MBTA chief explains to business leaders why 30-day shutdown of Orange Line is necessary

“Initially we planned to lose the northern end of the line around the month of August [and] we had a number of other weekend diversions planned in the fall and spring,” Poftak said.

But that timeline for making those safety improvements clearly wasn’t fast enough for FTA.

“The clear directive [was] that we need to give our crews more access to this track,” Poftak said. “They want to make sure our crews have access so we can get the repairs done faster.”

Availability of backup shuttle buses was also a factor. The T has contracted with the Yankee Line to provide up to 200 buses for the north end of the line, between Oak Grove and Government Center, and the south end, between Forest Hills and Copley Square. Commuters who need to travel downtown between Government Center and Copley are advised to get on the Green Line because, as Poftak said, “running buses through the heart of downtown Boston is extremely challenging.”

Poftak said securing up to 200 buses in a month means getting “every available bus east of the Mississippi.” Poftak said if the T doesn’t find those buses now, they may not be available at a later date.

“We felt we had to strike while the iron was hot here,” Poftak said.

Poftak declined to say how much the work on the Orange Line will cost, but said it’s largely in line with what’s in the T’s capital plan. He also declined to say where the buses would be located, except that the T has spaces provided near both ends of the orange line for overnight bus parking. He also noted that there will be no guarantee that passengers will always board new Orange Line trains when service resumes in a month — the T is separately in the midst of a years-long process of replacing Orange Line and Red Line cars — and that it could take several more weeks before the agency complies with the removal of speed limits after the reopening.

Another big question business leaders asked: Couldn’t this have been done earlier during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more people were working from home? Poftak noted that the T planned for more diversions, particularly at Green Line branches, during the pandemic and that managers had no idea the health emergency would last as long as it did. “I think the idea that it would be simple or easy to close the T during the pandemic is a bit of a revisionist story,” he said.

For many in the business community, the closing of the Orange Line represents a major setback on two related fronts: getting more workers back to the office and revitalizing a downtown neighborhood plagued by a relative dearth of commuters.

“Businesses that are able to give their employees more flexibility to work from home, they plan to do so,” chamber CEO Jim Rooney said in an interview. “Until this announcement, there were some plans to return to more activity in the office after Labor Day. This could be delayed.”

Rooney, a former MBTA administrator, said closing the Orange Line is counterproductive to the chamber’s efforts with Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration for a downtown revitalization strategy.

“I’m in mode [now], saying, “Let your people work from home,” Rooney said. “Hopefully we can increase them again in mid-September when everything is finished.”

The biggest concern in the business community, Rooney said, is how smoothly alternative modes of transportation are working for Orange Line riders during the shutdown — bus trips, free rides offered on the commuter rail and city-funded 30-day passes for Bluebikes bike sharing program.

“One of my big takeaways today is the extent to which the T and its management team will have to … make real-time dynamic decisions based on the conditions of the moment, whether the buses are full and they can stop [or] road situations,” Rooney said. “There’s the plan, and then there’s the execution. It will require a lot of management, still on the implementation side.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.

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