The trolley Svengali

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 30, 2008

MORE PUNCTUALITY “On-time performance on trips delivered on subways and buses has never been higher — ever — in the history of the T,” notes Grabauskas. (The catch here is that this doesn’t include the commuter rail, which the T operates in conjunction with the independent Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company, and which was plagued with delays for much of 2007. According to data provided by Grabauskas’s office, however, on-time performance on the commuter rail has been increasing sharply and steadily since December.)

MORE RIDERS T ridership declined for five consecutive years earlier this decade. But in Fiscal Year 2007 the system had its second-highest ridership ever, with 353 million distinct (or “unlinked”) passenger trips. That’s a million less than the all-time high of 354 million, in FY01; and far above the FY06 and FY05 totals of 334 million and 325 million, respectively.

BETTER WEB PRESENCE In 2007, the T’s newly redesigned home page, mbta.com, won a Webby award for best government Web site — beating out, among others, the Library of Congress.

T RADIO IS DEAD Grabauskas doesn’t actually cite this as a major achievement, but it’s a victory for T riders everywhere. When T Radio — a lite-rock-driven, maddeningly intrusive use of the T’s new public-address system — debuted this past fall, many of us (including your correspondent) assumed it was here to stay, particularly because it was a way for the T to make some extra money from advertising. But public feedback was negative enough that the T quickly and unceremoniously scrapped the project. Might it return? “No,” says Grabauskas. “Never.” That’s good news.

080502_grabauskas_main
HEAD HONCHO: MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas
The unsustainable system
These gains don’t mean that everything is perfect on the T. Far from it. If you’ve suffered through a slower-than-walking Green Line trip, or sweated on a bus or subway or commuter-rail line that was churning out heat on an 80-degree day, or just felt the wrath of an inexplicably dour T employee, you know that there’s plenty of room for improvement. But taken in aggregate, they do suggest that Grabauskas may have done a better job than he’s been given credit for — and that, if he had more resources to work with, he might actually be able to do for the T what he once did for the RMV.

In fact, a proposal currently on Beacon Hill would allow him to do just that. In June 2007, then–state senator Jarrett Barrios and State Representatives Carl Sciortino and Alice Wolf filed legislation that would transfer $2.9 billion of the T’s debt — roughly the amount of debt that existed when Forward Funding was implemented in 2000 — back to the state. The bill’s prospects are uncertain, but there seems to be an increasing awareness that the fiscal relationship between the state and the T needs to be re-examined. (In March of 2007, for example, the Transportation Finance Commission, an advisory body established by the legislature in 2004, painted a grim picture of the T’s fiscal state in a report titled, fittingly enough, “Transportation Finance in Massachusetts: An Unsustainable System.”)

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