IN AN AGE WHEN America should be doing all in its power to nurture mass transit, the Greater Boston area this week faces the shutdown of its subway, bus and commuter rail service. The paradox presents an object lesson in the venal intricacies of Massachusetts politics; it represents as well an opportunity too good to miss for the transformation of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) into a stable transit network.
A state court ruled last week that Gov. Edward J. King acted illegally when he took control of the T late last month. Under the system's complicated charter, the MBTA Advisory Board--composed of representatives from the 79 cities and towns that are served by the T and provide taxes for its support-must authorize all expenditures. The board had refused to grant a suplemental budget requested by T directors, and the legislature refused to provide state funds, so King took control of the system. But under the court order, the T must find additional funding from either local communities or the legislature by Friday at noon or close untill January 1, when new appropriations go into effect.
The "crisis" of the last few weeks, however, is simply the last stage of a disease that has been festering for years. Under the Dukakis administration, the governor's choice for T dicrector, Robert Kiley, had begun to make some headway in the attempt to take control of the system away from the powerful Carmen's Union. But when King swept into office two years ago-a victory aided by the support of many in the MBTA unions-he ended that process, and the T again found itself run by a powerful and corrupt labor leadership-so powerful that it exercised near-total control over all manner of MBTA administrative decisions, so powerful that its members are able to abuse overtime payments and other contract provisions.
It is possible that the legislature-meeting in special session this week-will be able to solve the T's management dilemma by Friday. But instead of opting for a quick bail-out that will leave the system unchanged until the same thing happens next year, the legislature and the Advisory Board's should let the subways shut for a few days if they cannot agree on changes in management and funding, time enough to let pressure mount on King and the Carmen's Union. A remedy that doesn't reverse the process by which King has sold out the taxpayers to the unions may keep the trains running through the new year, but it guarantees repeat performances in the years ahead.
And the legislature should not stop at reforming the T's management. The method by which the system is funded must also be corrected. Currently, each locality served by the T is assessed its share of the cost, money it must pay from the property tax Ivey. With the passage of Proposition 2 1/2, this unattractive mechanism became unfeasible as well- to continue to force localities to pay for the MBTA from property tax funds will only mean deeper cuts in local services.
Instead, employers should pay for the system through a payroll tax. First proposed by city manager James L. Sullivan, the payroll tax would not only take some of the pressure off the cities and towns in the metropolitan area, but also shift the cost to those industries and firms that most directly benefit from the T.
The crisis plaguing the T is too deep a problem to be solved with a quick influx of state money. Heartless as it sounds, only painful therapy-like a short shutdown of the system, even with the myriad problems it will cause the city-may sufice to end this recurrent problem.