even as the hubbub was dying down they merged their remaining agenda items, pushed them out of the way until next time, and adjourned.
Anyone who uses the MBTA or whose taxes pay for it can hardly help but sympathize with the mayors and selectmen of the MBTA Advisory Board in their struggle to keep T costs down and services up. Municipal budgets have never been under greater pressure. Taxpayers are anguished and riders are irate. It is no wonder that the debate about current problems is so acrimonious and the search for a scapegoat so intense.
Yet the fault for the current impasse does not lie with Foster any more than with his predecessor, Kiley, and it will only compound the T’s problems if either one becomes the scapegoat.
The profound problems of the MBTA arise from decades of profound neglect. The neglect was a common failing based on thoughtless optimism about the private auto and the expressway and the turnpike and the people who sell us oil. Political factions will never have trouble taking pot shots at one another over management of any system so vulnerable as the T, but pot shots won’t do a thing but drive the merry-go-round of pure politics. They won’t go an inch toward marshaling the kind of coalition needed to confront the mass-transit problem where so much of it originates—at the level of the federal transportation budget. For as long as 85 percent of the national transportation dollar is headed toward highways—as it is over the next two decades—and only 15 percent toward mass-transit systems, no movement of mere personalities will even begin to turn the T around.
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