Head games at the MBTA

Now that four MBTA board members have come out in support of embattled MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas, perhaps Gov. Deval Patrick should take a page out of President Barack Obama’s playbook and have Grabauskas and Transportation Secretary James Aloisi over for a beer.

Somewhere Machiavelli is shaking his head over the Patrick administration’s amateurish attempts to 1) force Grabauskas to resign, or 2) lay the groundwork to justify the firing of the Ipswich resident.

The draft press release for Graubakas’s involuntary separation from state government letter to the transportation secretary penned by three Patrick-aligned MBTA board members, cited his failure to produce a timely response to the National Transportation Safety Board report on the May 28 Green Line accident.

The Gang of Three appeared to close the door on any sort of détente:

We have certainly lost confidence in the General Manager's ability to take ownership of the failings of an agency he has led for nearly five years. Nor do we have any confidence that he can execute a plan that will address our concerns at this critical juncture.

The letter went on to say that Grabauskas “ was conspicuously not out in front” on incidents such as the May system-wide power failure. I emailed Colin Durant, Aliosi's press secretary, to ask if Aliosi had requested that the general manager not publicly comment on these incidents. Durant replied, “Not commenting on that. Remember this letter did not come from the Secretary. It was sent to him.”

OK. 

That left the next move up to the other four. "General Manager Grabauskas has demonstrated to us his leadership and his ability to move the MBTA forward over the past four years," the members wrote in a letter to Aloisi. (Aloisi is chairman of the MBTA board.)

As they say in chess, "Check."

The Grabauskas debacle doesn’t bode well for Patrick. The general manager gets generally favorable marks for his stewardship of the dysfunctional transit system. More important, as far as many in Massachusetts are concerned, "Dan is the man" responsible for the Miracle at the Registry, turning the RMV from a horror show into a functioning state agency, an accomplishment that is paying Grabauskas dividends now.

Everyone knows that Grabauskas is a Republican who owes his job to former Gov. Mitt Romney. Party affiliation, not his job performance, seems the real obstacle to his continued employment. So what does the administration do but raise his profile going into an election year? Why turn Grabauskas into a potential campaign issue?

If Grabauskas were incompetent or a less-than-adept political player, he would have been gone by now. Remember Bernard Cohen?

Smelling a Corner Office fiasco in progress, lawmakers including House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray, and the co-chairs of the Transportation Committee (Sen. Steven Baddour and Rep. Joseph Wagner) have lined up to support Grabauskas.

If Patrick is trying to smooth the way for his own pick to step into the general manager’s position, it's a classic case of "be careful what you wish for." No living human being can single-handedly rescue an agency that the Legislature declines to bail out. And short of a dedicated source of new revenue via a gas tax increase or some other means, a bailout is what it will take to dial back the T’s financial problems. Sales tax hikes, fare increases, and service cuts will not solve them.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

As for those who would blame Grabauskas for the “lack of a safety culture,” they need to look deeper within the organization to long-time managers and rank-and-file employees who have a more profound influence on the culture of the agency than any general manager ever will.

Are there as yet unpublicized reasons to fire Dan Grabauskas? If so, let's hear them. Otherwise, end the drama, break out the Sam Adams, and move on to serious issues, such how many more fare increases and service cuts T riders will stomach before ridership starts trending downward.