Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Big mess at the T

These should be glory days for the MBTA.

Astronomical gas prices finally have done what longtime public transportation evangelists like Mike Dukakis couldn't: Legions of motorists are ditching their cars and riding the T.

Record ridership should be spawning seriously upgraded services across the system, so that all of those gas refugees get hooked on a gorgeous, reliable system and hang around, even if prices at the pump drop. That would ease traffic on the roads, reduce pollution, and transform this state.

But if the revolution is afoot, the T isn't ready. In fact, the MBTA is so not ready that chief Dan Grabauskas is talking about a "hefty," rider-repelling, fare hike come 2010, cuts to services, and delayed upgrades.

This is because the T's finances, which Grabauskas inherited, are a gargantuan mess. One quarter of its $1.5 billion annual budget goes to servicing its $8.1 billion debt, the largest carried by any transportation agency in the country.

Its workers have extraordinary and ridiculously expensive deals: lifetime pensions after 23 years of service, no matter their age. And, for some, free healthcare until they hit 65.

Current fares don't even come close to keeping the T alive, let alone funding improvements and extra services.

So, instead of a world class system, we are left with the prospect of one with major problems - crowding, crumbling infrastructure, and too much debt to fix inevitable problems.