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COLUMN

Getting Home On January 1

Eric J. Plosky

It’s an hour or two into the year 2000, and you’re beginning to freeze your Beantown patootie off after a night of raucous millennial celebration. Time to go home!

Better hurry up and wait -- the T won’t be in any particular rush to get you there.

This New Year’s Eve is expected to be one of the most active nights in Boston memory; hundreds of thousands will be out on the street for First Night events and other Y2K festivities. Naturally, given the unique circumstances surrounding this Dec. 31, one would think that the T would run all night, thereby making an exception to its normal operating hours, which end at about 12:30 AM. But the brains at MBTA headquarters figure that not even the once-in-a-thousand-years turnout expected on New Year’s Eve is enough reason to institute frequent service throughout the night.

Oh, there will be service -- it’s not that the T wants to force you to hoof it. According to the MBTA’s web site, for example, Red Line trains should operate at 18-minute intervals between 2:00 and 6:00 AM; the No. 1 bus will run at 35-minute intervals. Other buses and subway lines, including the Green Line, will provide similar service. It’s obvious, though, that such infrequent service will simply not be enough.

Urban transit systems in metropolitan areas are often overburdened following the conclusion of major events. If you’ve ever tried to board a Green Line trolley at North Station following a Celtics or Bruins game, you know precisely what I mean. Considering that this New Year’s Eve, in terms of participants, is likely to be the equivalent of at least a dozen packed-to-the-gills Fleet Centers, 18-minute service on the Red Line surely will be insufficient to avert a transportation catastrophe.

Sure, Boston isn’t used to operating its transit system throughout the night. But neither is San Francisco, which is nonetheless planning all sorts of extra BART service on New Year’s Eve. In fact, to make travel easier, BART last month began selling “Millennium Flash Passes” -- $5.00 tickets good for unlimited travel between 6:00 PM on Dec. 31 and 6 PM on Jan. 1. The T, of course, would never have thought of that.

Neither has the T followed Chicago’s example. The Chicago Transit Authority, in addition to providing extra service on buses and trains, will charge ‘millennium revelers’ only a one-cent fare. On the CTA website, chairman Valerie Jarrett wisely says, “The Penny Ride program encourages customers to make the CTA their ‘designated driver’ on this busy holiday.” Boston considers this concept alien.

London Transport, although unaccustomed to round-the-clock service, will also operate throughout the night. Last month, in polite British, LT actually posted on its web site an apology to customers -- it seems that despite the agency’s desire to provide the best possible New Year’s Eve service, it is simply impossible, due to the limits of signaling and switching technologies, to run more than twenty trains an hour. The Piccadilly Line will run under Trafalgar Square every three minutes, the Red Line will stop at Kendall every 18 minutes -- and London Transport posted an apology? How comical. Still, don’t bother looking for it; LT removed the apology from its web site -- to make room for an announcement stating that all transit service will be free on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.

Boston will not have frequent, free transit service this New Year’s. Boston will have a terrific mess on its hands; several hundred thousand New Year’s revelers will have a whale of a time getting home. T stations will be swamped with people waiting to buy tokens and to board trains; the streets will overflow with freezing, increasingly irritable masses. And, most dangerously, tens of thousands will get into cars -- designated drivers and otherwise.

If it really aspires to “world city” status, Boston should look to world cities like San Francisco, Chicago and London for some transportation advice, at least for this New Year’s. And there’s always New York, of course, whose 24-hour subway and bus service makes the special case of New Year’s Eve just another ordinary couple of hours’ worth of New York minutes. Ever wonder how a million people can crowd into Times Square to watch the ball drop, and then get home without utter pandemonium? The subway is what makes it possible. Boston would do well to remember that the same is true here.