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Restrooms an underground phenomenon

T to publicize its toilets at 4 Red Line stations

The days of sheepish dashes past the hostess stand and into a restaurant's restroom are numbered in Cambridge. Public toilets are on the way.

Or, rather, they're already here, it's just that nobody knows about them.

These stealth toilets exist in the MBTA stations at the Central, Harvard, Porter, and Alewife stops. Some are available to the public, but are unmarked and may require help, and a key, from a customer service agent.

Starting in September, the T will pilot a program to make them more public by posting signs in the customer service agent booths and allowing the City of Cambridge to direct pedestrians aboveground to the facilities below.

Some residents who had hoped for the sleek, self-cleaning pods purchased for Boston might be disappointed that this response to the lack of public restrooms isn't so chic. But others praise the city manager's office for its creativity and frugality.

"Cambridge is in great financial shape for a reason," said City Councilor Anthony D. Galluccio. "But knowing the manager, it's probably not just about the money."

Indeed, it's also about space. "It's hard to find a suitable location for them," said Deputy City Manager Richard C. Rossi. "Cambridge is so densely packed. . . . Those self-cleaning units are huge facilities, and there's not a lot of available public space."

Rossi said installing one of the fancy rest stops in Harvard Square and one in Central Square would've cost the city more than $200,000.

Under the pilot program, the MBTA will pick up all of the costs.

"A mark of civilized society would be to have open and accessible public bathrooms. If the MBTA is going to be vigilant about maintenance and security," said Galluccio, "this is a no-brainer.

"I used to sell newspapers in Harvard Square as a kid, and boy do I wish I knew there was one in the T station back then," he said. "We had to go into Brigham's or the Mug 'n' Muffin. If you were lucky, no one would bother you about it."

According to T spokeswoman Lydia Rivera, there is currently one restroom on the northbound side of the platform at Central Square and one at Porter, but users have to ask T personnel to unlock the doors. Moreover, the bathrooms are beyond the turnstiles, so customers have to pay before using the facility.

At Alewife, two restrooms, one for each sex, are already open to the public.

At Harvard station, the one restroom, situated before the turnstiles, was vandalized badly years ago and has been padlocked ever since. Rivera said it will be renovated.

Rivera said she did not know of any plans for public restrooms in other communities.

MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas wrote in a letter to Cambridge City Manager Robert Healy that the T will "bear the full burden of maintenance" and will provide security through station officials and MBTA police. The bathrooms will be open during the T's operating hours, from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday and from 6 a.m. until 1 a.m. on Sunday.

One concern is that increased use by the public probably means that more maintenance will be needed.

Rossi , the deputy city manager, said that if maintaining the standards city officials hope to achieve becomes too much for the MBTA, the city might contribute resources. The pilot program will run for one year.

Galluccio acknowledged that while this program is a no-brainer, it might be less than ideal. The huge number of steps down -- and back up -- at Porter Square might deter those who aren't riding public transportation.

He said other alternatives may exist, such as working with business associations and districts to divvy up the costs for one of the self-contained toilets Boston has.

One entity, the Salvation Army, has already cooperated with the city by offering to make the restroom s in its local headquarters in Central Square available to the public.

The restrooms, at 402 Massachusetts Ave., do not need to be renovated, said Major Stephen Carroll, a 30-year minister with the organization. But Rossi said the city plans to offset the costs of additional maintenance and supplies.

According to Carroll, the Salvation Army has never turned someone away who needed to use those lavatories.

"The only difference now is we're telling people" they are open, he said.