T kept public, oversight board in dark about Alewife problems

Lawmakers slam transit agency for poor job of communication

THE GENERAL MANAGER of the MBTA said on Monday that the problems with the parking garage at Alewife have been on the agency’s radar screen for close to a year, but members of the agency’s oversight board and legislative officials said they only learned about the issues when some concrete on the second level fell on a car last week.

General Manager Luis Ramirez made it sound as if the T addressed the garage problems in an orderly fashion after receiving a report in November warning that the garage was at risk of “imminent failure.” He said that report provided the scope for a $5.7 million repair job scheduled to begin in September and laid the groundwork for possible uses of an additional $14 million the agency set aside to keep the garage functioning for several more years.

But Ramirez and other T officials apparently didn’t tell the public about the garage’s safety issues and also didn’t inform the members of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board.

Joe Aiello, the chairman of the control board, said any report raising safety issues for the public must be brought to the attention of the board immediately. “I was not happy to find myself in a position of not knowing about these conditions,” he said.

Steven Poftak, another member of the board, said he was also kept in the dark. “Learning these things through the press and other means is not the way to do it,” he said. Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a control board member who played an active role last week in dealing with the problems at the Alewife garage, acknowledged the communications failure. “We know that we did not do a very good job,” she said.

The mild complaints from Aiello, Poftak, and Tibbits-Nutt were nothing compared to the angry earful the board and T management heard from three state lawmakers – Sens. Cindy Friedman and Patricia Jehlen and Rep. Sean Garballey. The lawmakers said the T has done a terrible job of communicating what it knew about the garage’s problems to the public.

Friedman said the public was told nothing after the November safety report on the garage and again after concrete fell from the ceiling of the garage in February, according to a driver report.  Friedman said she and five other lawmakers wrote a letter to Ramirez on July 9 complaining about a plan to hike parking rates at Alewife from $7 to $10 on weekdays. In the letter, the lawmakers noted that T officials had shown a willingness to back off a similar rate hike at the Braintree and Quincy Adams garages.

Rep. Sean Garballey and Sens. Patricia Jehlen and Cindy Friedman.

“The reasoning behind this apparent discrepancy is that the Braintree and Quincy Adams garages are undergoing renovations, meaning a parking fare increase would be unwarranted,” said the letter. “However, the conditions at the Alewife parking garage are just as decrepit and require much-needed repairs. Such poor conditions hardly justify a fare increase.”

Friedman said Ramirez never responded to the July letter, and the control board on July 16 rolled back a portion of the Braintree and Quincy Adams parking rate increases but left Alewife’s increase in place, making it the most expensive garage in the system.

At Monday’s meeting of the control board, Friedman demanded that the parking rate increase be rescinded. Ramirez said after the meeting – hours after Friedman had left – that he would reconsider the rate hike at Alewife and make a decision on that this week.

The Alewife garage – capable of holding 2,600 cars – is the largest parking facility the T owns. It fills up most days by 8:30 or earlier. Friedman said the garage is not capable of holding 2,600 cars anymore because so much room is taken up with equipment, including hydraulic lifts, to keep the garage upright. She said the facility is desperately needed by commuters from west of Boston, but it’s not an attractive option.

“It floods. It disgustingly dirty. It’s in such a state of disrepair that people are afraid to park there,” she said.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

On a day when the T and its control board spent a great deal of time patting themselves on the back for matching up expenses and revenues in fiscal 2017 for the first time in 10 years, Friedman said the juxtaposition of that issue with the garage’s problems highlighted a problem at the T.

“They’re totally tone-deaf,” said the Democratic senator after leaving the control board meeting. “Come on, they talk about the safety of the customers and they get a report that says the garage is at imminent risk of failure and they don’t do anything about it. That’s not stressing safety. Their goal is to cut costs. That’s what the governor wants them to do. You can’t do both.”