Grabauskas Retrospective; What Now for T?

Say what you will about Dan Grabauskas; he is a political survivor.  The public servant who reformed the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles resigned under pressure from Governor Patrick and his appointee James Aloisi today, nearly a year short of the end of his five-year term as general manager of the MBTA.  The Democratic governor will have his chance to appoint a successor, but the bitter partisan flavor probably will linger with voters for some time.  The tab for buying Gov. Patrick an extra nine months of direct control of the MBTA: $327,487.  I hope that turns out to be a good investment, but at the moment it’s not so clear that Messrs. Patrick and Aloisi gave taxpayers a good deal.

In 2005, Grabauskas took the job of general manager with a clear vision.  The T would treat riders like customers; the system would be reliable, clean, courteous, and safe.  But mainly clean.  And accessible; inaccessibility “impacts not only on the disabled, but on parents with children in strollers, as well.” Grabauskas professed to be a neatnik; he was particularly concerned about the condition of elevators and escalators.  He apparently believed that if he made the T a comfortable place to be, riders would flock and revenues would soar.  And, of course, he wanted to control costs.

So four years later, how did he do?

Grabauskas never shrunk from the gaze of his “customers,” for example writing a regular Q+A column in the free daily paper Metro, and appearing more than once on WBUR public radio.  He was determined to keep riders safe; he initiated random, highly visible police screening checkpoints.  He committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make the T more accessible, installing announcement screens and elevated platforms on the Green Line.  He resisted union contract demands and agreed to wage increases only after being overruled by a labor arbitrator.  The T renovated the Charles Street station and installed a new train control system on the Red Line that permitted more frequent service.  And there is the electronic fare system.

The list goes on.  Grabauskas was nothing if not engaged in the goings-on at the T.  Perhaps one can disagree with him on policy matters — for example it might be reasonable to question the wisdom of a having a broke organization with heavy capital needs spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to meet the unique requirements of less than 0.1% of T riders — but the man demonstrated integrity and dedication to his “customers.”

But many things never changed.  Yes, the trains still are slow and late.  Yes, the escalators have at times been scandalously unreliable.  Yes there still are door-openers on the  Red, Green, and Orange Lines.  Yes, Kenmore Station still is under construction nearly five years later.  No, Dan Grabauskas does not commute to work on the T.  Yes, the T still is broke.

No Cell Zone

No Cell Zone

But none of those were the reasons that Governor Patrick and his appointees gave for the reasons they had lost faith in Grabauskas.  The breakdown occurred, they said, because two Green Line drivers in two years apparently had ignored traffic signals for different reasons, and Grabauskas was not in Washington, D. C. when the NTSB released its report on one of the accidents.  And there was a power outage on the Green Line.  That’s it.  Never mind that Grabauskas nearly overmanaged the aftermath of the Government Center Green Line collision by banning cell phones from drivers.  And never mind that he was on an unpaid budget-related furlough at the time the NTSB report was released.  And never mind he is not the T electrician.

No matter; Grabauskas is out, but to Gov. Patrick’s likely chagrin, the former T general manager emerges from the tussle virtually unscathed.  That isn’t true for the Governor and his appointees.  The termination looks like short-term political retribution — at taxpayers’ expense.

Unfortunately, the real loser here looks to be the T.  The authority is leaderless at a critical time where the patchwork of agencies is being reexamined and when the modes of transportation finance are in flux in a way they have not been in memory.  The Governor has made noises time and again that he is a friend to transit.  Now he has an opportunity to go from words to action.