The trolley Svengali

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 30, 2008

Three years later, Grabauskas’s efforts at the T haven’t generated the same sort of mass acclaim that his work at the RMV did. But there is a sense, among outside observers of the agency, that he’s been making the best of a bad situation.

“You have to look at what Dan Grabauskas has inherited,” argues Eric Bourassa, an advocate with the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group who co-chairs the T’s Rider Oversight Committee. “Their hands are tied when it comes to finances. But when it comes to rider experience and customer service, I would definitely say that Dan and the management have been moving toward a better place.” Some examples: the introduction of the Charlie Card system, which (at least theoretically) transforms subway attendants from passive token dispensers into helpful customer servants; the expansion of the T’s customer-care phone line, which fields and tracks rider complaints; and the debut of WiFi service on the commuter rail.

Lee Matsueda, an organizer with Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), and the head of ACE’s T Riders’ Union, makes a similar argument. (The core premise of the T Riders’ Union is that the MBTA and the state have failed low-income and nonwhite riders by forcing them to rely inordinately on buses, which are both slower and dirtier than the subway.) “Under the circumstances,” says Matsueda, “with the massive debt that’s crippling the T, we think the general manager has made some progress.” Among other things, he cites the T’s ongoing push to add newer, cleaner buses to its fleet.

These descriptions may actually not do justice to Grabauskas’s work. Like any successful politician, Grabauskas is good at talking up his own achievements — but he does it more convincingly than most. Here are some of the big accomplishments Grabauskas touted in a recent interview with the Phoenix:

• MORE ACCESSIBILITY When Grabauskas took over, the T was facing a class-action lawsuit brought in 2002 under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He negotiated a settlement that committed the T to $310 million in new spending over five years — on, among other things, a new public-address system and improved elevator and escalator service. “Elevator and escalator performance was really in trouble when I got here,” says Grabauskas. “Now we’re in 18 or 19 months in a row of 99 percent of them being in service, every single day.” Also noteworthy: the Arlington and Copley Green Line stations, both of which date to approximately 1915, are currently being renovated to meet ADA standards.

• BETTER BUSES When Grabauskas’s tenure and that of his predecessor, Michael Mulhern, are taken together, the average bus age has decreased from 14 years to four. Every bus is now ADA compliant, with automated stop announcements for blind passengers and wheelchair-friendly ramps; in addition, more buses are burning cleaner fuel (i.e., compressed natural gas rather than diesel).

• LESS CRIME Crime on the T hit a 10-year low this past year, according to a report released in January 2008. Grabauskas attributes this outcome to a modest increase in T-police staffing, the installation of closed-circuit cameras in subway stations and buses, and the ever-present “See something, say something” campaign.

• MORE RECYCLING This past year, the T recycled 1.4 million pounds of paper; next year, according to Grabauskas, that number should rise to 2.2 million pounds. (Disclosure: the Phoenix is a partner in the recycling expansion unveiled by the T this past Earth Day.)

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