In a month in which Boston has seen its second-highest recorded snowfall in history, with a record $35 million already spent on snow removal and filth now a familiar sight, the city’s outlook has shifted from inconvenienced and dispirited to absurdist dread. One enterprising Tumblr user has captured the tone succinctly with MB(ecket)TA, a blog that transposes Samuel Becket quotes on top of pictures of towering snow piles and interminable travel delays. Bleak existential humor is about all we have left.
The city is now bringing in prison inmates to shovel the commuter rail tracks. Sounds about right at this point.
The frustration has been particularly acute for those who rely upon the MBTA—the operators of those rail tracks, plus all other public transit—to travel to and from work. Getting around afflicts low-wage workers even moreso than those who can afford a different way to work—a missed couple of hours, or even days can compound into serious hardship. But even this week, as most of the major snowfall has taken its toll and after the resignation of the MBTA’s top employee, the region’s subway, bus, and commuter train system has continued to be hamstrung by the fallout, even on days when service across the board hasn’t been outright suspended.
Figuring out where to place the blame has become an ongoing subplot to Boston’s arctic nightmare, which makes sense, since we’ve all got plenty of time to curse the transit authority’s management, the governor, the French contractors —who, it turns out, operate our trains—while waiting for trains that may or may not ever arrive.
Amid the tumult, a conflict of a different sort has bubbled to the surface, centering around the more traditional dramatic themes of a backbiting struggle for power. The only thing that residents have seen flung around more than shovels full of snow is political dirt.
As the snow fell, and the curtain raised, the city was introduced to an instantly memorable character, now-resigning MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott. On Wednesday of last week, Scott, who may as well apply to have her first name legally appended to include the word “Embattled” at this point, announced that she would be stepping down in April. This came only a day after Scott—an uncanny orator, to say the least—gave assurances that she would be doing no such thing. The speech was an instant firebrand that read as impassioned and frank to supporters, and meandering and unprofessional to detractors. That April resignation deadline, by the way, is only a few weeks later than the 30-day estimate Scott has said it will take before the T’s service will resume as normal.
“I’m telling you now we are in execution,” Scott explained in her February 10 press conference. “There is no fear. I’d welcome anyone who would give good thoughts and ideas.”
And there's been a glaring lack of both from all corners. Scott said she had yet to even talk to newly elected governor and newly minted rival Charlie Baker at the time of the press conference.
That seems to be a pattern. No one is talking to anyone, but everyone is declaiming that hard work is getting done in dramatic fashion to anyone who’ll listen.
Baker has since said he wasn’t briefed on that 30-day time estimate, and that he was stunned by her abrupt resignation. Unfortunately, for a new governor whose only job function is delegating authority to his employees to see that the state operates correctly, being left holding his subway strap in his hands hasn’t exactly burnished his reputation.
After initial delays and suspensions of service, Baker quickly moved to sidestep out of the crosshairs, pointing out that the MBTA appointees, including Scott, came under his predecessor’s administration.
“It’s pretty clear they need a new operating plan,” he said, effectively throwing Scott under the bus, or at least he would have were there a bus due to arrive any time in the foreseeable future.
So who’s actually at fault? As in the best examples of all high drama, the sins of the fathers are being revisited upon the sons here. The T’s woes stretch back decades, through various administrations. Unfortunately for Baker, who doesn’t seem to have ever met a tax he wouldn't cut, or a public service he believes wouldn’t be operated more efficiently by the private sector, his penny-pinching proclivities around the time of Boston’s historic Big Dig disaster played a role in that history as well.
Despite all of this, in the midst of this crisis, the Massachusetts legislature has agreed to pass Baker’s budget plan—one that would cut $40 million from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, including $14 million from the MBTA. Baker has assured lawmakers that this will not have an impact on the day-to-day operations of the service.
But every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness, to quote a certain Tumblr and/or existential novelist.
The good news for the governor is that Boston voters seem to be letting him off the hook by spreading that blame around, according to a recent poll. You might also blame Mother Nature and Father Time, who’ve co-conspired to bury the city under unprecedented levels of snow and worked their infernal magic on the aging fleet of subway cars. Bostonians are proud of their status as having the nation’s oldest subway system, except, of course, when it’s actually operating like one.
At this point operating at all would be a considerable upgrade. Commutes continue to be stymied, with ample portions of all subway and commuter lines still yet to return to full service. Just yesterday, Baker ripped the French contractors who operate the commuter trains in the state.
“I'm sort of done with excuses, OK, I want to hear what people are actually going to do to get the riding public back to the point where people can depend on and rely on the service,” he said.
“My big message to them was whatever the service level is, whatever the service is at night, it better be that the next morning, and the traveling public needs to be able to stand on a platform and actually know what the story is with respect to the trains.”
They could be waiting a long time. It’s just begun snowing again in Boston as I write this.
Someone is going to have to figure this out soon enough. And, fair or not, it won’t be Beverly Scott.
“Ever tried. Ever failed,” as Beckett wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”