The trolley Svengali

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 30, 2008

Poster boy
On the face of it, this is a reasonable proposition. After all, posters depicting Grabauskas’s cheery, clean-cut mug grace our subway stations. In those same stations, his voice urges, over and over again, “If you see something, say something!” — an exhortation that, however well-intentioned, led to the anti-terrorism interrogation of an innocent Cambridge harpsichordist earlier this year. (Mooninites, Star Simpson . . . what is it about Boston?) Then there’s that salary of his. As the T’s highest-ranking official, Grabauskas pulls in a cool $255,000 annually for his efforts. (For the record, that’s $115,000 more than Governor Deval Patrick makes.) For all these reasons, blaming Grabauskas is a perfectly natural response.

In reality, though, things are more complicated. First off, the T is old — in its most antiquated sections, 110 years old, to be precise. (The first train left Park Street Station on September 1, 1897.) This means that Grabauskas has to grapple with outdated facilities and decades-old wear and tear. He’s also burdened with assorted big-picture decisions made by his various predecessors. Some of these choices were smart, like extending the Red Line; others weren’t, like deciding that a glorified bus called the Silver Line could stand in for a real subway.

What’s more, the T has money problems. Bad ones. Right now, the agency carries a debt of approximately $5 billion — which, with interest factored in, is actually $8.1 billion. And this debt isn’t Grabauskas’s fault. For the vast majority of the T’s existence, the state simply covered whatever extra costs the agency happened to incur. But back in 2000, the legislature created a new mechanism, dubbed “Forward Funding,” that required the T to fund itself with 20 percent of state sales-tax revenues, as well as levies on cities and towns, and made the agency responsible for managing its own debts.

At the time, forcing the T to live within its means seemed like prudent fiscal policy. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. For one thing, when the T shifted to Forward Funding, it also assumed the financial obligation for about $1.8 billion worth of projects linked to the Big Dig. (The Conservation Law Foundation had sued Massachusetts, contending that the Big Dig violated the Clean Air Act; the state responded by agreeing to offset Big Dig–related pollution with sundry improvements to public transportation.)

Coupled with already-existing debts, these commitments put the T’s total debt burden at about $5 billion, sans interest, which is about where it remains. Meanwhile, because sales-tax revenues haven’t risen the way they were supposed to, T revenues haven’t, either. As a result, roughly 27 cents of every dollar the T now spends goes toward paying off its debt. Put differently, the T currently spends as much each year on debt service as it gathers in subway and bus fares — which, for their part, keep going up and up.

Next stop: a better T?
When Grabauskas took over at the T in May 2005, he had a reputation as a management wunderkind who’d transformed the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) from a miserable cesspool into a reasonably pleasant destination. (Grabauskas headed up the RMV from 1998 to 2003; after running unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for treasurer in 2002, he was Mitt Romney’s transportation secretary from ’03 to ’05, in which capacity he chaired the MBTA’s board of directors.)

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