Editor’s Note: This article originally ran on Dec. 16, 1979, and was part of a series of reports that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980.
This report was prepared by the Globe Spotlight Team, which consists of editor Stephen Kurkjian, reporters Alexander B. Hawes, Jr. and Nils Bruzelius and researcher Joan Vennochi.
Robert L. Foster and Robert R. Kiley approached the job of attempting to straighten out the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority from the same premise: that the system needs better management. There the agreement between the two men ends.
Kiley, a career public official who had worked for Mayor Kevin H. White and the federal government before being appointed MBTA chairman in 1975, recruited a team of men who to a great degree came from outside the MBTA, had experience in public transportation and were firm-handed in dealing with unions.
Those men included David Gunn, former assistant vice president of the Illinois Central railroad; David Feeley, former shop foreman for the Plymouth Brockton bus line; and A. Richardson Goodlatte, former executive for a Florida company that did extensive train rebuilding work for Amtrak.
Foster, who had been turned down for an engineering job on the MBTA and who was manager of a privately owned Saugus waste facility, ousted these Kiley appointees and put in their positions men who came up through ranks of the powerful unions of the MBTA. They included:
Edward Collins, who replaced Feeley as head of bus maintenance; Walter Woods, who replaced Goodlatte as head of rail maintenance; and Charles Waelde, who replaced Gunn as director of operations. Waelde has since been replaced by Andrew Hyde, a former budget analyst hired by Kiley.
In addition, Foster has placed in management positions supporters of Gov. Edward J. King’s gubernatorial campaign or friends of his associates. They include:
Edward Kennedy, who is in charge of the MBTA’s emergency bus repair program, and who is a close friend of Carl Yastrzemski, a King campaign supporter; Donald J. Burns, a contributor to King’s campaign whose title is project manager for the transit main line; and James W. Sullivan, manager of personnel, who was King’s personnel director at MassPort.
Kiley’s boss, Gov. Michael Dukakis, let the chairman run the MBTA on his own. Foster’s boss, King, has intervened several times in the decision-making.
MIT Prof. Alan Altshuler, former state secretary of transportation under Republican Gov. Francis Sargent and chairman of a 1970 state task force study of the MBTA, said the advances that were made in the past several years in improving productivity are slipping away under Foster.
“In the Kiley period, the key people were true professionals. But they’ve all left, and it doesn’t appear that Foster has replaced them,” Altshuler said. “The message has gone through the place that there’s no discipline anymore. It’s almost impossible to reverse that.
“There’s no magic formula for productivity,” he continued. “You’ve got to slug it out year after year. And sometimes it’s possible to lose in one year what you’ve gained in five.”
In his three years as chairman, Kiley took the following steps to improve efficiency and productivity:
He increased the status and pay of the foremen to make their positions more desirable; he began a system of hiring foremen and supervisors from outside the system whenever MBTA mechanics and personnel were not adequately skilled; he required testing of all MBTA bus mechanics and LRV repair specialists before they were hired; and he took a tough stand in contract negotiations to limit the size of cost-of-living increases received by the members of the Carmen’s Union.
If he had remained as chairman, Kiley said he would have attempted to extend the testing requirements to cover machinists and other technicians who work on bus repair programs.
One of the Dukakis administration’s most important victories was the enactment of a law that would have replaced the three-man arbitration board - which in the past has been heavily weighted in favor of the unions - with a single person whose qualifications would have included expertise in local financing. Dukakis signed the bill in 1978 despite an illegal shutdown of the MBTA by union employees infuriated by its provisions.
The law was ruled illegal last summer by an arbiter who concluded that it violated the unions’ collective bargaining rights insured by federal law. The ruling is being appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Like Kiley, Foster says he too is concerned about productivity problems among MBTA workers. Asked what tangible steps he had taken to improve efficiency, Foster was unable to cite any examples, saying it had taken nine months to get his “management team on board.” He guaranteed marked improvement in productivity levels by April.
Foster insists that many operation problems were inherited from the Kiley period. The Spotlight investigation found that many of the problems did exist long before either Foster or Kiley took over. But the examination revealed two handicaps making it difficult for Foster to show progress in upgrading the system.
First, Foster has been overruled several times by King in confrontations with the unions. The other difficulty is Foster’s abrupt manner and operating style in dealing with his staff and the MBTA Advisory Board, which must approve his budget requests.
In one incident, according to eyewitnesses, Foster pointed an accusing finger at James Smith, budget director of the Advisory Board, cursed him, called him a “snake” and threatened to “bury” him. Even a close aide to Foster calls him the “wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In addition, two MBTA managers who have frequent meetings with Foster complained that he lacks concentration and often makes important decisions without fully studying the issues involved.
However, Foster, who from all accounts has spent long hours trying to manage the system during this year’s firestorm of controversy, publicly praises his own capacities as a manager. In a speech last Spring to the Massachusetts Society of Civil Engineers, Foster said that under him the MBTA “will concentrate overwhelmingly on the substance of management - and we will leave the spark and flash to others.”