The Pottery Barn Rule of MBTA management

When Dan Grabauskas emerged from the initial two-hour plus MBTA Board of Directors executive session on Thursday,  he looked like he’d been hit by a Silver Line bus. With the clock ticking on his tenure as general manager, he sat stoically through the rest of the open meeting while an MBTA employee manager explained the minutiae of change orders that the group had to vote on. [A change order is an instrument that modifies an existing contract to compensate a contractor for work that was not included in the original contract.]

Board member Janice Loux repeatedly expressed outrage about agenda item as Grabauskas tried to offer explanations to no avail. Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary James Aloisi mysteriously wandered in and out of the room.

When CommonWealth profiled Grabuaskas in 2006, Stephen Doody, his former deputy at the Registry of Motor Vehicles told me, "He whip the MBTA in to shape…And if doesn’t, I don’t know who will.” 

Who is going to whip the MBTA into shape now?

According to the State House News Service, [subscription required],

Aloisi said the decision would allow the administration to install someone with “an energy and a drive to take a look at the status quo.” He questioned why under Grabauskas, trains often ran late, trolleys weren’t properly air conditioned, buses were often “bunched up” and station maps were outdated.

A new victim general manager will need more than energy and drive to make trains run on time, insure proper air conditioning, cure traffic woes so buses don’t bunch up, and update outdated station maps. He or she will need more than $8 billion. Or a 19-cent increase in the gas tax. Or a couple of casinos.

Under the Pottery Barn Rule of politics, "If you break it you own it." If nothing else, Thursday’s farce of a board meeting demonstrates just how broken the transit agency is. Gov. Deval Patrick now owns the 100 percent of the mess that is the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

When the  Massachusetts Department of Transportation formally hangs out its shingle in November, Patrick can point to a management team complete with his hand-picked MBTA general manager. Future successes will be his. Delays in service, switching problems, and the disabled trains that keep on being disabled will also be his.

(Late Thursday evening, with the ink scarcely dry on the general manager's resignation, I walked thorough City Hall Plaza at the Government Center station. The line of shuttle buses there could mean only one thing. The Green Line “was out,” according to an MBTA employee on the scene.)

During the board's public comment period, T Riders’ Union member Louise Baxter expressed opposition to any new fare increases. She told the board about low-income riders who try to adopt a “pay what you can” approach to commuting only to be tossed off buses by drivers. “People have trouble paying the fares now,” she said.

The $327,486.81 buyout of the general manager’s contract would buy those riders more than a few Charlie Cards.