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Brass Tacks

By Claude E. Welch jr.

Few transit systems have received such notoriety through song as did the Metropolitan Transit System last summer. For weeks on end, disk-jockeys played the sad tale of Charlie, trapped on the MTA, never able to escape from the miles of tunnels beneath Boston streets. The MTA, however, has received a more stinging notoriety this year--it has the dubious distinction of losing the most money of any American public transit system. Last year the MTA went $16 million into the red, which was assessed upon the 14 communities served directly by the Authority. And with recent demands made by the Carmen's Union, which includes two-thirds of the system's employees, the deficit conceivably could reach $40 million.

The union has demanded an immediate 25 cents hourly wage hike, although its members presently receive $2.51 an hour plus fringe benefits, highest in the nation. The transit authorities, on the other hand, have proposed nine pages of work rule changes designed to save $2 million annually, and will probably refuse to grant another wage boost.

Another problem arises from the difficulty of expansion. To be economically viable and to serve metropolitan Boston effectively, the MTA should construct new lines, perhaps utilizing railroad rights of way. The Authority did expand successfully over the tracks of a former narrow gauge railroad to East Boston and Revere, thus starting subway service to an expanding part of the city. A second major attempt at expansion has not succeeded, however. For $10.6 million, the MTA purchased and renovated completely a branch of the New York Central Railroad, and within two days after service started, the new line carried four times as many passengers as the railroad did. Yet this seemingly successful extension is reportedly losing $60,000 monthly.

The greatest difficulty which the Authority faces is derived from the continual decline in patronage. Since 1946, the number of riders has dropped 50 per cent, and with the opening of every new expressway or the imposing of a higher fare, the number drops even more.

A "hard core" of riders will continue to use public transportation as long as it exists. But are these people worth an annual $18 million subsidy? Right now, the public--for whom the system is supposedly operated and by whom the deficit is paid--lack any effective voice in the operation of the $1 billion transit system. Poor Charlie may yet escape from the tunnels, for under present conditions the MTA cannot expect to operate perpetually.

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