By David Boeri (WBUR)
Other than T officials themselves, there’s probably no one single person in Greater Boston that’s more concerned about the fate of the T and rail ridership in general than former Gov. Michael Dukakis. When he was in office, he invested heavily in the T.
He currently advises the Patrick administration on transit issues and, in fact, had just finished a meeting with Transportation Secretary James Aloisi when I caught up with him on the Green Line.
As governor, Dukakis used to ride the T to the office every day. He says people ask him now why he’s still riding. “Well, I rode it when I was governor, why wouldn’t I ride it when I’m not governor?” he says. “Not only that, I’m a senior citizen. And I’ve got my Charlie Card and 65 cents — I mean it’s the best value in America, so why wouldn’t I do that?”
I was in Dukakis’ office the day after the 1988 election, after he lost to George Bush, and I remember he took the T into work that day. “It wasn’t a happy ride,” he says. “But it wasn’t because of the T.”
In regard to the T’s money problems, Dukakis says the best way to cut down the roughly $160-million deficit is to encourage more and more people to ride the system. But he doesn’t see that happening at all. Instead, he says, the T is talking about big cuts — 20 percent of its job force.
“I can’t imagine at this point in time — with global warming facing us, with all of these concerns about the environment — why any transit system in America would be cutting. I mean, I just think it’s unacceptable,” he says.
“This is the direction in which we have to move and so it’s going to be up to the legislature to come up with the kind of support that we need. But there are also significant federal funds now that are available, and I want to see us take advantage of every single last penny of that.”
Everyone knows the T has money problems. But it’s about much more than just money to Dukakis.
“It seems to me that there are serious management problems here,” he says. “Now I don’t know the details, I’m not the governor, obviously. But, we should not be having these crashes. Now whether that’s a lack of employee training, whether it’s not being careful enough in terms of who you’re employing, whether it’s a combination of these things, I don’t know.”
What Dukakis does know, he says, is that there are very serious problems on the construction side. “It seems to take forever to get anything done on the construction side. Five years to complete some construction at Kenmore Square, six years to extend light rail four miles through Somerville. I mean, this is absurd,” he says.
“Eighteen-sixty-seven, Irish and Chinese immigrants were laying four miles of track a DAY on the Transcontinental Railroad. We’re fortunate. We have one of the best transportation systems in the country. And we worked hard to make it so, but it’s gotta be managed effectively — make it stronger and better — and we can do that.”
As for why lawmakers on Beacon Hill aren’t pushing for further investment, Dukakis points to the recession. Revenues are falling off the table, he says.
“I mean, right now we’re just trying to avoid fare increases and service cutbacks. On the other hand, there is now $8 billion on the table for a high-speed rail in Washington. Substantially increased amounts of money for public transportation.”
And that funding’s not just coming from the stimulus package, Dukakis says. He sees President Obama putting forth a clear commitment to public transit on a long-term basis. And that’s what New England needs to do, too.
“So even while we struggle to deal with the immediate problem, we’ve got to be doing the planning and engineering for some of these projects looking forward,” he says. “New England has got to get its act together.”
This could also be a great opportunity for Gov. Patrick to take leadership on the issue, Dukakis says. “Pull the New England governors together, to get us a regional rail plan, and the pieces are there. And then go to Washington, work with a very strong congressional delegation, and get us moving on this stuff.”
Dukakis is tired of hearing about how California and the Midwest are ahead of Boston. This was the first subway in America, he says. Before New York. Before Philadelphia. You can hear that age, sometimes, when a trolley car turns a corner. But Dukakis doesn’t make much out of a little rust.
“Yeah, it’s not brand new,” he acknowledges. “But it’s tremendously important. I mean, can you imagine Boston without the T? But, we’ve got a responsibility to manage it effectively, to provide people with excellent service, to do so at the lowest possible cost, and to keep strengthening, expanding and making it better and better and better.
“There’s no reason under the sun why we can’t,” he says. “We’re WAY ahead of other cities. You know, other cities are going to have to spend billions to get what we already have.”
And with that, former Gov. Michael Dukakis got off the Green Line at the stop for Northeastern University, where he teaches political science.
This program aired on May 29, 2009.