The MTA Jungle

Brass Tacks

A Bostonian named Charlie, runs a popular song, didn't have enough money to get off the MTA, but a colossus named Harvard, $1 million in its hand, has faced an astonishing number of delays and frustrations in its attempts to pay its way on.

The University's offer to purchase the Bennett St. switching and storage yards for $1 million above their fair market value still stands, but according to Daniel J. Tyler (Chairman of the MTA's Board of Trustees), sale of the property continues to lie "a long way in the future."

Exactly what the University has offered is a secret carefully guarded, but it has been estimated at between $3 to $4 million--a staggering sum that obviously appeals to the MTA. Yet unfortunately for Harvard, the Transit Authority faces the formidable problem of relocating its Bennett St. facilities and seems nowhere near a solution. Its General Manager, Thomas J. Mc-Clernon has suggested in recent statements that the MTA may soon settle this difficulty, but Tyler is scarcely so optimistic. He stresses, in fact, that the Authority must not only find and build a practical and extensive system of new yards but erect and equip a new repair shop as well before it can even consider selling the Bennett St. property.

In the past few years, MTA operations have extended farther and farther to the south, and many interested people have hoped that the Authority might be anxious to relocate its storage and repair facilities at Codman Sq. in Dorchester. But the MTA will not be forced to--and probably will not be interested in--moving from Bennett St. unless it can take over the Old Colony railroad line and extend its operations to the South Shore.

For several years, South Shore cities through which the MTA would pass have successfully opposed legislative action to extend the system. Quincy, Braintree, and other towns prefer no rail service at all to paying the share of the MTA's annual operating deficit that all cities on the line incur.

But no negotiations between the University and the MTA will have much meaning unless the crucial question of taxation can be solved. If Harvard does buy the MTA Yards, the land will remain exempt from Cambridge property taxes. And although the University has offered several times to construct taxable commercial structures on half the property, sensible agreement has been hindered by a lack of mutual trust.

Cambridge City Councillors have often spoken against any action that would keep the Yards off the tax rolls. But not until early last month did the Council move to take over the land by legislative action. A bill introduced by Councillor Daniel J. Hayes called on the City Manager to institute procedings under the Urban Renewal Act to acquire the Yards "for maximum development for tax purposes." Hayes intended Cambridge to declare the Yards an "Open Blighted Area," to pay the fair market value and to take them from the MTA by the power of eminent domain.

Hayes was entirely willing, under this arrangement, to give a small portion (three out of 12 acres) of the land to the University, but he expressed a fear that if Harvard bought the property directly from the MTA, University officials "might grab all the land for educational purposes."

University officials, of course, immediately checked with legal experts and relaxed, for they discovered that Hayes' proposal neglected the fact that Cambridge has no clear authority to take the Yards from the MTA by eminent domain. Massachusetts cities derive the power of eminent domain from the commonwealth; as a State agency, the MTA derives every one of its powers from the same source. Since the Transit Authority could lose $1 million if Cambridge takes the Yards, and the City fears losing a large share of its "most valuable underdeveloped property" if Harvard buys directly from the MTA, the City's attempt to use eminent domain will almost certainly provoke a lengthy and expensive fight in court.

Now when Haves introduced his bill, he claimed that he was simply following a precedent set by Boston when its Redevelopment Authority took over the land on which Prudential Insurance is building at the moment. Hayes knew that Boston had obtained the land by eminent domain; he did not know that Prudential had actually owned the site already and had asked to have it declared an Open Blighted Area in order to get substantial tax reductions under the Urban Renewal Act.

University officials immediately (and delightedly) pointed out that if Cambridge is to imitate Boston's action on the Prudential Center, it must first allow Harvard to buy the MTA yards and then grant tax concessions on any commercial structures the University builds.

The inconsistencies of Hayes' bill soon became apparent to some members of the City Council, and at the next meeting the measure was sent to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, with instructions that the Authority's attorneys determine just how legal it was for the City to seize the Bennett St. Yards.

That action disposed of Councillor Hayes temporarily, but new trouble may confront the University in the State Legislature. Apparently encouraged by City Councillors who realize the weak legality of Cambridge's present position, Representative Lawrence F. Feloney has introduced a bill requiring that "the MTA trustees for business affairs to the city or town where the property is located." If it wants the land, the city will be required to determine and pay fair market value. Legal experts have indicated, however, that Feloney's bill may be unconstitutional because it would put cities in the real estate business.

So it seems that the University's problem involves not so much the City or the State as the Metropolitan Transit Authority itself. The MTA will not sell the Bennett St. Yards until it is forced to seek satisfactory facilities somewhere else. The prospects that anything of the kind will happen in the next few years look extremely dim.