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An MBTA Watchdog With Teeth: James Smith of the Advisory Board

News Profile

By Elizabeth H. Wiltshire

If you've ever waited late at night for a Red Line train, you know some of the faults of Boston's mass transit system.

James E. Smith is well-acquainted with many more of them. As director of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) Advisory Board, Smith is responsible for guiding decisions on the funding that keeps the system running.

He sees the advisory board as the public's advocate in the way the transit system runs.

"We have to be the guardians of the service. Riders don't have any organized way of telling the T about their problems," he says.

But the day-to-day decisions and the administration of those funds from property owners in the MBTA service area belongs to MBTA Chairman Robert L. Foster, an appointee of Gov. Edward J. King.

Smith's dissatisfaction with Foster is well-known--he especially denounced the supplementary budgets Foster requested this summer and fall. Smith says Foster didn't bring the appropriate skills to the job.

"I wish the governor had taken a more personal interest in the MBTA earlier on his own and really examined his choice," he says, adding that King "should know the caliber of the management team, he shouldn't tell them what color pencils to buy."

The Advisory Board last week approved a new budget for the MBTA, but a request for an additional $6.9 million will be reviewed this week. "My sense is that we won't approve it," Smith says. "We just won't be able to afford it."

Still, some have said the board brought the problems on itself when it approved King's nomination of Foster last year.

Smith explains that the board wanted to give the new governor a chance. He added that if their own appointee had done a poor job, the board itself would be in an unpopular position.

Immediate problems with the MBTA include its workers and their productivity. "The T can't succeed unless the work force wants it to. It's so hard to develop leadership and to identify it--something (former MBTA director Richard) Kiley was able to do," he says. "I'm a strong union guy, but they ought not to manage. This union manages and that's where it falls apart."

Suits to a T

Smith says his goals for the new year include "external funding and internal reforms:" finding better ways to fund the MBTA than through property taxes and improving management to be sure it is properly spent.

Eight years in the state legislature have given Smith contacts in the right places and the ability to find just the person he needs for a certain job, the Kennedy School graduate says.

An unsuccessful race for state-wide office in 1978 taught him that "it takes more than work to go to Congress--I learned that I'm really an advocate of public financing for elections."

Smith does not expect to spend 1981 in the same office--he intends to practice law on the North Shore later this year. But for now he is engrossed in forming and carrying out the Advisory Board's policies.

"I'm a transit freak," he says. "I'm seeing something I care about treated very shabbily--I really dislike watching the system fall apart."

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