STARTS & STOPS
The recent shutdowns of the Green Line were supposed to be a huge disruption to riders, the kind of commuting headache that seemed destined for the front page. Instead, they’re coming and going with barely a peep.
The E branch is offline this month, replaced by shuttle buses as Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority workers race to replace nearly three miles of track during August. The work follows a similar project that ran through July on the C branch.
Usually, these types of repairs are done during overnight hours and can take a year or longer to complete. Even with weekend service shutdowns to accelerate the schedule, they can stretch on for months.
That’s what made these two Green Line projects so remarkable when they were announced in February: The work would be around-the-clock, a concentrated pain for much quicker gain. Riders were so desperate for better service that complete closures on parts of the rail system — including weekdays and rush hours — seemed worth the hassle just to get it over with.
But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the hassle has been largely removed from the equation. Brookline town officials heard stunningly few complaints about the shutdowns during the C branch closure, said Chris Dempsey, a member of the town’s transportation board.
The pandemic has “taken away a little of the sense that we are at a breaking point in the transportation system, in which any small change or disruption cascades through the entire system and becomes this overwhelmingly difficult thing in people’s lives,” said Dempsey, who also leads the advocacy organization Transportation for Massachusetts. “We’ve seen it on the roads, and on transit, too.”
That is largely due to the number of people working from home, out of work, or staying home for safety reasons.
Ridership at above-ground Green Line stops like the C and E branches is difficult to assess, because passengers do not pass through fare gates. But it seems certain that ridership this summer is far lower than usual, given that stations on the underground Green Line segments are reporting about 15 percent of last year’s ridership.
In fact, the Green Line projects weren’t even that novel by the time they began. Earlier in the pandemic, the MBTA took advantage of largely empty trains to shut down parts of the Red and Blue lines for two weeks at a time to complete track work and tunnel repairs that had been scheduled for weekends and overnight periods later this year. The Green Line’s D branch was also shut down for two quick sessions in June.
On the Green Line, the MBTA has promised that the projects will bring smoother and faster rides by eliminating speed restrictions on parts of the two lines that forced trolleys to travel as slow as 3 miles per hour. In addition to track replacements, the MBTA is also smoothing out the intersections where trolley tracks meet the road. Traffic lights at nine of the intersections along Beacon Street were also upgraded during the C branch work with technology that helps trolleys to squeeze through before the signal turns red, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.
The latest in Allston
The latest environmental filing for the planned Massachusetts Turnpike rebuild in Allston hints of possible tension between city and state officials as they hash out the hugely complex project.
On Friday, the state laid out three versions of the project it will consider: one that replaces the existing turnpike viaduct in the narrow space along the Charles River; another that brings the highway to grade and elevates Soldiers Field Road on a new viaduct; and one that puts everything at the ground level. The Friday filing was in some ways routine — all three options had previously been announced, and a decision is not expected until later in the year.
But in the fine print, state officials appeared to decline a request from Boston Chief of Streets Chris Osgood that could facilitate the idea to build everything at grade.
That’s the version preferred by many community and interest groups who have been debating the project for years. But the state has mostly taken a dim view of the option, arguing it would be difficult to fit everything on land without requiring infill or construction over the Charles and severely hampering the permitting process.
In a note to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack last month, Osgood suggested the state consider a version of the at-grade design with 10-foot lanes on Soldiers Field Road and two-foot shoulders on the highway, rather than a design with wider infrastructure that was presented in June.
That version has been championed by the business group A Better City as a way to preserve some of the slender space along between the Charles and Boston University and minimize the impact on the river. The design would also include a boardwalk over the river to carry the Paul Dudley White bicycle and pedestrian path. It does not suggest an auto lane reduction, as some river-focused advocates have pushed.
In the recent filing, however, the state’s vision of the all-at-grade option calls for four-foot shoulders, which officials said help with clearing snow and draining storm water, and 11-foot lanes on Soldiers Field Road, eating up some of the space Osgood’s suggestion might have saved.
It may not amount to a complete dismissal of the idea. Rick Dimino, A Better City’s president and a former Boston transportation commissioner, said he has been told the narrower design could still be considered going forward. But not including it in the filing puts the concept at a disadvantage, he said.
This isn’t the first sign of conflict between the state and the city on this project. In June, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed a letter expressing concern about building a new turnpike viaduct, just days before Pollack announced the state would consider that option.
Pollack and other Baker administration officials have since indicated that version could be a likely choice because it would not interfere with the river. The project’s political dimensions extend in other directions, too; Senate President Karen Spilka, who represents MetroWest commuters who drive or take transit through the stretch, has suggested the highway viaduct may be the simplest option, although she has not specifically stated a preference.
Osgood declined to comment on the state’s filing, saying in a statement: “We look forward to working with the state and the community on a design that best achieves” the project’s goals. The state Department of Transportation declined to comment on Osgood’s suggestion.