Starts & Stops

T’s general manager commences car-free life by donating vehicle to charity

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / April 3, 2011

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Richard A. Davey has given up his car. Not just for the week, or for the month, but for good.

The MBTA general manager and his wife took the plunge into car-free living last week, donating their sole set of wheels, a sparingly driven Nissan Altima, to the Home for Little Wanderers.

You may recall that Davey’s predecessor, Daniel A. Grabauskas, was ribbed by the Herald for commuting in a sport utility vehicle (an MBTA-owned Ford Escape hybrid) as the T was promoting a “Dump the Pump’’ campaign, because driving to and from his Ipswich home was more convenient than the 75-minute ride on the commuter rail and the Green Line.

Davey has an easier commute. He lives in the Back Bay and rides the T three stops to Boylston Station and the State Transportation Building. His wife, lawyer Jane Willis, has an even shorter trip to her Prudential office. They drove their car so infrequently that Davey was not certain how many miles were on the odometer (65,000, maybe), though he was pretty sure the car was 13 years old.

For Christmas, Willis — who was the basis for the Kate Bosworth character in the movie “21,’’ about the MIT-Harvard Blackjack team — gave Davey a Zipcar membership.

They found it so enjoyable to use that they decided to get rid of their car, even though their condo comes with a coveted off-street parking spot.

Davey was not trying to call attention to his switch or his donation, but T spokesman Joe Pesaturo — himself “car free and carefree,’’ as he put it — outed his boss as a new member of the car-free club last week, after the latest MBTA budget meeting was breaking up.

Davey gamely pulled his new Zipcard from his wallet.

“It’s pretty easy,’’ he said, demonstrating the way it works. You pick the kind of car and location you want and select the time online, then wave your card at the windshield to unlock the doors.

“They’re all over the place; there’s probably 50 within walking distance of my home,’’ he added. “So we took the plates off, canceled the insurance, and called the charity.’’

Asked if it was liberating, he laughed.

“It feels a lot less expensive, that’s for sure,’’ he said. “No insurance, no excise tax.’’

As he spoke, Davey was standing in his office before an MBTA map that had been doctored to show the Boston College branch of the Green Line renamed for his alma mater, Holy Cross. (He later tweeted a picture of the map as an “official’’ change on Friday, for April Fool’s Day.)

With the T trying to tap its own parking spaces for more revenue to balance the budget, I could not help but ask Davey if he planned to rent out his newly empty space at home for extra income.

“No, no, we’ll let friends park there; I always get some buddies who are calling who want to park there for the Red Sox game,’’ he said, trying to entice a not-car-free reporter to cross over. “Join us. Join us.’’

Other accident occurred at Charles/MGH Station in 1910Last week’s accident at Charles/MGH Station, in which an MBTA electrician fell into a poorly covered 30-foot shaft and fractured both legs, called to mind an even grimmer accident that happened at the same location in 1910.

While researching the history of the Longfellow Bridge last summer, I came across clips about a horrific trolley crash at the site that killed four people and injured 50, on Oct. 15, 1910.

At the time, the new Longfellow, then called the West Boston Bridge, had travel lanes on both sides for automobiles, horses, and electric streetcars and a central cavity awaiting the yet-to-be-completed subway now known as the Red Line.

Where Charles Circle is today, the inbound trolley tracks used to jog to the left after coming off the bridge onto Cambridge Street, then turn sharply to the right down Charles Street.

Trolley motormen were supposed to cut off the power and apply the brake as they came down the hill.

But for unknown reasons that Saturday evening, experienced motorman John J. Walsh came down the hill at high speed, without applying the brake.

The crowded, 13-ton trolley launched off the tracks into the air and crashed down on the granite pavement in a tangle of metal, broken glass, and splintered wood.

The Globe captured the scene with a rare front-page “flashlight photograph,’’ and described it as “the worst and most peculiar accident in the history of Boston’s electric transportation system.’’

Mayor John F. “Honey Fitz’’ Fitzgerald ordered an investigation — the city quickly determined that the private transit company had built the curve at a sharper angle than it submitted on design plans — and suggested that the Boston Elevated Railway Co., the T’s predecessor, consider establishing its own ambulance service. The transit company’s president, General William A. Bancroft, declined.

Vote on MBTA $1.66b budget plan loomsThe board of directors for the MBTA is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the final T budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The $1.66 billion budget proposed by MBTA administrators avoids fare increases and service cuts, but relies heavily on some one-time financial maneuvers to close the latest deficit.

As previously reported, the T has proposed securitizing the revenue from parking garages and lots at outlying commuter rail and subway stations, meaning the transportation authority would sell the long-term income from those parking spaces to investors for a lump sum, sort of like selling a winning lottery ticket.

That plan might generate $300 million upfront, but would mean giving up $450 million in long-term revenue. The T would retain control of the parking rates and the spaces.

The T also wants to lease outright the garage under North Station, a market-rate garage that is not used by public transit commuters. That long-term lease might yield a $45 million lump-sum payment. In both cases, the money would be used to pay off some of the T’s considerable debt.

The board’s finance committee discussed the budget, but stopped short of making a recommendation last week, waiting for this week’s meeting to receive more details and debate the plans more fully before voting.

The finance committee also heard from the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents the cities and towns that are served by the T and that pay $150 million in annual assessments. The advisory board reluctantly voted to endorse the parking measures, calling it the best of meager options, but encouraged the MBTA board to avoid once again refinancing a portion of its debt to save in the short-term.

As an alternative, the advisory board recommended merging the MBTA Transit Police with the State Police, eliminating some overhead for the unit and removing the cost from the T’s books. The proposal, which has come up multiple times in the past, has the support of the unions for Transit Police officers and sergeants and would mean a pay raise for them; it is opposed by the unions for the State Police, reluctant to absorb transit duties and skeptical of the financial benefit to taxpayers.

“We continue to be concerned about the ongoing fiscal crisis the T finds itself in,’’ said Paul Regan, executive director of the advisory board. “The causes of this deficit are multiple, and the fault rests not with the management structure or the lack of innovation. The fault of the MBTA operating deficit clearly lies with past failures of public policy and present failures to address those issues.’’

The Legislature made the T responsible for balancing its own books in 2000 under a plan known as “Forward Funding.’’ That plan gave the T a dedicated portion of the sales tax, but also saddled it with debt from past expansion projects approved on Beacon Hill. The sales tax has lagged, while many of the T’s costs have soared, even as it has operated more service with fewer employees. Pension and health insurance costs have roughly doubled and energy costs have more than doubled over the past decade.