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Is the MBTA on track?

In the real world, funding is only an issue; politics is the most persistent problem
By EDITORIAL  |  April 30, 2008


Smells like T spirit!
Boston’s mass-transit system dates back to 1631, when sailboats ferried passengers from Chelsea to Charlestown. In the subsequent 377 years, service has become a teeny bit faster — but at a price that has put the MBTA in debt to a tune of more than $8 billion. With transportation issues getting renewed scrutiny under the Patrick administration, Phoenix staffers fanned out to kick the T’s tires.

• The trolley Svengali: Why Dan Grabauskas might actually fix the T — if he can keep his job. By Adam Reilly.
• Trouble 'round the bend? MBTA workers have been without a contract for two years. Arbitration will settle the matter soon, but could stir an angry hornets’ nest for 2010. By David S. Bernstein
• Seven habits of highly effective T-riders: Keep your hands on the pole and not on your neighbor’s ass, bucko. By Sharon Steel.
• The T and the Tube: London’s Underground is seething with danger. Boston’s T has cuckoo juice. By James Parker.
• Underground art: Reviewing the MBTA’s subterranean aesthetic. By Mike Miliard.
A sinking feeling: Leaky MBTA tunnels have been seeping Boston’s groundwater for years. Can a new plan prevent potential catastrophe? By David S. Bernstein
• State of hock: If the MBTA wasn't in debt, these items would be at the top of its new wish list. By Jason Notte.

It must be something in the air. Or the water. Maybe it is our Puritan heritage. Whatever the reason, Bostonians love to criticize, to complain. If there is an upside to the local culture of negativity, it might be that it keeps everyone on their toes.

As targets for criticism go, it is hard to imagine one more inviting than the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, better known as the MBTA, best known as the T. That such a sprawling system is nearly universally recognized by a single letter is a testimony to its ubiquity. It also suggests the central role the T plays in so many lives.

As with other institutions that protect or foster the common good — schools, police departments, fire stations — Boston was an innovator, a pioneer in providing mass transport. The American Public Transportation Association credits Boston with the nation’s first publicly operated ferryboat (1631), first commuter fare on a railroad (1838), first fare-free promotion (1856), first public-transportation commission (1894), first electric underground street railway line (1897), and first publicly financed transportation facility (1897).

While the community can take pride in the past, pride will not help the region navigate the future. We are building on century-old infrastructure and can not lose site of that.

With gasoline prices skyrocketing, and unlikely to go lower, and recognition of the importance of global warming finally penetrating the national consciousness, the MBTA is of more central importance than ever before.

The special report in this edition of the Phoenix is rooted in that assumption, and looks at issues both large and small. In some cases the articles are analytical; in other cases whimsical. But if there is a bottom line to be found in the Phoenix survey, it is this: all things considered, the MBTA is doing a pretty good job. The question is: how can it do better?

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

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.

1  |  2  |   next >
  • The trolley Svengali
    Why Dan Grabauskas might actually fix the T — if he can keep his job
  • That dirty water
    Why doesn’t the Patrick administration think that’s an environmental issue?
  • Trouble 'round the bend?
    MBTA workers have been without a contract for two years. Arbitration will settle the matter soon, but could stir an angry hornets’ nest for 2010.
  • More more >
  Topics: The Editorial Page , Deval Patrick , Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority , Public Transportation ,  More more >
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