MEDFORD — Prepare for the summer of Orange Line discontent.
The MBTA will shut down the entire Orange Line for 30 days starting in less than three weeks, a historic and disruptive undertaking that punctuates months of injurious and deadly incidents, simmering rider frustration, federal scrutiny and plenty of finger-pointing.
Gov. Charlie Baker and his top deputies said Wednesday they believe the “unprecedented” step will allow crews to complete as much overdue maintenance work as they would in five years of weekend- and evening-only closures.
“None of this stuff that’s happened is acceptable, and that’s part of the reason why we’re going the distance we’re going to here,” Baker said, addressing a sea of reporters and cameras near the maintenance yard at Wellington Station. “I do believe this will be a major, positive and significant decision for the Orange Line and for the riders over time, but it’s going to be a complicated exercise and we accept that.”
The shutdown will begin at 9 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 19, and continue through Tuesday, Sept. 18, with service resuming the morning of Sept. 19. That will leave the MBTA’s second-most used subway line, which in April provided more than 100,000 trips on an average weekday, shuttered from Malden through Medford, Somerville, downtown Boston and Jamaica Plain.
While Orange Line trains are halted, the MBTA will deploy a constellation of newly hired shuttle buses to replace some of the service. Riders will not need to pay fares for the shuttles.
Officials will also steer riders toward commuter rail routes that connect to the Orange Line, where anyone will be able to pay for a Zone 1, Zone 1A or Zone 2 fare simply by displaying a CharlieCard or MBTA pass. The Haverhill Line will pick up and drop off passengers at Oak Grove, Malden Center and North Station, and on the south side, the Needham and Providence Line trains will also stop at Forest Hills, Ruggles, Back Bay and South Station.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak additionally suggested riders with flexibility opt to work from home when possible.
Still, even with the alternatives in place, the entire greater Boston region is in line for enormous commuting disruption during a busy summer stretch when businesses are still trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and colleges are preparing to welcome back students, and tourists are on the move.
Roadway traffic has essentially rebounded to its crushing pre-pandemic levels even as public transit ridership lags, and that could become worse with the addition of former Orange Line riders who opt to drive and as many as 200 shuttle buses at peak hours.
“Decades of deferred maintenance — compounded by a lack of urgency even in recent years — has left us at a crisis point for the MBTA and the hundreds of thousands of commuters who rely on public transportation every day,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said in a statement. “A shutdown of this scale will be tremendously stressful for the region, but I’m hopeful that doing this necessary work now will save us years of disruption down the line.”
During the shutdown, workers will replace more than 3,500 feet of track that dates back 38 years, install upgraded signals at Oak Grove and Malden stations, replace two crossovers that manage train movement, and fix concrete, tracks and ties along the Southwest Corridor.
The project will also take aim at one of the pressing issues the Federal Transit Administration flagged amid its ongoing safety probe into the T, which Poftak described as the “impetus” for the new steps. Federal inspectors slammed the T for a backlog of delayed maintenance projects, several of which have left stretches of Orange Line track in such poor condition that the MBTA needed to lower the allowable speed limit in those areas.
Once the work is done and the T completes a subsequent inspection period, Baker administration officials said they should be able to lift speed restrictions, which will cut down travel times.
“Rather than just a few hours on the overnight, we will have 30 days of completely unencumbered access to the Orange Line’s 121,000 feet of track, our 20 stations and the entire right of way,” Poftak said.
“When Orange Line riders return to the line on Sept. 19, they will arrive at deep-cleaned stations and experience a ride that is significantly better than the one that they left,” he later added.
In Baker’s mind, that’s also why riders should feel safe and secure taking the Orange Line for the next two and a half weeks before the shutdown begins.
“Most of the issues we’re dealing with here involve speed reductions and slowdowns,” he said. “From our point of view, these projects were going to happen anyway. The issue here is to try to get them done faster and to get them done in a way that doesn’t create this start-stop thing, which has been historically the way we’ve gone about doing these projects.”
Another step Baker administration officials pledged to accomplish during the shutdown is an overhaul of the Orange Line’s fleet.
So far, the MBTA has received 78 of the 152 new Orange Line cars it expects under a contract with Chinese firm CRRC. The agency expects to replace the entire fleet — which today features many trains that are decades old — by the time delivery is complete in April 2023.
Poftak said Wednesday that the “vast majority” of trains in service on the Orange Line will be the new CRRC-manufactured vehicles once service resumes after the month-long closure.
But there are still some hefty question marks looming over the project.
The governor and his team do not know how much the sweeping maintenance will cost. The only clear price tag that emerged Wednesday was on a $27 million to $37 million contract the MBTA’s board unanimously approved with A Yankee Line, Inc. to provide up to 200 shuttle buses during the diversion.
“We’re not worried,” Baker said. “I mean, we have lots of capital money. That’s not an issue.”
Lawmakers moved to make hundreds of millions of dollars available to the MBTA to respond to the FTA’s safety directives, including $400 million pending in an infrastructure bond bill on Baker’s desk.
On the operating side, the MBTA is careening toward a “fiscal cliff” with a budget gap of hundreds of millions of dollars forecast to hit next year.
MBTA officials also have not decided exactly what route the shuttle buses will run or at which Orange Line stations they will stop. Poftak said his team is still working with Boston city officials to “optimize what the most efficient path of travel is.”
“I’m being a little vague here because we’re still working on it,” Poftak said. “We’re trying to come up with the best possible plan given what we’ve talked about, some of the constraints, but also trying to be thoughtful and creative — what are some of the tactics we could put in place? I know people have raised great ideas like pop-up bus lanes and other dedicated bus priority infrastructure. Once we put a plan together that optimizes it, we’ll come back out and we’ll give you all the specifics.”
So why announce the plan before the details are final?
“We could have chosen to just wait until the 15th of August, when we had every single one of these issues figure out, to then make the announcement. We thought that would be a bad idea,” Baker said. “We felt that the better way to go here was to make the announcement, start the discussion, and be in a position where people start paying attention to what the possible alternatives for them.”
“Then we have you,” Baker added, referring to the assembled press, “and others to help us deliver the message that people who ride this line should be paying attention to this. We’ll fill in the blanks between now and the time we get to the 19th.”