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Spotlight: 1979

The 1970s MBTA: missing cash, threats, and a ‘haven for goldbrickers’

“What’s wrong with the T?” the Spotlight series asked. What isn’t wrong with it turned out to be more to the point.


Spotlight Team: Stephen A. Kurkjian (editor), Alexander B. Hawes JR., Nils Bruzelius, Robert Porterfield, and Joan Vennochi (researcher)

Are the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s current problems untenable? Unsolvable? Financially unsustainable? Frustrated MBTA riders might answer “yes” to all of the above. Hard as it is to believe now, the situation looked even bleaker in the late 1970s, prompting Spotlight to launch a three-month investigation into a public transit system that managed to somehow have both the highest cost per mile and the worst service record of any in the country.

Journalists reporting the nine-part series, which began running in December 1979, examined thousands of public and internal documents that revealed antiquated equipment, patronage in hiring, weak management coupled with low worker productivity, and outright theft. Together, it was making Boston look like a hub of incompetence, not excellence.


The series focused on the T’s powerful unions and their connections to then-Governor Ed King’s administration. King had installed political cronies to replace the management team of former governor Michael Dukakis, his predecessor, while personally intervening in disciplinary matters. Meanwhile, King’s campaign had pocketed generous contributions from unions.

Spotlight revealed a number of other problems: T workers being physically threatened for reporting inefficiencies and trying to correct them; runaway overtime costs; an MBTA repair shop colorfully described as a “haven for goldbrickers”; stolen equipment, tools, and cash (1,600 quarters from fare machines were found in one employee’s truck); and a badly mismanaged pension fund that was costing taxpayers millions. The series would win a Pulitzer Prize for local specialized investigative reporting.

In analyzing Boston’s troubled T, Spotlight showed how the Toronto Transit Commission ran a more efficient, less costly system — one with high employee morale, low vandalism rates, and minimal political interference. “We don’t run into the jurisdictional crap they do in Boston,” one Canadian transit leader said at the time.


King then doubled down on some problematic behavior — seizing control of the T and threatening fare hikes and cuts in service — but was not in a position to do that for much longer. “The Globe series had a real impact on public opinion — and on me,” says Dukakis, who reclaimed the office from King after the 1982 primary and election. “Once I decided to run again, it was not only helpful — I campaigned on that issue — but I knew I’d have to deliver if elected. And we did.” Over his next eight years in office, he completed and opened stations for the extension of the Red Line from Harvard Square to Alewife.

Journalists like those on the Spotlight Team are “critically important,” Dukakis says. “You’re the ones who have to hold them accountable if the folks inside the system are not doing it.”

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