MBTA Math: $4 Minus $2.80 Equals $4

I don’t begrudge the MBTA for charging fares for its services.  Actually, I think it is very important that the T get its fare structure right.

Unfortunately, the T never has gotten one particular aspect of its fares right: monthly passholders pay full fare in cash when they ride on a higher-level service.  A pass might be good for several dollars credit against the fare on one service, and not a dime on another.  The T inexplicably fails to give passholders the full value across the entire system that they purchased for one particular service.

An illustration might help.  There are two levels of express bus service, inner express and outer express.  The outer express bus generally travels to more distant stops.  An $89 inner express bus pass is good for the entire $2.80 inner express bus fare.  Not surprisingly, the pass is not good for the $4.00 outer express bus; there is a more expensive pass for that bus.  But here’s the riddle: if I offer an inner express pass good for a $2.80 fare, and the actual fare is $4.00 for the outer express bus, I only should have to pay an extra $1.20 cash, right?  Not so, at least on the MBTA.  Passholders receive no discount on the more expensive service.  They pay full fare, even though they hold a pass that would entitle them to credit for all of the fare on a different bus.  (And as an aside, there is an additional complication that the T charges different cash fares and prepaid pass/charlie card fares).

This has been a problem for years.  It is most obvious with the flexible passes for the express bus, commuter rail, and boat, because there are multiple levels of service.  However, “Link Pass” on the stored value card offers no solution, except to add a further technological hurdle to the administrative one.  Fare-takers on the commuter rail and boat don’t have the equipment to verify that a rider has a valid “Link Pass” on their stored value card.

To their credit, T fare takers typically are generous when it comes to making accommodations to passengers to ameliorate this nonsensical no-discount policy.  But wouldn’t it be better if the T used a more rational fare structure?  A $4 fare, minus a $2.80 credit for a monthly pass, ought to result in a $1.20 cash fare.

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.

Understaffed Lot Creates Red Sox Transitjam

Stuck in Newton on the way to the ballpark

Stuck in Newton on the way to the ballpark

In a minature version of the Easter 2009 turnpike toll fiasco, insufficient staffing at the Riverside Green line terminal in Newton at noon on Sunday jammed traffic all the way back onto I-95/Route 128.  Red Sox faithful arrived at the station early for the 1:35pm afternoon start … and most still needed all of the time and patience they could muster.

Riverside Lot

Near Capacity Lot a Surprise for a Sunday

Turnout was strong for the short trolley ride to the stadium.  With the reduction in trolley fares inbound from the station a few years ago (from $3 per person to $1.70), families west of Boston seem to know a good deal when they see one.

Too bad the T and its contractor, Central Parking, didn’t get it right today, and they left T patrons idling in traffic for probably forty-five minutes each — right outside of the station.

Traffic backed up to highway overpass

Traffic backed up to highway overpass

The problem: Riverside station has staffed booths at the entrance to the parking lot, and in their wisdom, Central Parking and the T sent just one attendant to staff the collection booth for the entire thousand-space lot.  For occasional parkers, like weekend Red Sox fans, paying for parking is not a speedy proposition.  So the influx of fans piled up at the booth near the back of the station.  And then the line backed up through the station (blocking bus access). And then the line jammed up the local street outside.  And then it jammed up the Route 95/128 overpass, going so far as to stop traffic, bumper to bumper on the Route 95/128 off-ramp.

Transit-jam on highway off-ramp

Transit-jam on highway off-ramp

I doubt many of those fans are feeling very smart now about their decision to ride the T.  A half-hour trip to the Sunday game turned into a two-hour nightmare.  It’s unfortunate that the T and Central Parking can’t figure out a way to collect weekend parking fees in an effective way.

Riverside Station entrance

Riverside Station entrance

When the Turnpike inexplicably jammed patrons earlier this year by understaffing collection booths, the head of the organization promptly resigned.  Although this jam was no less inexcusable, don’t expect the same thing from the T.  In some ways it seems to set the bar lower.  But at Central Parking on the other hand … there may be some anxious days ahead.

(eds. note: Red Sox game coincided with final day of the Tall Ships Festival)