Standing in an MBTA railyard, in sweltering August heat, Governor Charlie Baker played it cool. During a Wednesday press conference, he described the “unprecedented” action of shutting down the entire Orange Line for 30 days in routine terms — just another step taken by the T to “accelerate” investment in “core infrastructure,” he said.
But make no mistake. This shutdown is a drastic measure taken during a summer of horrible news about the T, from runaway trains to an Orange Line car that burst into flames. In June, the Federal Transit Administration, which is conducting an overall audit of the system, issued four directives to correct serious safety issues; a final report is due later this month. With public confidence wilting, Baker and his transportation team had to do something. They chose a total service shutdown. Now they have to deliver on it.
With the shutdown, which is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. on Aug. 19, T general manager Steve Poftak, said the transit authority would be able to do five years of infrastructure repair work in 30 days, and when service returns, there will be “a fleet of primarily new Orange Line cars.” That’s a big promise. Given union constraints, among other challenges, can the T really deliver on that repair timeline? And, given past delivery problems, will a new fleet really be ready to roll shortly after 5 a.m. on Sept. 19? As of last month, the Globe reported the T had received 78 of 152 new Orange Line cars under order.
This shutdown also comes at a bad time, with colleges getting set to re-open and with more employees starting to return to the office after more than two years of COVID-related working from home. The T is promising free shuttle bus service during the shutdown and urging Orange Line riders to use the commuter rail or to work from home if possible. The closure is a big inconvenience, but one that hopefully will produce a better T.
If the T delivers any of what it promises regarding repairs and a new fleet, it will be an improvement. But even that doesn’t address the larger issue for the system: Will a better managed, more consumer-centered transit agency emerge from the ashes of the burning Orange Line train? Or will it be more of the same disconnect between management and ridership? As one woman who feared for her life on the burning Orange Line train wrote in the Globe: “I don’t believe that we, the people who depend on the MBTA, are being heard or valued.”
At the Wednesday press conference, Poftak said, “We have taken the time to listen to riders ... we’ve heard them loud and clear that they want bold action to improve the MBTA at the pace they deserve.”
If so, that’s good news. But the T has a long way to go to prove it true. Given that Baker is in the final months of his second term and isn’t running for re-election, that job will fall to his successor.
What the T needs above all is a governor who believes in public transit and understands its importance to the economic health and social life of a city. Early in his first term, after the T was paralyzed under piles of snow, Baker took on the cause of trying to fix its myriad problems. He committed $8 billion to a five-year capital investment plan, but federal officials say some of that money came at the expense of the system’s operating budget. He also downplayed the problems. Up until this week’s announcement of the Orange Line shutdown, he was still touting the “600,000 trips every day that for the most part work out the way they’re supposed to.” While that may be true, it did not make the people on that burning train feel any better.
The final report from the FTA will give a roadmap for addressing the safety crises faced by the T. But they are just symptoms of a greater sickness. As state Representative William Straus, a Democrat from Mattapoisett and the House co-chair of the joint legislative Committee on Transportation, said at last month’s hearing on the T: “Something deeper has been occurring and we have to find that out, so that from an operation standpoint, from a legislative response standpoint, we don’t go from crisis to crisis to crisis.”
Massachusetts needs to find out what the deeper problem is. Then, it’s up to the next governor to figure out how to fix it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.