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MBTA Chief’s Departure Ends Months Of Escalating Tension

This May 2005 file photograph shows MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas on the platform of the Chinatown subway station in Boston. (AP)

This May 2005 file photograph shows MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas on the platform of the Chinatown subway station in Boston. (AP)

The general manager of the MBTA has been forced to resign. Daniel Grabauskas, who ran the agency for more than four years, agreed to step down Thursday night after the board voted to pay out the rest of his contract.

The move caps months of tensions that have escalated over the past month.

The board met behind closed doors for more than four hours to work out the separation agreement that pays Grabauskas $327,000 for the remaining nine months of his contract. Three board members, including Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, voted against paying the compensation deal, but Aloisi said he did want Grabauskas to step down.

“There are a lot of issues that people have been unhappy about,” Aloisi told reporters Thursday night. “They have been unhappy about levels of customer service, focus and clearly, as you know, some board members’ particular concern about the NTSB report.”

The National Transportation Safety Board report on the 2008 Green Line trolley crash in Newton blamed a lack of safety systems and operator error. The report also raised the possibility the trolley driver may have suffered from an episode of “micro sleep” caused by a sleeping disorder.

When the NTSB released its findings last month, Grabauskas was on furlough. Aloisi accused Grabauskas of being unavailable at a critical time, and Grabauskas countered that Aloisi was lying when he said he was unable to contact him. This public exchange intensified a political brawl that ended Thursday with Grabauskas’s resignation. But Aloisi says it’s not about politics.

“It’s in the public’s interest to have a fresh perspective on the MBTA,” Aloisi said. “It’s in the public’s interest to move away from the status quo. It’s in the public’s interest to move away from the kind of customer service people haven’t been satisfied with.”

Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement he understands the board’s desire to seek new leadership, but he strongly disagrees with the compensation agreement. It’s out of line, he says, with the fiscal condition of the MBTA and the general manager’s job performance.

Grabauskas did not speak to reporters after the meeting and did not return calls seeking comment. Under his contract, negotiated when he was hired by Gov. Mitt Romney in 2005, Grabauskas could only be fired for gross negligence. During his tenure, Grabauskas oversaw many changes to customer service, including new trains, audio speakers at the stations and the Charlie Card.

But the pressure had been building on Grabauskas for the past few weeks when three of eight MBTA board members wrote a letter accusing him of losing focus and a commitment to safety. Four other members wrote in support.

In addition to Aloisi, board member Darnell Williams voted against Grabauskas’s separation agreement, but was happy to see him resign.

“I think the key was on the performance –- the management transparency, the diversity issues as well as the safety issues and concerns around the management of the T,” Williams said.

The board’s lawyer will serve as interim general manager. Aloisi said he is looking forward to hiring someone who will fit better into the new consolidated Department of Transportation, which launches in November.

The MBTA board that approved Grabauskas’s separation agreement will be dissolved in less than three months as part of the governor’s transportation overhaul. He will appoint a new panel to oversee all transit agencies.

During the public comments period of the board meeting, several people questioned the focus on Grabauskas.

“We need to stop allowing these things to distract us from the issues that really are more of concern to the ridership of the MBTA,” said Pamela Bush.

Of most concern to riders at the meeting was a proposed fare increase, which the board is expected to vote on at its next meeting in October. But Aloisi said he will review the decision to implement a fare increase.

“I’m not bringing it to the board until I get a report from the group of folks that are coming in to give a top-to-bottom review and until I’m able to kick the tires on this thing in a way that I’m satisfied makes sense,” he said.

The outside review, which will be conducted by the former head of the John Hancock financial services company, will be conducted pro bono so the MBTA won’t have to pile on to its $8 billion debt.

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