The dog days on Beacon Hill: Much ado at the T, not much else

By 
Jim O'Sullivan, State House News Service
Aug. 21, 2009

The nasty little alchemy of seemingly endless transportation bureaucracy back-biting and a public and media hyper-tuned to whiffs of government waste and mismanagement culminated last week in the outing of a years-long practice at the MBTA of giving an elderly handicapped man a ride to and from meetings.

The T, derided forever for lousy service and callousness to the handicapped, is now exposed for providing service for a disabled octogenarian. A wonderful coda to what’s been a high-minded debate over the fate of the state’s transportation system.

The free rider in question, retired Judge Baron Martin, was one of four board members who flouted the Patrick administration by backing former MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas before Grabauskas took the money and talked. Martin, an 82-year-old with arthritis and respiratory problems, used to get a round trip from Marion to the monthly T board meetings in an unmarked transit police vehicle, in part because he apparently cannot walk more than 20 feet without stopping.

The rides came to an end as part of The Great Efficiency underway over at the T, which is attended by The Great Dime Drop over at the T. After taking the $327,486.81 buyout last week, Grabauskas lit up Gov. Deval Patrick and cussed out Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, pointing to emails last month between him and Aloisi that show Grabauskas offering a way out of the 20-percent fare hike and Aloisi holding fast.

This did not jibe with the party line, which was that the fare increase had been disgorged whole from the twilight zone that is the State Transportation Building in the days before Aloisi arrived.

“The thing that no one is noticing here is the governor and I are the real change agents,” Aloisi said on WGBH. Speaking of the T riders, Aloisi told the News Service, “My destiny is to be their spokesperson.”

Patrick advisers acknowledge the Grabauskas matter might have been better handled. Backpedaling in the face of the evident contradiction over who pushed what, Patrick has put the kibosh on the dozen remaining public fare hearings, after Monday’s at the State House turned into the Bay State’s own little version of those wacky town halls on health care giving vent to anger across the country. A lot of dissatisfaction with the matter at hand – unsurprisingly, paying $2.50 for a one-stop subway ride is unpopular – but a lot of unfocused fury coming from elsewhere as well.

Much of it economically driven. And there were bright spots on that front. Local wages and salaries rose at more than twice the national pace for the 12-month span that ended in June, according to federal data out Wednesday. One policy group’s consumer confidence gauge crawled up to its post-2007 apex even as views of the current economic climate slumped. The major Bay State business confidence index elevated for the fourth time in the last five months, hitting its highest note since last November, maybe marking “the bottom of the downturn,” said one analyst – a judgment that constitutes optimism these days. Even then, “the path to real recovery will be slow and uneven.” A quarter of respondents saw a jobless recovery.

Inside the capitol, little business was publicly transacted. Lawmakers heard from Patrick aides about the use of federal aid from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The state put good odds on its bid for $100 million more in allowance from Uncle Sam for building out a wireless broadband network in western rural towns. Cities asked the Hill to waive required preliminary elections as a way to trim costs. And, with nearly half the functional 2009-2010 session in the books, the Legislature’s website finally became functional.

Other than that, the dog days were in full effect. Thin dockets, a governor out in the field with the folks, campaigns staffing and dollaring up, down-dressed outfits among the legislators who did appear at the capitol. There’ll be two more weeks of that. Then the engines start thrumming again.

FOREBODING AND BIBLICAL QUOTES OF THE WEEK: “You could have Jesus of Nazareth running the MBTA. It ain’t gonna work.” – Former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, back on the Hill Wednesday. Finneran is the same gent who predicted in 2003 that any state that adopted universal health care would go bankrupt within 14 months. “I’m not going to do unto others as has been done unto me,” Aloisi said Thursday, invoking the Golden Rule to describe the bureaucrat-on-bureaucrat hostilities between him and Grabauskas. Wait, you don’t think …