The difference between government agencies and private entities was
clearly demonstrated to me a few weeks ago. I had misplaced some cards that I normally
carry in my wallet: an MBTA Charlie Card, a bank ATM Card, and a Dunkin
Donuts Card. Fortunately, all 3 cards were registered, so I could get them replaced without
losing the cash values stored in them.
In 1959, The Kingston Trio recorded the “MTA Song”,
a folk song about a man named Charlie that got on a trolley in Boston at the Kenmore Square MTA station.
After that, the fare increased and he didn't have any more money, and couldn't get off the trolley.
(At the time, one had to pay again to debark the streetcar on some lines). The MTA was the initials
for Massachusetts Transportation Authority, which today is known as the MBTA,
the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The MBTA is a quasi-governmental
“authority” authorized and partially funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to operate
and maintain public transportation, primarily in and around metropolitan Boston.
A few years back, the MBTA automated its fare collection system with a
computerized system that replaced cash fares with “Charlie Tickets and “Charlie Cards”. The name
Charlie was chosen because of the widely known Charlie in the now immortal MTA Song. The Charlie
Ticket is a paper card with an embedded magnetic strip that is used to pay fares at electronic
collection machines, while the Charlie Card is plastic (similar to a credit card) and is semi-permanent
and is used by seniors and handicapped that receive special reduced fares. The Charlie Card carries
a photograph of the possessor and can be recharged via the internet. Being senior citizens, both my
wife and I use the Charlie Card for our frequent trips into and out of Boston and our less frequent
commuter rail travels.
Let’s start with the replacement of my two non-governmental cards, my bank
ATM card and my Dunkin Donuts card. I went down to my local bank and explained my problem. The bank
took down my name and account number and promised to mail out a new card with a new PIN in a few days.
Total time of transaction – about 1 minute. Cost - $0.00. The card and the new
PIN arrived a few days later.
I called the Dunkin Donuts 800 number and gave them my name and account number.
I was told the old card would be cancelled, the balance in the old card transferred to a new card, and
a new card would be mailed to me. Total time of transaction – about 1 minute. Cost - $0.00.
The new Dunkin Donuts card with the balance from my old card transferred to this new card arrived a few
I called the MBTA to ask what I had to do to replace my lost Charlie Card.
Even though I could provide the missing card’s registration number, I was told that I would still need
to appear in person at the MBTA’s Back Bay Station to get the card replaced. To get to the Back Bay Station,
I had to drive to an MBTA parking lot: Cost - $5.00, buy a Charlie Ticket:
Cost - $5.00, and travel via subway to the station:
Elapsed time - 20 minutes.
At the Back Bay Station, I was asked if I wanted to have a new photograph
taken for my replacement card – I declined and said my old photo was adequate. I was then told that there
would be a 30-minute wait. Since they had my photo and registration on file, I asked if the process could
not be completed without me and the replacement card mailed to my home. The answer was no. So I waited.
Let me describe the MBTA Back Bay Station Office for Transportation Assistance
that handles Charlie Cards for senior citizens and citizens with disabilities. The waiting room was about
8-feet wide by about 15-feet long with seating for 4 and room for another 2 or 3 standees. Remember,
the people here are either senior citizens or people with disabilities. Outside the waiting area,
beside the 6 or 7 people waiting for Charlie cards inside, there were another 25 or 30 senior and
handicapped people waiting. Most people outside the waiting area were standing, since there were no seats,
outside of a few terminal benches some distance away. There was no public address (PA) system for the
workers in the office to communicate with the people waiting outside, so a worker had to come out
frequently and shout the names of the people with whom he wanted to communicate. The worker often
had to compete with the station’s overly loud, but incomprehensible, PA system. One person with a
disability was having trouble getting the attention of a worker and I had to tell the worker that
the person needed assistance. In other cases, people waiting inside the office would yell out the
names of individuals outside the office being called because the workers inside the office could not
obtain a response to the name being called. After a wait of about 45 minutes, I received my replacement
Charlie Card. I then returned home: Elapsed time - 20 minutes
So, the total cost and time spent to replace my Charley Card was:
Cost - $10.00, Elapsed time – 2 hours and 25 minutes.
There was absolutely no reason that I had to travel to a totally inadequate
office in Boston when the entire transaction could have been handled by telephone or via the
computer/internet, and a new card mailed to me as was done with my bank ATM and Dunkin Donuts cards.
The MBTA had all my information of file, including my photograph. The MBTA should be ashamed to subject
seniors and disabled to the facilities at the Back Bay Station – these facilities are totally inadequate!
The MBTA workers at this office were doing their best to compensate for the miserable conditions.
They, themselves, had to operate in crowded conditions with inadequate equipment, i.e., they had no
PA system and they did not even have a bulletin board on which to write the names and status of the
people waiting to be served.
Service like that provided by the MBTA in this case would never be tolerated by a
business in the private sector – that business would quickly cease to exist in the competitive world.
But the MBTA does not have to compete. It is a quasi-governmental authority. Quasi-governmental agencies
such as the MBTA do not have to worry about competition. To a large extent, they can ignore complaints,
customer feedback, and the poor quality of service. This has always been the problem with organizations
in which the operation is not driven by the customer and by owners who have a stake in the organization’s
success or failure. It’s why socialism doesn’t work and capitalism does.
Let me state for the record that the problems at the Back Bay Station office were not
with the personnel working there. They were truly trying to make the best of a bad situation.
They were uniformly courteous and hard-working, but they could not compensate for the bad situation in which
they were placed. In truth, it may not even be the fault of the MBTA managers who have to ceaselessly
battle with the state legislature for funding and with powerful labor unions. The MBTA managers lack the
power and authority of managers in the private sector. Maybe the cause of the problem lies at the feet of
the voters and the politicians that mandate and ultimately control the funding and operation of the
And, just maybe, the solution to the problem is to privatize the MBTA and let it
compete in the real world. Let other privately run transportation companies compete with the MBTA.
Let the MBTA truly be responsible to its owners and its customers. Maybe the MBTA
needs to operate more like my local bank and Dunkin Donuts. Maybe it’s time for the masses to revolt and
to stop letting the government do everything for them. Maybe it’s time for the citizenry to let the
private sector and capitalism do for them what the government, along with its myriad offices, departments,
agencies and qusi-governmental agencies and authorities have not done and are not doing for them.
Local Bank: Cost = $0.00; Time Lost = 1 minute.
Dunkin Donuts: Cost = $0.00; Time Lost = 1 minute.
Cost = $10.00; Time Lost = 1 hour and 25 minutes.