The trolley Svengali

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 30, 2008

It’s not clear, however, that Grabauskas will still be around if and when the T gets a new source of revenue. This past January, in a story published in the Boston Herald, unnamed aides to Governor Patrick whacked Grabauskas for heading to vacation in Thailand as a possible Amtrak strike loomed. (The strike didn’t happen.) The next month, also in a story published in the Herald, Grabauskas accused the Patrick administration of not responding quickly enough to harassing e-mails he’d received from a Department of Corrections employee who, apparently, was irate about the quality of service on the Worcester commuter-rail line. (Grabauskas is gay; the e-mails reportedly included anti-gay slurs.) That things might be tense between Grabauskas, who made his name in several now-defunct Republican administrations, and the new Democratic regime was no surprise. (Grabauskas served under Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift; Swift even considered him as a running mate in 2002 before Romney decided to run.) Still, it was a nasty little fight-by-proxy.

Is it finished? Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Grabauskas to characterize his relationship with the Patrick administration. “I can tell you my relationship with the administration is fine,” he replies. “I think it just goes with the territory sometimes, that things can get a little rough and tumble. So be it. But I have a great deal of admiration for, and a great working relationship with, the Executive Office of Transportation.”

Bernard Cohen, Massachusetts transportation secretary and chairman of the T’s Board of Trustees, “is doing a great job,” adds Grabauskas. And “the governor is a great booster of public transportation; he wants to see it expanded as well as supported. We’re all working together, I think. There’s no working at cross purposes.”

Grabauskas may be overly optimistic, however. I later ask Cohen to assess Grabauskas’s performance. “I view Dan as a very capable manager,” he says. “I think he’s done a good job of focusing on the basics. Let’s face it: the T is a big, sprawling challenge of an agency to run. . . . I think Dan has done a good job of focusing on the day-to-day business, and communicated and worked effectively with many of the external constituent groups that have a real interest in the public-transportation system.”

“That being said,” Cohen continues, “I think that there is an opportunity for greater leadership and vision [in] a number of areas that I think are important, that go beyond the day-to-day.” The head of the T should be “entrepreneurial” in seeking out new funding sources, says Cohen. He should also be actively contributing to efforts to plan the system’s future. More attention should be paid to “best practices” at other agencies. And the Charlie Card system seems overly narrow: “Why not give the Charlie Card more functionality, or put that [computer] chip into other cards, where people can use it for some of their other daily transactions?”

So, is Grabauskas the right guy for the job? “I think it’s a process,” answers Cohen. “I’ve had a lot of those conversations with Dan, and I certainly think the T is moving in that direction. We just need to be conscious of the need to look for results.”

That may not be a vote of no-confidence, but it’s not a ringing endorsement, either. Grabauskas currently has two years left on his contract. If he wants to convince the Patrick administration that he’s the right person for the job, political differences notwithstanding, he’d better act quickly. But judging from Cohen’s remarks — which will almost certainly undermine Grabauskas’s standing on Beacon Hill and elsewhere — that may be a fight he can’t win.

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