COHASSET — Charlie Baker still won’t ride the T with any of us, but I found the next best person: Paul Barrett.
Barrett is Baker’s MBTA point man, the chairman of a new panel to figure out over the next 30 days what’s wrong with our public transit system and how to fix it. Think of the group as a high-profile SWAT team digging into the T's finances and operations so the commuting public will never again suffer an apocalyptic transportation breakdown.
To prep for his assignment, Barrett, 58, the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s director under mayors Ray Flynn and Tom Menino, spent some time on the Red Line last week. He was back out again Monday morning at my request, willing to do what Baker has not as governor: risk frostbite waiting for the commuter rail.
Barrett, who lives in Cohasset, typically takes the T's Hingham ferry into Boston but agreed to ride the Greenbush line with me. With commuter rail operating on a reduced schedule and plagued by delays, we weren’t sure if the 8:04 a.m. Cohasset train would be on time, or even show up.
Standing on a nearly empty platform and whipped by a wicked wind, we felt lonely. Regulars told us the station is usually packed, but between the arctic chill and the unreliability of the line this winter, some chose to huddle in their cars in the parking lot. Judging by the congestion on Route 3, many more drove into Boston.
For the hardy few waiting — hoping, really — for an on-time train, I introduced Barrett as the guy who was supposed to save the T and told riders to have at him.
At the top of their must-have lists: better communication. If the train is going to be late, they want to know in real time, not 10 minutes after they’ve already discovered that to be true. They also want accurate information. Case in point: The station’s electronic sign warned the train would be 46 minutes late, but a T text sent to cellphones put the delay at 10 minutes. The train ended up being 15 minutes late — but who’s counting?
The lack of information recently turned Candyce Carragher’s 45-minute commute into a three-hour ordeal. Carragher, an executive assistant who works in Boston, waited an hour outside for a train that then took 90 minutes to get to Weymouth. By then, she had endured enough. Carragher got off and bummed a ride home, fearing the evening commute might be just as nightmarish.
“It was horrible,” she recalled, but more information would have eased her pain. “At least you know it’s not moving.”
Other than that, we didn’t hear much complaining. (Commuters, at least ask for some heat lamps!) Barrett tried to give people an opening to vent, pressing them about their experiences with the commuter rail, now operated by a French company, and asking: “Have you noticed a difference with Keolis?”
In fact, the biggest surprise was how rider after rider told us that, other than the past month, they love the Greenbush. One woman wanted to make sure Barrett knew the conductor on the 076 train is “awesome.”
Another rider, Susan Napela, told us with a straight face how she “used to brag no matter what the weather is, the train works, for seven years right on time like clockwork.”
For Barrett, the takeaway is people are just grateful for a working T and perhaps the heart grew fonder in its absence. “They found out in a real way what happens when it is taken away,” said Barrett, who is a Boston real estate executive by day.
But the reality is there are probably fewer complaints on the half-billion-dollar Greenbush line because it has newer tracks and crossings. That fact wasn’t lost on Barrett, whose seven-member panel will consider whether the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is spending enough on maintaining infrastructure, as opposed to expanding.
While the group’s work has just begun, Barrett said it will take a close look at expansion. As much as he thinks the Greenbush has been a success since it opened in 2007 — perhaps he is biased, living on the South Shore — he doesn’t see how the T can get much bigger without first taking care of what has already been built.
“It’s hard to look at the numbers in any way,” Barrett said, and “consider net new long-term expansion.”
Another trouble spot: the T’s $5.5 billion debt. Annual debt service alone is close to $425 million, or nearly a quarter of the system’s operating budget. Essentially, Barrett said, the borrowing is structured as an interest-
only loan. At some point, the payments will balloon, further hurting the MBTA’s finances.
Barrett wasn’t ready to say how the T could escape its crushing debt. But there aren’t many options: The state could take over the loan, raise more revenue, or cut expenses to cover the bigger bills.
Back on the Greenbush line, it took us just under an hour to get into South Station Monday morning. We then caught the Red Line, which was back to a normal schedule, to Alewife.
That’s where we ran into James Moore, a young software engineer who doesn’t own a car and was headed to work at a Cambridge tech company. His two cents for Barrett: Fix the Red Line cars and buy more of them.
Barrett asked: “Want to pay for it?”
As he stepped off the train at Davis Square with a messenger bag in tow, Moore didn’t hesitate: “Yes. Raise my fare.”