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.

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.

All of this bubbles up around the usual complaints about surly bus drivers, missed trips, dirty subway stations, and poor security. It is enough to make proper Bostonians, already discouraged by city government and the public schools , throw up their hands in despair. Why not, they ask, simply let the whole thing slip into the sea? Is it really worth saving?

The answer, evident when one stands back from the sort of detail explained above, is a resounding "Yes." There are two major reasons. First, the demise of the T would flood Boston's narrow streets with private cars. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, in a thoughtful study last April calling for a regular "report card" of T data, provided a startling scenario. Suppose, it said, service reductions forced one-quarter of the current riders to provide their own transportation. Even if they bought compact cars, they would be paying nearly $ 400 million in additional annual expenses -- more than the T's entire yearly budget. The result: congestion, air pollution, noise, and the need for more parking spaces.

The second reason to save the system concerns those who can't afford cars anyway -- the low-income urban dwellers who have no alternatives.

This makes the notion of recurring fare increases particularly onerous. One can argue that the present increase merely brings Boston's subway fares into line with those in other cities. But Boston, with its crumpled geography and hub-and-spoke transit pattern, has short routes, Mr. O'Leary thinks some 35 to 40 percent of riders transfer between buses and subways -- and pay full fare on each. The result: A round trip from parts of Dorchester to Downtown crossing can cost you $2.50 -- putting Boston at the top of the national fare heap.

Even that may not be intolerable. A few weeks ago Mr. O'Leary took the unusual step of participating in four public hearings on the fare increase. The complaints, overall, centered less on fares than on service. Bostonians, it seems, are willing to pay, but only if they see some improvement. Will they?

The historical precedents suggest they won't. Last summer the fare went to 50 cents. Last February the service was cut back by 20 percent -- though many of the cuts were restored in the latest fare vote.

Also expressing pessimism are those who focus on the political side of the issue. The seven-member MBTA Board of Directors (separate from the 79-member Advisory Board) changes with each new governor. Gov. Edward J. King, his critics say, has not made transit a priority. They note that the powerful Carmen's Union endorsed him early in his campaign -- and that he has since helped ensure that their wishes prevail. But his popularity is slipping, and his reelection is in doubt. A new governor -- or the return of the former one, Michael S. Dukakis -- might give transit a higher profile.

Then, too, the Beacon Hill barometer may be rising. Last year a disgusted legislature passed a "management-rights package," designed to give managers (so far has the pendulum swung against the unions) the right to manage. The issue is now both in court (challenged by the unions) and before an arbitrator (who is obliged to take into account the ability of the 79 communities to pay for any wage increases). But, says former chairman Kiley, 'the union's political clout has diminished a lot."

And the manager at last seems prepared to manage. Mr. O'Leary has proposed a budget that cuts 536 positions. He is also hammering away at the work rules. Presumably his fare increase won't become an annual event -- which it won't need to, if he begins to think beyond day-to-day operations and starts preparing (as the T typically has not) five-year budgets.

Will he succeed? Growth in transit ridership is slackening nationwide. President Reagan, noting the incongruity of people in Sioux Falls paying federal taxes so that someone in Los Angeles can ride a subway, wants to limit federal funds for transit projects. "I think the transit industry as a whole is in for some continued tough times," says O'Leary. But he predicts that "reforms will come, and the realization of the needs of the public will be recognized."

If he is right, the system could become the phoenix in an age greatly needing proof that old institutions can be renewed.

If he is not, it could become a dinosaur, its skeleton serving grim warning of the dangers of excessive growth.

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