How Boston-Area Officials Are Responding to Transit Turmoil

If you take an Orange Line train into downtown Boston for the late shift tonight, you’ll need to find another way home.

Starting at 9 p.m., the line will be shut down entirely for 30 days, while the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority races to complete a series of safety upgrades and maintenance projects that officials estimate would take more than five years under normal operating conditions.

The shutdown of the Orange Line, which provides more than 100,000 daily trips on average, comes amid a season of turmoil for the MBTA. Just this year, the system has endured crashesderailments and fires resulting in delayed service, injuries and even death. In April, a passenger on the Red Line was killed after getting his arm stuck in the subway door and being dragged onto the track. In June, the Federal Transit Administration announced the results of a safety inspection, which concluded that safety issues at MBTA were the result of deferred maintenance, and that the authority “faces systemic challenges in maintaining its aging infrastructure in a state of good repair.”

The FTA directed the authority to take a series of corrective steps related to equipment inspections and employee training, as well as guaranteeing dispatchers and other workers “sufficient time off to recover between shifts.” It was more than a month later that a train on the Orange Line caught fire, precipitating the monthlong shutdown of the service.

The safety crisis is unfolding as the MBTA, like other big-city transit systems, is facing tough long-term funding challenges related to both chronic deferred maintenance and steep drops in ridership during the pandemic. The Orange Line, for example, only serves about half the daily passengers it did in 2019. The Authority is anticipating a “fiscal cliff” in 2024, when it expects to see a $230 million budget deficit as it runs out of federal pandemic relief funds.

Boston-area officials are scrambling to help riders and the public navigate the disruptions while looking for ways to stabilize the system long-term. Their counterparts in many other metros could soon be in the same position.

Mitigating the Local “Chaos” 

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who campaigned on a platform of making the transit system fare-free, has predicted some degree of “chaos” as riders and the commuting public adapt to the shutdown of the Orange Line. The line runs roughly 11 miles from Malden in the north through downtown Boston to Jamaica Plain at the south end. The MBTA is encouraging riders to find alternate travel arrangements or work from home during the shutdown, while planning to run a shuttle bus service along the Orange Line’s route for riders who can’t avoid it.

Wu’s administration is making a host of street-level changes in an attempt to “minimize the pain this will inflict on the riding public and the public at large,” says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city of Boston’s chief of streets. That includes closing lanes of traffic to create temporary bus-only lanes, shutting down streets to provide loading areas for buses, removing some parking spaces, and creating pop-up bike lanes in anticipation of more bike traffic — all actions that under typical circumstances would generate lots of hyperlocal controversy and hours of community meetings. There are important democratic and trust-building reasons to go through those processes, Franklin-Hodge says, but the “transportation emergency” that the city is facing justifies temporarily setting them aside.

“The reality for us is we have two weeks to design and implement the changes. We don’t have the luxury of time to go through anything like a planning process,” Franklin-Hodge says. “We feel it’s essential for us to prioritize speed over process. Our mandate right now is speed and agility and focusing on delivering the core travel needs of the people of Boston.”

Aside from changing traffic patterns, the city is producing new wayfinding signage, working with the Disabilities Commission on accessibility issues, and helping to alert the public, in a range of languages, about how the shutdown will affect mobility. The city is spending its own money to carry out the emergency work, but keeping a tally for future funding conversations with the state.

“Understanding that the T is not ours, we are going to move heaven and earth to make this work as well as it possibly can,” Franklin-Hodge says.

As complicated as the shutdown will be in Boston, it could be even more of a headache in the cities to its north, says Massachusetts State Rep. Mike Connolly, who represents parts of Cambridge and Somerville in Middlesex County. Regional highway traffic converges in those areas already, Connolly says. He says he’s been working with local leaders and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to establish priority bus lanes in those communities like the ones that the city of Boston is preparing.

