Boston's mass transit: a phoenix or a dinosaur?
Boston's controversial transit system has posted another fare increase -- the second in 13 months. Last summer a subway token cost a quarter. On Aug. 1 it increased to 75 cents.Skip to next paragraph
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Is the financially battered system, like the proverbial phoenix, renewing itself in the fires of public discussion? Or is it, like the dinosaur, rumbling toward extinction?
Officially, the statistics for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (the MBTA, or "T" as it is known locally) show a system doing brisk business. It carries an estimated 564,500 passengers each weekday -- 168 million a year. Its 63 miles of track have spread down to Braintree and are growing out to North Cambridge. Its buses cover 710 miles in the 79 Greater Boston communities that make up the T district.
Behind these statistics from the nation's oldest and fifth-largest system, however, are some bothersome questions:
* Is the financial structure sound? the T has faced year-end budget crunches the past two Decembers. It was staring at an anticipated $16 million deficit in its $337 million budget again this winter -- until the fare hike and a supplemental budget were approved. All big-city transit system depend on public money, but some earn close to 50 percent of their keep. In Boston, the fare box contributes a paltry 18.5 percent; rentals and concessions boost the take to about 24 percent. Otherwise, major funding comes from levies against the 79 communities -- many of which grumble, since they receive no direct MBTA service but merely abut towns that do.
* Are the unions too demanding? Philip Shapiro, executive director of the Advisory Board (the budget-setting group of representatives from the 79 district communities served by the T), says yes. He points out that the averagem salary for the 6,500 employees is $23,000 -- the highest of any public-sector union in the state, and ahead of local firefighters and police. Overtime can jack that figure to $50,000.
* Do these highly paid employees follow efficient work rules? By way of answer, the T's new general manager, James F. O'Leary (perhaps the nation's youngest transit manager, who is winning high marks in most quarters), leans back in his chair and recalls a recent visit to a bus garage. Although it was already clean, a man was sweeping the floor. Outside the door, however, was a litter of papers. Why not, Mr. O'Leary suggested, stop sweeping inside and pick up the papers outside? "It's not in my job description," replied the man, a member of the Machinists Union, Local 264. Outside cleaning is the responsibility of the Carmen's Union, Local 589.
* Are there too many employees? The T pays $12 an hour to workers who count change -- although banks, which mechanize the process, might even do it free. Union work rules, too, require a doorman for every two subway cars in addition to the driver, so that a four-car train will have a crew of three. New York and Washington, Mr. O'Leary says, operate 10-car trains with two men. Union rules also prohibit part-time employees -- although systems serving the peaks and troughs of commuter traffic are ideally suited to part-time work. Add in the rigid seniority rules on overtime work (so that senior employees can travel across town, on taxpayers' money, to do jobs in place of junior men right on the spot), and the featherbedding becomes evident.
* Is the system well managed? Many point to problems of recruitment. They note that some 25 of the top managers brought in when Robert Kiley ran the T from 1975 to 1979 have left -- and haven't been adequately replaced. The result: lack of overall direction, confusion about policy, and susceptibility to interference from the governor's office on down.
* But is the system at least honest? The T's former chairman, Barry M. Locke , was indicted July 21 on bribery and larceny charges by a grand jury. He had been bounced from his post May 2 after Mr. O'Leary (then only two weeks on the job) found an envelope with Mr. Locke's initials on it containing $1,000 in cash. Under investigation are the former chairman's multimillion- dollar five-year contract for subway and bus advertising, and his actions surrounding a lease of MBTA property. Other employees have also been indicted.