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Having problems with an incompetant MBTA

Column/Joseph L. Shipman

I recently encountered a stunning example of bureaucratic incompetence. It made me realize MIT is well-run compared to some other institutions. The incident, the latest of a series of offenses, got me mad enough to write this column. My candidate for the worst bureaucracy in Massachusetts? The MBTA. Let me tell you why...

Last week I boarded the Boston & Maine 2:05 train to Porter Square at the Brandeis/Roberts stop, which is a three minute walk from my apartment. When I gave the conductor my usual fare, $1.50, he told me that I needed another quarter.

"What, the price went up?"

"No," he replied. "It's a penalty for not having purchased your ticket before boarding the train."

"But you can't buy tickets here, there's just a platform!"

"Yes you can. Look...," replied my tormentor.

The conductor handed me a new timetable, "effective April 20, 1985," and pointed out the list of places at which tickets could be bought. Sure enough, tickets were on sale at the Brandeis student center. And there was a 25|c penalty for buying a ticket on the train while that ticket office was open.

"The Brandeis student center is more than half a mile away, up a steep hill! How can you expect people to buy tickets there? This station may be named "Brandeis/Roberts" but it's not part of Brandeis!"

"Sorry, but that's regulations. You will have to pay me an extra quarter," he maintained.

"You're extorting 25|c from me!"

"I don't set the fares, I just collect them."

"I can't believe this."

Alas, it was all too true. A call to the MBTA after I had arrived in Cambridge confirmed the new rule. It took five minutes to explain the situation to the distinctly unintelligent person who answered the phone. She didn't seem to understand how I could get from Brandeis/Roberts to Porter Square in the first place. (All she knew was that Porter Square was a Red Line stop and Roberts was the name of a bus route).

At this point I decided that the people who set the fares were merely stupid. I was shortly to discover that they were actually gibbering morons.

The next day, I happened to be at Brandeis. (I am a grad student there; most of the commuters who use the train stop have no connection with Brandeis). I decided to stop at the student center and stock up on tickets, to avoid the penalty fares.

"Do you have train tickets?" I innocently asked.

"Oh, we don't sell those anymore," said the woman behind the counter.

"Excuse me?"

"The MBTA wouldn't sell us any more tickets, so we don't have them anymore."

"Did you know that starting this week they are requiring people to buy tickets here or pay a 25|c penalty?"

"Really? I don't know anything about that."

"I don't believe this."

Actually, I did believe it. I had encountered the T's incompetence before, but this set a new record. Enough people must have complained, because when I entered the train on Friday the conductor accepted my $1.50 without protest (I was hoping he would ask for more, so that I could make a scene and refuse to pay). The blunder is immortalized in the printed timetable, though, so they can't pretend it never happened.

MBTA employees are often hostile and petty as well as incompetent. A few months ago, I was coming out of Purity Supreme in Central Square, heavily laden with groceries. I noticed my bus leaving (two minutes early). I ran and caught the bus, which had stopped at a corner waiting to make a right, before it had gone thirty feet. Although I pounded on the door, the driver ignored me.

I ran after the bus for two hundred yards, with my grocery bag ripping open, and caught it again at the next bus stop. When I complained about being ignored, the driver yelled that he didn't have to open the door to anyone, except at an official bus stop. He launched into a lengthy tirade, concluding that I'd better not give him any more lip.

Disgusted, I sat down and repacked my groceries. A couple of minutes later, I remarked to the person in the next seat, who had been following the proceedings, that courtesy consisted of occasionally doing more than one is legally required to. The driver overheard this, and started yelling that he'd told me he didn't want any more lip and if I continued he'd throw me off the bus!

Other bus drivers, while less belligerent, have consistently refused to enforce the no-smoking rule, and several have violated it themselves. One driver told me there was nothing she could do to get some people in a crowded bus to stop smoking, and yet on every occasion I've seen a driver ask people to put out their cigarettes they have. If they had refused and she had stopped the bus, pressure from the other passengers would have done the job.

Then there is the annoying occasional practice of locking up the Kendall or Central outbound subway stations when there is no collector on duty. I could go on...

Why is the MBTA so bad, even for a bureaucracy? Because they've got us where they want us. Most people take the T because they have to, so there is no danger of anything like a boycott. Only political pressure will make them take notice.

Are you listening, Governor?