Column: Holy Mackerel, Charlie!

Column: Holy Mackerel, Charlie!

I was confused this week when the Mass. Bay Transit Authority and the news outlets in Boston began yammering about the new CharlieCard. Hasn’t Charlie – the vaguely obnoxious two-dimensional man in a fedora – had his face on everything from here to Braintree for months? I’ve been using those paper tickets since summer, and T tokens are nowhere in sight.

But then I started paying attention to the news reports. The paper things we’ve been feeding into the fancy new gates at T stations and into the incredibly slow new machines on buses were CharlieTickets; the new thing, promoted heavily leading up to the official rollout Monday, is the plastic CharlieCard.

The CharlieCard, sayeth the MBTA, will make it easier and cheaper to ride the T. Gee, that sounds great! New fancy gadgets and a less expensive, less rage-inducing ride! Sign me up!

But don’t let them fool you. They don’t mean to say it’s cheaper and easier than the old way of riding the T. It seems the CharlieCard will be easier and cheaper than its paper cousin. Let me explain.

First, let’s look at boarding the above-ground Green Line. Old way: throw in your token or stuff a dollar bill in the side and toss a quarter in the opening on top. Or, if you’re so inclined, swipe your monthly pass along the top as you walk in. CharlieTicket way: insert the ticket, wait for a beep and remove the ticket; or, insert your dollar and carefully position your quarter into the tiny, vending-machine-style slot. CharlieCard way: tap your plastic card on a nifty black pad featuring a red dot in the middle and wait for it to beep.

I think anyone who’s been waiting to get on the T this week can join me when I say “screw the Charlie way!” Those few extra seconds per person, waiting for a ticket to come out or making sure their cash goes in, can hold up the whole line in a big way.

Next, this whole “cheaper” business. Last I heard, the MBTA was hiking rates starting in January, up from $1.25 to $1.70 for the subway and from 90 cents to $1.25 for the bus. What I failed to understand was that those rates are for CharlieCard users only. If you want to use cash or buy a paper ticket, the fare will actually be $2 for the subway and $1.50 for the bus.

Two dollars?!

Now, the MBTA says they will sell those cards through convenience stores, grocery stores and kiosks all over the city, and they say no T stop will be more than a quarter mile from any official CharlieCard seller. So people, no matter where they live, won’t be forced to pay extra just because there aren’t cards around.

That is what they say now, but transit advocates will be keeping an eye on the MBTA, waiting for such promises to go unfulfilled.

But seriously, $2? How is making people run to the 7-11 down the street so they don’t have to pay $2 any easier? Tell me how, Charlie. And although $2 is the cost of a ride on the New York City subway, since when is a ride on our T worth the same as a ride through Manhattan?

Yeah, I know, Boston and New York City are incomparable and I’ve said myself that the whole city needs to get over its inferiority complex to that steaming metropolis four hours south. But their subway is vast and runs all freakin’ night. Ours doesn’t even make it to closing time.

I spoke with MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo last week, and he told me the T has to send out its last trains at 12:50 a.m. because maintenance must be done between 1 and 5 a.m., every day. Pesaturo said in New York they have multiple sets of tracks, so they can do maintenance on one while trains run on the others.

Also, he said, the T tried running buses from 1 to 3:30 a.m. and failed. The Night Owl program didn’t draw enough riders, he said, and was generally a money pit. So, in March of 2005, the MBTA gave the program the axe.

It could conceivably be easier to use the CharlieCard, once everyone figures it out. I hope it will, despite Bostonians being somewhat resistant to change. Since the MBTA put the elderly on the CharlieCard months ago, they should already have it down pat.

But it sure as hell ain’t cheaper. You can’t hike the subway fare up 75 cents and then say, “Oh, it’s only a 45-cent increase … as long as you do what we say.” And although the new revenue for the MBTA – not only from the increase, but from certain people no longer skipping the turnstiles (dammit) – will go toward improvements and keeping up the tracks in face of a huge deficit, I doubt we on the E line will see much benefit. Unless you can tell me I won’t have to freeze for 30 minutes before a packed train shows up, I’d really prefer not to pay any more for a ride. Or, for that matter, carry around a card bearing the creepy image of a guy named after a song in which he gets trapped riding the T for the rest of his life. (Great name, guys. Good job.)

All I can say is: Charlie, you bastard.

– Rachel Slajda can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Reply