The MBTA is planning to double the amount of shuttle bus service in the next five years at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, with the possibility of another complete rail line shutdown in the works—and a transit advocate thinks the Red Line could be next to be taken offline.

New shutdowns may be underway already, with the T asking bus companies to submit proposals during the Thanksgiving holiday to be considered for “near-term projects.”

Earlier this month, the T put out a bid doubling its budget for shuttle work over the next five years—from $60 million to $120 million—in the process raising the prospect of another shutdown like the Orange Line being taken out of service for a month earlier this year. Stacy Thompson, the executive director of transit advocacy group Livable Streets Alliance, said she wasn’t surprised to see the T planning for more extensive work, but the agency needs to provide more notice than it did for the Orange Line shutdown when it does have similar projects ready to go.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable they haven’t said how they’ll use [the additional buses] yet but when, not if, a major project occurs, we need a few months heads up,” Thompson said.

Thompson is pretty sure which line would be most likely to face a full shutdown.

“The riding public should be prepared for more substantial repair projects. I don’t know what that will look like yet, but I think the Red Line is next on the slate,” the transit advocate said, adding that more large T projects are likely coming. “We’re getting people to expect two years of major shutdowns.”

Shutdown shuttles 

The T uses shuttle buses to transport riders during a variety of subway shutdowns—for planned maintenance and construction, for emergencies and stopped trains, for accessible service during station shutdowns, and other issues. Most recently, it relied on hundreds of shuttle buses during the emergency shutdown of the Orange Line for four weeks over the summer and fall, saying the closure was necessary to perform five years’ worth of maintenance and improve transit times.

That shutdown came in the middle of a Federal Transit Administration audit of the MBTA following numerous subway crashes and a dragging death earlier this year, leading to outrage from riders and lawmakers. The MBTA announced the shutdown on Aug. 3, only a few weeks before it took effect, further angering riders and officials with the lack of preparation time (WBUR recently reported riders are still dealing with slow zones on the line).

At the beginning of August, MBTA officials approved paying Boston-based bus service Yankee Line up to $37 million to handle shuttle buses for that period. Between the start of the shutdown on Aug. 19 and Aug. 29, according to the most recent state financial records available, the T paid Yankee Line $6,581,000. It’s not clear what the T paid Yankee Line during the rest of the shutdown, which ran until Sept. 19, or if all of those payments were for Orange Line-related work. The T has paid Yankee Line more than $100 million since 2017, and uses other bus companies for shuttle service as well.

In 2021, the T put out a bid asking for various companies to provide shuttle service, becoming part of a pool of vendors the T would use over the next five years. The T expected to spend $60 million on shuttle buses during that time, with a maximum of 20 buses used during weeks-long projects, according to the bid.

But those figures have changed.

Beefing up buses?

On Nov. 15, the T released an update to the bid. According to the update, the MBTA now expects to spend $120 million on shuttle buses—double the previous amount.

And it’s increasing the scope of the shuttle use as well. An optional scope addition says the T can use sub-contracted shuttles from out of state for larger projects that need up to 100 accessible buses.

“Typically, these projects will support a planned partial or complete shut-down of an MBTA rail route, and may be for a longer duration,” the T’s update reads. “The MBTA will endeavor to provide as much … advanced notice as possible.”

But it appears some projects are coming up soon. Vendors can submit bids until Dec. 6, but in a memo announcing the bid’s re-opening, T officials said they should get their proposals in even earlier—taking time to file them through Thanksgiving.

“Bidders are strongly encouraged to submit bids preferably by Nov. 25, 2022, to be considered for near term projects,” the memo reads.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo did not say what near-term projects the T had in the works, saying, “Multiple MBTA departments continue to work out details on the scope and timing of the projects that will require diversions. After the details are finalized, the information will be publicized.”

Asked about the bid’s reference to “complete shut-downs,” Pesaturo did not say if or when the agency will shut down the Red Line or any other line.

“The MBTA is working diligently to bring the rail lines into a state-of-good-repair,” Pesaturo said in a statement, referring to the T’s capital improvement plan. “To help ensure that the projects begin, and end as scheduled, the procurement of bus shuttles in advance means work will not have to be delayed and that customers will have a reliable transportation alternative. The MBTA alone does not have the buses, bus drivers and bus maintenance personnel needed to operate both shuttle services and regular MBTA bus routes.”

Thompson said the Orange Line and Green Line have both been shut down for maintenance and repairs recently, and the Blue Line has the newest tracks overall. In contrast, the Red Line has gotten slower over the years, with Thompson saying riders report Ashmont-to-Harvard trains taking 75 minutes, compared to 45 minutes in the recent past.

“For sure we know there are slow zones on the Red Line,” Thompson said. “By process of elimination of which lines have received work in the last five years, the Red Line is next.”

Thompson said she was glad to see the T planning ahead for shuttle buses as major projects loomed, and wasn’t concerned that they hadn’t released specific information yet. She hoped officials learned from the Orange Line shutdown how to roll out future line closures.

“Planning for something like this is a good thing, they’re probably looking at a pretty extensive slate of repair projects and haven’t figured out the mechanics of how they’re going to do it,” Thompson said. “It’s very reasonable for them to have learned a lot from the Orange Line shutdown—what worked, what could be better.”