Shutdowns to accelerate upgrades part of T’s regular playbook

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Closing a sizable stretch of the MBTA for weeks at a time was once a novel idea to accelerate repairs. Now, after another round that T officials praised as a success, the strategy appears to be here to stay.

State transportation officials on Monday forecast that they will pursue several more projects like the recent four-week closure of a chunk of the Green Line’s E Branch, describing the approach as a worthwhile sacrifice in the short term to achieve major maintenance goals more quickly than on conventional construction schedules.

On the E Branch, for example, crews this month completed as much work in the 27-day shutdown — the project was scheduled to run for 28 days, but wrapped up a day early — as they could have in a year of night- and weekend-only work, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said.

Poftak told reporters that the agency will continue to deploy the strategy, which MBTA officials have increasingly embraced during the pandemic, though he did not indicate which areas will be affected or when.

“We do have an extensive calendar that we are planning,” Poftak said. “It is a delicate balance between the operational needs of the T, the needs of the surrounding community and the actual project planning itself. We have a number of these in progress and we’ll be announcing them on a rolling basis.”

Both Poftak and Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler acknowledged that lengthy diversions create headaches for riders and for businesses near affected stations, but they said the benefits outweigh those costs.

The state Department of Transportation has deployed a similar approach, albeit with shorter-term closures, on bridge replacement projects, using eight weekends of Friday-to-Monday shutdowns to accelerate work this summer.

Tesler said the E Branch project, which was located in an “immensely complicated corridor,” could have created even more hassle if it was delayed, particularly as tens of thousands of college students flock to Boston for the fall semester.

“If we were late by a few hours or a few days, that disruption is real,” Tesler said. “Yet we took advantage of the August period to do this. You guys worked day and night 24/7 to get this done, and we’re going to need to do this again and again and again throughout our corridors in order to upgrade existing things. It’s not easy, but it can get done if everyone makes the sacrifice together.”

The strategy could emerge as a substantial factor in the long-running effort to achieve a state of good repair. In 2019, MBTA officials estimated it would cost $10.1 billion to address all of the transit system’s modernization and replacement needs, and the Baker administration has been pushing the agency to ramp up its annual spending on capital projects.

“This is what a state of good repair, this is what maintaining and improving the MBTA’s existing system and making it better for our riders and our customers every day, looks like,” Tesler said. “It is hard. It requires disruption. It requires everybody here, businesses, medical facilities, riders — we all have to sacrifice in the short term to make these massive investments.”

The T spent about $1.93 billion in 2020 on modernization, reliability and safety improvements, and Poftak said Monday he anticipates spending $2 billion on those areas this year.

MBTA officials began rolling out longer stretches of service disruptions to accelerate repairs in the fall of 2019, starting with weekend shutdowns of core parts of the subway and trolley system.

They then “expanded over the course of the pandemic,” Poftak said, in part influenced by a sharp decline in ridership. The T closed most of the Blue Line for two weeks in May 2020, and several other stretches of the Green Line each went offline for weeks at a time.

Officials praised each of the projects for achieving results far more quickly than with night- and weekend-only work, and in some cases, the net cost was lower. The price tag on last year’s August E Branch shutdown came in about 70 percent as much as a more standard approach, according to the Baker administration.

The latest E Branch work — the second successive August shutdown for that branch — halted trolleys between the Heath Street and Brigham Circle stations from Monday, Aug. 2 through Saturday, Aug. 28. During that span, the MBTA boosted Route 39 bus service and offered free trips connecting the affected Green Line stops.

Officials said the MBTA surpassed its goals for the project. The T planned to replace 4,000 feet of track and improve five crosswalks, and workers ultimately replaced 4,600 feet of track and improved 10 crosswalks.

“We certainly hope you would have a more reliable ride and the ride would be smoother,” Poftak said, forecasting how riders will experience the changes. “It’ll be a more reliable ride, a smoother ride and quite possibly a faster ride as well.”

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