Is the MBTA on track?

By EDITORIAL  |  April 30, 2008

As Adam Reilly makes clear, MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas has been quietly effective at improving the small things, which add up to an experience for which more drivers are willing to ditch their autos. The transition to automated fare collection went off remarkably smoothly. Stations are becoming cleaner and more handicap-accessible. Riders are now allowed a free transfer from subway to bus.

The turnaround may not be as obvious as what Grabauskas did at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, where he worked as registrar from 1998 to 2003. But in some ways it is even more impressive, given the size, bureaucracy, and financial constraints of the authority. The Patrick administration should not kid itself that someone else could do better, or create change faster.

Hopefully, Grabauskas will continue to make many improvements, both large and small, which will draw significantly more people into the system. We each have our own pet project in mind, be it the Green Line extension, rail service to New Bedford, Silver Line Phase III, or another. But there is no shortage of worthy projects. You’ll find 206 highway and transit plans listed by the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization at bostonmpo.org/bostonmpo/resources/plan/UniverseProjectsMatrix.pdf.

Some of these projects — the Fairmount Commuter Rail Line, and a Red Line–Blue Line connector, for example — are included in the transportation-bond bill signed by Governor Patrick this past month. Although Treasurer Tim Cahill has legitimate concerns about over-extending our state’s debt obligations in the current credit market, this bond package rightly funds the types of projects that should be high priorities.

But that is only a start. For the MBTA continually to improve its service and expand its reach, it must be given two key things: resources and freedom from political meddling. Neither is ever easy to find on Beacon Hill.

That is the real problem with the T — not the workers, not the managers, not the public support, but the dysfunction of our state government, whose leaders have yet to find an agency, department, or public authority they will not strangle of funds, bloat with patronage, subvert for misuse, or stymie in some petty power play.

Sadly, as our need for public transportation rose over the past 30 years, our leaders’ interest in it devolved and deteriorated. Massachusetts went from having a T-riding governor in Michael Dukakis, to Mitt Romney, who could not tell you what it cost to ride the Red Line. Radio talk-show hosts continue to lampoon Governor Deval Patrick’s Cadillac, but Patrick is committed to public transportation. Appointing Grabauskas as T chief was one of a scant handful of memorably good things Romney did. Let’s hope that in 2010, when Grabauskas’s current term expires, his work is appreciated, he wants to stay on, he is re-appointed, and, most important, the Patrick administration can fight the urge to play politics with the MBTA.

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