“What I’ve found is key is to really try to get state legislative representatives such as myself at the same table and on the same page with the local transportation folks so that we’re delivering a very consistent message to the state transportation agency,” Connolly says.

Emergency Funds and Oversight from the State

In the final days of the legislative session, the Massachusetts Legislature approved a package of bills directing more than $11 billion to infrastructure projects around the state, including $400 million for the MBTA to implement the safety directives required by the FTA. The state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation had begun holding oversight hearings with MBTA officials even before the fire on the Orange Line.

“We basically shifted our focus fully to safety once the FTA came in,” says state Sen. Brendan Crighton, who chairs the Joint Committee.

It’s the Legislature’s role to hold the Authority accountable for safety and “ask hard questions about how we got here,” Crighton says. The MBTA’s leadership should generally be more transparent and communicative about safety issues and its plans for addressing them, he says. (The MBTA did not respond to a request for an interview.) Crighton cited a 2019 report that raised questions about the “culture” of safety and accountability at MBTA, as well as staff shortages, and said the committee would be holding more hearings after the FTA releases a final report, which is expected sometime this month.

But many transit advocates say the Legislature is ultimately responsible for creating a healthy, well-funded transit system.

“This is to me really a classic death-by-a-thousand-cuts story,” says Stacy Thompson, executive director of the local advocacy group LivableStreets Alliance. “What we consistently see out of the Legislature is [a message] that we need to restructure or reorganize or that the problem is efficiency, when there are 20 years of external reports showing the system is underfunded … I don’t know that the state Legislature has a lot of credibility right now telling the T to be more efficient and transparent.”

Uncertainty in the Future

Many advocates also lay blame for the MBTA’s crises at the feet of outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker. He has defended his administration’s investments in the T over his last two terms. But Thompson says Baker’s presence is much different now than it was during the 2015 “Snowpocalypse” that disrupted transit service, when he was new in office.

Transit agencies are multi-jurisdictional entities, and it isn’t always clear to the public which officials to hold responsible for everything from temporary disruptions to the overall accessibility and usefulness of transit service. But the governor appoints the MBTA board in Massachusetts, and Hayley Richardson, a spokesperson for TransitCenter, a national advocacy group, says state government bears responsibility for the safety issues on the T.

“It makes a lot of sense to connect the dots between the outcomes we’re seeing right now and decisions that have been made by the governor to run the MBTA like a mean, lean business instead of a public service,” Richardson says.

Local advocates in Boston credit the Wu administration for working to ease the pain of the shutdown while pushing for more long-term investment in the system. And some have pressed for Boston to have its own representative on the MBTA board, a proposal which was lost in the shuffle at the end of the legislative session.

The most critical need is more stable operating funds from the state, says Jarred Johnson, executive director of the local advocacy group TransitMatters.

“Our expectation is that the Legislature finally comes up with long-term, sustainable funding for the T,” Johnson says. “How the T got into this mess was years and years of stopgap solutions and not really giving the T the funding and attention it needs.”

Funding issues at MBTA predate the pandemic, which the state House acknowledged early in 2020 when it approved a $500 million transportation package funded by new taxes. That measure was derailed as the pandemic took hold, though some advocates felt that was an excuse for the Senate to avoid pushing it through.

Many are now looking to a referendum on the Fair Share Amendment to the state constitution this fall, which would levy a special tax on incomes over $1 million, as a potential vehicle for new transit funding. And they’re hoping a new governor will take ownership of the MBTA’s challenges and push for better service.

In the meantime, there’s a lot riding on how the MBTA handles the work it needs to complete during the Orange Line shutdown and how cities weather the service disruptions. Perhaps most important, says Thompson, is how comfortable and safe it will feel for commuters to ride the subway when the shutdown ends.

“The MBTA’s ability to execute this successfully or not will determine the mood going forward,” Thompson says. “If this project is successful, we can turn a corner in terms of public confidence. We’re just not there yet.”