Reliable and frequent shuttle buses. More frequent commuter rail service. Prioritize bus service by instituting clear bus lanes to ease traffic congestion.
These are the requests made by local and state elected officials of the leadership at the MBTA to mitigate some of the hardships the over-lapping shuttering of both the Orange and Green lines, announced by the MBTA earlier this month, will pose to riders in the coming month.
People living in Somerville, Malden, Medford and Melrose will be directly affected by the closures, along with others who commute to the transportation hubs in the cities to take advantage of the T.
The Orange Line, first Somerville stop: Sullivan Square to Oak Grove, is scheduled to be shuttered along the entire length Aug. 19 through Sept. 18.
The Green Line spur to Union Square is scheduled to be replaced by shuttle buses Aug. 22 through Sept. 18.
The MBTA has assured Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Somerville) that the replacement shuttle buses will be free.
“Public transportation is not a luxury,” said Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne. “It’s a lifeline for people to get to work, school and fulfill basic needs.”
The closures come as the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is reviewing the T amid news reports of runaway trains, derailments and a fire aboard an Orange line train in July that forced some 200 people onto a bridge over the Mystic River and compelled one woman to jump into the water and swim to safety.
The closure of the Green line spur to Union Square comes after the ongoing closure of the Heath Street (E line) from Copley Square for track work (suggested replacement of the route 39 bus). And the closure of the Green and Orange lines after the accident at the Government Station garage that killed a worker during the ongoing demolition of the structure.
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An escalation in the FTA involvement at the MBTA looms as a possible outcome once the oversight office completes its ongoing safety management inspection, expected to wrap up this month.
According to the State House News Service, Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus, made it clear he wants federal regulators to place the region’s transit authority into “functionally the equivalent” of receivership.
Straus, told the News Service Aug. 5 he wants the FTA to go beyond ordering corrective action and remain “on top of the situation basically every day.”
He said he wants the federal agency to take the same action with the T that it did in 2015, when the FTA assumed temporary, direct safety oversight of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. That expanded role continued for about three and a half years.
This is not the first time the MBTA has been scrutinized by outsiders: in 2019 an independent safety panel reviewed the agency and issued a report (read the executive summary here) that found that fiscal belt-tightening, lack of trust in the leadership, and frequent lapses in maintenance and inspections all contributed to safety issues. (Read the whole report here.) The panel, comprised of former New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco, former US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and former acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration Carolyn Flowers, concluded that despite the flaws, the service was safe for passengers.
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“If the T is about to be in some kind of transition, which I think it needs to be, in the meantime we need to have the extra oversight and implementation authority of the FTA,” Straus said. “I’m not calling for a permanent takeover, but what I’m saying is, as the T gets to where we all want it to be in terms of managing a transit system, the FTA is going to have to have more than just an investigatory and directive-issuing role, drawing on the precedent of what they did seven years ago in Washington, DC”
What are state officials saying about the MBTA shut downs?
As the FTA investigation wraps up, local and state politicians representing the communities have expressed frustration and fury; now they are requesting more information, more transparency and, on a state level, an honest accounting of what the MBTA needs to become the 21st-century public transportation system that an international city like Greater Boston Metropolitan area deserves.
“We need honesty, we must know the needs of the MBTA, what revenue it needs,” said Rep. Sean Garballey, (D-Arlington).
The reliance on the state sales tax to fund the MBTA is not “a way to fund the service” he said.
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In a statement to his constituents, Connolly said the “House voted to allocate $400 million to immediately address the severe safety problems at the MBTA. This is in addition to existing and future funding.”
“I know these are terribly bleak times for the MBTA — but personally, I am 100% committed to fighting for a world-class transit system that is free to all riders — it’s a vision I am determined to see realized,” Connolly said.
But for now, local leaders must find a way to get the impact to be as little disruptive to people’s lives as possible, said Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville).
“My focus right now is to make sure the MBTA provides adequate shuttle service during the shutdown,” Jehlen said. “Along with other officials in Medford, Cambridge, and Somerville, I am pushing to have efficient bus prioritization through the corridors.”
The mayors of Malden, Medford and Melrose sent a joint letter to the MBTA in which they requested reliable and frequent bus service as well as increased trips to commuter line stations. Ballantyne has her mobility team working with the MBTA to find and identify possible bottlenecks to mitigate traffic jams and ensure the shuttle buses do not get stuck in traffic.
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“The MBTA must do more than provide Yankee buses to replace the T,” said Rep. Paul Donato (D-Medford).
The delegation representing the communities most affected has been very “vociferous,” Donato said, and has demanded increase service to the commuter rail stations serving the cities.
In a statement, Melrose Mayor Paul Brodeur said, “As you know, in partnership with our neighbors in Medford and Malden, we’re asking the MBTA to establish express bus services from Orange Line stations directly into Boston, as well as increase the frequency of commuter rail service. We believe this is the best way to help our residents navigate this extraordinary hardship.”
How to keep commuters using the MBTA is a good question
Melrose Councilor-at-large Jack Eccles said it was great the MBTA suggested commuters drive to work, or work from home.
“But that’s not a reality for a lot of people,” Eccles observed.
He wondered about the effect of the closures on people’s ability to reach their jobs safely and on-time, on the increased reliance on ride-share drivers, the environmental impact of more cars on the road.
“Just because the Orange Line is reopened doesn’t mean people will go back to taking the T and stop driving to work,” Eccles noted. “If it’s not frequent and reliable, people will choose to drive; they will carry the bad experiences for years and be less likely to use public transportation.”
Somerville Councilor-at-large Willie Burnley Jr. said while he is dismayed, he is not surprised at how the MBTA is functioning.
“I feel as if Somerville were targeted by the MBTA,” Burnley said. “For Somerville residents who use the T, it’s a dismal state of affairs.”
The closures come even as Somerville is pushing to become a more bicycle and pedestrian friendly community. Ballantyne’s has been a car-free family for years, relying on local bus service and the T to commute to work, arrive at school, and move around the city. Jehlen had just started commuting to the State House from the Union Square spur when it closed following the accident, and is closing now, again.
“We are working with the T — learning plans — to motto ways to manage the closures for the community,” Ballantyne said. She suggested a zoom-out to see the bigger picture and learn how the T reached this terrible moment.
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“Massachusetts has underfunded public transportation and saddled the T with debt” from the Big Dig project constructed to support drivers, Ballantyne said. She pointed to the cranes arching across the sky in Somerville, Cambridge and Boston, noting the ongoing construction of more housing, more commercial buildings.
According to data, 85% of residents in the greater Boston area commute to work mostly in Cambridge and Boston.
“There’s a tipping point,” Ballantyne said. “How many more cars can be added to the roads?”