I owe an apology to Dan Grabauskas

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer runs for Sanitation Commissioner, and in typical fashion mismanages everything and winds up filling the town with garbage. The townspeople turn on him and try to restore the previous trash commissioner, who responds “it’s so gratifying to leave you wallowing in the mess you’ve made. You’re screwed, thank you, bye.”

Maybe I just watch TV too much, but I think it’s the most obvious parallel with the MBTA and Dan Grabauskas right now. Grabauskas did a great job with the RMV, and was the obvious choice to turn the T around, and when he failed to make everything magically better, we all blamed him for it. Now he’s saying “I told you so.”

Well, now that he’s gone, it’s apparent just how much he was doing to make things less bad than they could be. He couldn’t fix the funding situation, but he did the best he could, and managed things responsibly, even if I disagreed with many of his choices. The T under his leadership was not the ideal transit system, but it’s becoming apparent that the T without his leadership is in far worse straits. There’s a tidal wave of deferred maintenance building up, and it can’t be fixed without undoing the entrenched mistakes of decades: The funding system, the intractable unions, the intractable management, the way everyone blames the unions and/or management for things that are the fault of the legislature or the pension system or low-bid construction from twenty or fifty or a hundred years ago.

Grabauskas couldn’t fix all that and we blamed him for all those problems. So we threw him out. And now it’s getting worse. We should have seen it coming. Some people probably did. I didn’t. I just kept looking at the T and thinking “why isn’t it fixed yet?”

That was dumb. “Fixing” the T is a dumb concept. We can move it away from the crisis it’s in and towards a more normal, sustainable function, but it’s never going to be permanently fixed. Still, it seems to me that it’s possible to get things back into proper functioning and keep them there. It’s just going to require more political will than we have these days.

It’ll take less disdain from people who despise dirty socialist hippies riding the bus, and less opposition from the western half of the state, which doesn’t benefit much from the T. It’s going to take a lot of money, and we’re short on that these days. It’s going to take the unions not hating management, and management not hating unions, and customers not hating both. It’s going to take good faith on the part of a large number of stakeholders who are not known for good faith. And it’s going to take cooperation among the governor, the legislature, and the city governments in Boston and every town and city near Boston.

I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m just saying we should have known how hard it was, and given Dan Grabauskas a little more credit for what he did accomplish, and for the things we’re seeing now that he prevented while he was around.

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