It’s time to get Charlie back on the MBTA
Imagine this headline over a story: “Rails coming back to life, but roads, airport closed.”
It’s not imaginary at all; it’s a relic from the Globe back in 1978, from that century’s most famous blizzard. And there was Mike Dukakis, the governor at the time, not long after holding onto a strap on a Green Line trolley, making his way to Beacon Hill.
Sure, the trains were late, and the service was limited, but you could get around. And for a while, it was just about the only way you could.
“We did it,” said Dukakis, an avid MBTA commuter even while governor. “The time when the T should shine is exactly times like this. This is when you pick up ridership. If it’s a disaster, you’ve lost a great opportunity to market the system.”
I bring this up not just to point out how far the T has fallen in the past quarter-century but to suggest a way to start making it somewhat better. And it begins like this: Charlie Baker parking his state-issue SUV and going for regular rides on the T.
Riding the T, Dukakis experienced firsthand the problems that bugged other commuters. He remembers how the Green Line kept breaking down during the winter. He asked the conductor: “What the hell is going on?”
The governor learned that the T stopped replacing the pieces of metal that protected the underside of the motor from snow and ice. When Dukakis got to the State House, he picked up the phone and called his secretary of transportation, Fred Salvucci. The problem got fixed.
Just knowing the governor could be on the train helped keep the system on its toes. T employees, he said, “knew me, saw me. It makes a difference.”
During the February 1978 blizzard, people went to work that day because the forecast called for at least six inches of snow. Weather predictions weren’t nearly as sophisticated, and some parts of the state got walloped with three feet of snow. People tried to drive home that day, and some 3,000 cars were stranded on an eight-mile stretch of Route 128. About 30 people in Massachusetts lost their lives due to the storm.
David Gunn, who headed operations for the T during the blizzard, recalled that he never had to shut down the trains completely. Commuter rail wasn’t available for a few days, but the subways in the underground tunnels were operating. It was a little easier to keep the Orange Line going because it was elevated back then.
There were a lot of issues, similar to today’s — ice on the third rail, the drifts, slow service on the commuter line. “Don’t paint it like a Swiss watch. It was really tough,” said Gunn, who went on to run the New York City Transit Authority and Amtrak. But “we never gave up totally.”
One thing that was critical, and Gunn hasn’t seen enough of this happening today, was this: “There was good coordination between the T and the state,” he said.
Baker hasn’t been much of T rider in recent years, though he used to be. He rode the Red Line extensively while an undergrad at Harvard back in the late ’70s. He caught the commuter rail in from his Swampscott home when he worked for Governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci in the early ’90s.
So when was the last time Baker got on the T? He took it from “time to time” during the 2014 campaign but not since becoming governor, according to spokesman Tim Buckley.
After a week of dysfunction between the governor’s office and the T, it’s time for Baker to recharge his Charlie Card. Maybe by traveling in the seats of more than a million daily T riders can Baker truly understand their frustration because he’s been acting like the T is not his problem.
I get it. It’s not his T, but it’s his problem now. It’s not a moment for throwing general manager Beverly Scott under the bus when the system is in crisis, as he did earlier this week. She handed in her resignation Wednesday.
Where did all this political mudslinging get us? Not anywhere fast enough if you’re riding the T these days.
Living in Brookline, Dukakis is a regular on the Green Line. He described the T as a “basket case” when he began his first term in 1975. Significant investment in public transit didn’t happen until his second and third terms, but transportation was a big focus for him.
Baker, on the other hand, didn’t talk much about transportation on the campaign trail, and it shows now.
Until recently, Baker and Scott didn’t even talk about the T’s woes, instead dealing through Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. A malfunctioning T is perhaps the biggest crisis of his nascent administration, and he leaves it to intermediaries to handle? That doesn’t sound like the get-in-the-weeds, CEO-style governor we elected. You’d think Baker, out of his element, would have been on the phone with Scott as soon as it became clear we were in for a record snow.
On Thursday, Baker met for the first time with Scott, a Deval Patrick appointee. He hung out in the T control room and brought a peace offering of making available snowmelters and plows to the transit system.
With Scott on her way out, the T is really Baker’s problem now.