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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Transfering the blame

If only Smilin' Dan Grabauskas was as good at running the MBTA as coming up with excuses as why the system is a mess.

That's the major conclusion I draw from the MBTA general manager's recent emergence from his underground bunker to deal with the local media. The most recent -- and best -- examination of the state of public transportation can be found in this week's Phoenix.

In a series of stories that range from subway art and Green Line Gropers to dealing with leaky tunnels and hungry unions, the most intriguing piece is Adam Reilly's suggestion that Smilin' Dan is probably best positioned to fix problems not of his own making.

(A side comment: I prepared for this item by spending yesterday getting squeezed by too few toll collection machines at Copley while marveling at the small army of machines at Porter and Davis; walking needlessly out of my way because no one bothered to post a sign in Harvard Station that the 66 bus stop had been moved; and generally figuring out work-arounds to get home while not getting crushed by inadequate service in Red Sox Green Line traffic -- one of the few sure-fire revenue generators the T has.)

I've amply chronicled the failings of our public transit system -- where construction and bus and trolley schedules both fall behind with frightening regularity. Yet I never cease to be amazed at how the general manager stays in place. Lack of responsibility goes straight to the top, I guess.

Reilly is correct in noting some of the T's problems are not of Grabauskas' making: the debt dumped on the system by the Legislature without, as it turns out, adequate resources to deal with it, is the most glaring example. And the system did not degenerate to one of poor equipment and surly employees only on his watch.

But unlike Reilly, I am unwilling to give Grabauskas a pass on an overpriced toll collection system that acts as a choke point whether in stations or on cars and trolleys. Nor am I willing to say "huzzah" because he copped to what everyone knows -- that the system would regularly skip runs to achieve the appearance of "operating on or near schedule."

The inability to produce a new Kenmore Station in a reasonable period of time -- while embarking on massive, albeit ADA-required overhauls of Copley and Arlington -- is also on his head. (And who is the joker who included swimming to the list banned activities in the Kenmore busway?)

I strain to find the roving "service ambassadors" promised when the fare system freed toll collectors from their booths. Mostly I see them inside their new Charlie-covered shelters.

Reilly is the first to make clear why Grabauskas hangs on -- two years left on a contract. And implicit in his persistence is the suggestion that no one else can handle the tough job.

Is that why Massachusetts used to export people to handle far tougher urban transit systems?

It's possible that Deval Patrick and Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen have bigger transportation headaches -- like the Big Dig and crumbling roads and bridges -- to afford to be able to shift their focus. And the $2 billion price tag on improvements is daunting when we can't pay for what we already have.

But with gasoline prices in the stratosphere and heading higher, more and more people are shifting to the T -- and discovering what's not to like about a system that leaks water and fares with equal regularity.

In the meantime, why not an incentive system for Smilin' Dan -- tie his $255,000 salary to the ability to make the trains and buses run on time, with room for all and personnel who treat the paying public as customers and not annoyances.

And make him ride the system every day.

He'd probably be paying us a weekly stipend pretty quickly.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan is doing a great job! His contract should be extended another 5 years.

May 05, 2008 3:39 PM  

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