MBTA: Our schedules ‘lie’

March 7, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

The MBTA for years has failed to run all of its scheduled bus and subway service under a money-saving policy of deliberate understaffing, General Manager Dan Grabauskas revealed last month in the Boston Herald.

Jamaica Plain riders are among those misled, according to MBTA statistics as well as internal documents obtained by the Gazette in recent years that show dropping of bus service, including on the busy Route 39.

An anonymous source who provided those internal documents—apparently an MBTA employee—also claimed that bus service was dropped only on inner-city routes and not on suburban ones. But the source provided no evidence for those claims.

MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo could not immediately provide information on exact bus routes affected by the service cuts, though statistics show system-wide impacts on buses and subways. Pesaturo also had no immediate comment on the claims that suburban service has been fully staffed.

Grabauskas told the Herald that the cash-strapped transit agency for years has left hundreds of jobs vacant on purpose to save money. But that means too few bus and train drivers, resulting in scheduled transit service that never arrives.

“Hidden service cuts” are the result, Grabauskas said. He was also quoted as saying that one of his staff members told him that “we would lie to people” about the reality of bus service when there were complaints.

The understaffing has caused thousands of dropped trips a month, according to statistics for fiscal years 2005-2008 provided to the Gazette by the MBTA. That is in addition to any other problem with scheduled service. It is a small number of trips relative to the MBTA’s hundreds of thousands of trips a month—but that’s no consolation to anyone waiting for a bus or train that didn’t come.

Grabauskas became general manager in 2005, and reportedly has boosted staffing since then. Trips are still being dropped, but at significantly lower overall rates.

“The number of trips being dropped has been greatly reduced,” Pesaturo told the Gazette.

For bus routes, the MBTA stats show system-wide dropped trips on weekdays only. In fiscal 2005, there were no fewer than about 1,800 dropped trips per month, with a maximum of about 4,700 dropped trips.

The stats show that dropped trips are generally down to fewer than 1,000 a month, though they spiked again at about 1,800 in December.

The bus route stats provided by the MBTA show only system-wide information. But it appears there is evidence of dropped trips on specific JP routes.

From time to time over the past six years, the Gazette has obtained MBTA bus service documents from a source apparently inside the transit agency. The documents show trips that were “not covered.”

The documents are technical and the meaning of all of their details is not clear. But, following Grabauskas’s comments, it appears they refer to understaffing-related service cuts that have affected JP for years.

For example, documents from early 2003 appear to show nearly 30 bus trips dropped from routes running out of Forest Hills and Jackson Square—including four dropped trips on the heavily used Route 39—in just under a month.

A note from the anonymous source accompanying the documents said that not only were the dropped trips “not covered,” but that other drivers were not allowed to fill in. The source did not give any explanation of why that was.

“The bus operators are willing to drive the scheduled routes but the M.B.T.A. would rather have the people of Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and Hyde Park wait in the freezing cold temperatures for a bus that is not going to show up…,” the note reads.

The source also claimed that while some bus trips were “not covered” in those urban neighborhoods, all bus trips were fully staffed in West Roxbury and a variety of suburbs: Brookline, Dedham, Westwood, Norwood, Walpole, Newton and Watertown.

But the source provided no evidence for that claim. At least some bus routes in West Roxbury and Brookline also pass through such neighborhoods as JP and Roslindale.

The MBTA’s official stats show that JP’s subway/light rail lines have also had dropped trips, though at generally lower rates.

The entire Green Line, which includes several branches, had as many as 900 dropped trips in a single month in fiscal 2006. For the past two years, the rate has mostly stayed under 100 dropped trips.

The Orange Line has been dropping about 20 to 40 trips a month in recent years, a somewhat lower rate than the pre-Grabauskas era.

Pesaturo emphasized that cuts in scheduled service are a byproduct of understaffing, not a direct goal.

Grabauskas’s phrase “hidden service cuts” is a “metaphor…not a policy or procedure,” Pesaturo said.

“There was no set plan to drop Trip A, B or C,” he said. “You’re not going to open a drawer here and find a file that says, ‘Hidden Service Cuts.’”

Pesaturo noted that the general existence of dropped trips has been obvious to riders and has been discussed by such groups as the MBTA’s Rider Oversight Committee.

But Grabauskas was quoted in the Herald as speaking strongly about MBTA explanations.

“We were not telling the truth to our customers before when we were not delivering the service that was scheduled,” he said.

“That’s crazy, to be running a business like that,” said state Rep. Liz Malia, noting the Route 39’s reputation for missing trips. “To change routes arbitrarily, it makes it so hard for people who are so dependent on the T.”

“Every T rider expects trains not coming or buses not coming. [But] we presume that’s an exception,” said Carrie Russell, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), an environmental group that has frequently sued the MBTA over air-quality and related transit issues. “It’s a surprise it’s a regular occurrence.”

“The MBTA shouldn’t have to be in a position where they are having to make secret service cuts,” Russell said. “I think this is a real sign or a symptom of the under-funding that the MBTA is going through.”

The CLF advocates debt relief for the MBTA and a new budget formula to fund all statewide transportation agencies together.

“I have pretty good faith in Grabauskas,” Malia said, but noted that funding is the major problem.

“I understand there are tremendous fiscal obstacles to overcome,” she said, adding that some sort of state funding solution will have to be discussed. “We can’t just keep increasing fees on the T.”