It’s a question that flummoxed transportation officials even before the coronavirus pandemic: Is it better to slowly fix crumbling infrastructure bit by bit over a long period of time, or create a much greater inconvenience by shutting down entire MBTA lines for a few weeks to get the work done quickly?
But with ridership so low while commuters stay home, the MBTA is now planning to speed up some of its repair and construction work.
It starts next week on the Blue Line, which will be shuttered between Airport and Bowdoin for up to two weeks as crews work around the clock to replace nearly a half-mile of track and do other repairs at Aquarium Station.
That work was previously scheduled to be completed as part of a six-month period of weekend Blue Line closures. Some of those closures may still happen this year, however, to address remaining infrastructure work, such as repairs in the Harbor Tunnel.
Some advocates and elected officials have been calling for the T to expedite repairs during the ongoing lockdown. Speaking to business leaders last month, Senate President Karen Spilka endorsed making “the much needed repairs to the T” while ridership is low.
But until now, the T had been hesitant because of concerns about keeping construction sites safe, said general manager Steve Poftak. The MBTA has since developed a plan to keep workers from intermingling too much, he said.
Shuttle buses will replace Blue Line trains during the closure, a prospect that could pose some problems as riders try to keep their distance from each other: Blue Line ridership is down about 85 percent during the pandemic, but is still running higher than the rest of the subway system.
Meanwhile, shuttle buses carry fewer passengers than trains. And the first day of the repair work — May 18 — also marks the end of Governor Charlie Baker’s stay-home advisory, though the governor has stressed that not everybody will be going to work immediately.
“In hearing about it at first my heart skipped a bit because I was genuinely concerned about how we’re supposed to transport people socially distant during a pandemic when you’re cutting off a transportation option,” said East Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards. But she said she was put at ease upon hearing about the T’s plans to run shuttle buses at a more robust rate than during more typical closures.
Poftak said the T will run more than 70 shuttle buses at a time over the course of the project, enough for service every minute or so, along two schedules: one where buses make every stop, and an express between the Airport and Government Center stations.
“The intent there is to divide some of the volume on the line,” he said. “For the number of passengers we expect, we have provisioned a number of shuttle buses with the expectation that they will be holding 15 to 20 passengers. Each one of these shuttle buses has a capacity of 58. So these shuttle buses will be operating at roughly a third or less capacity.”
The agency is also planning to close train service on a section of the Lowell commuter line next week to expedite a drainage project associated with the Green Line extension project, saving $2 million on the mammoth project.
Further north, shuttle buses are also replacing part of the Rockport commuter line — in this case, however, for much less productive reasons. While working on a drawbridge replacement project in Gloucester, MBTA workers found that a retaining wall had fallen out of alignment, forcing the T to shut down train service.
Previously, buses were expected to replace trains for the bridge project only occasionally, mostly off-peak and on weekends. But the wall repairs will need to be added to the drawbridge job, and shuttle buses will run in place of the trains until further notice.
The disruptions on the commuter rail lines will likely have less of an impact on riders than the Blue Line; commuter rail ridership is down much more than even the subway during the pandemic — by one fare revenue measure, it may be under 1 percent of pre-pandemic ridership.