Turning radiuses, tree branches, parked cars, and construction zones are all obstacles MBTA and city of Boston personnel face as they attempt to do what’s never been done before: move perhaps hundreds of thousands of Orange Line riders on city streets instead of underground for 30 days.
With just one week left before the MBTA’s second-most popular subway line shuts down for long-deferred track repairs, workers are analyzing each stretch of still-in-the-works shuttle bus routes along the Orange Line, all part of the herculean effort to make the unprecedented monthlong subway diversion less chaotic.
Aboard a 45-foot shuttle bus Thursday, Mayor Michelle Wu and Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge joined T Assistant General Manager of Service Development Wes Edwards and others to test out the southern route, which will take riders from Forest Hills to Copley Square, where they will be able to take the Green Line and then connect to the northern shuttle bus route to Oak Grove at Government Center.
T riders normally associate diversions with large crowds, delays, and missed appointments. Through meticulous planning and, in some cases, reshaping the streets entirely, the MBTA and the city are hoping some of the usual headaches can be avoided.
“The biggest thing is making sure we communicate the alternatives to all of the people who are wanting to get to downtown Boston,” said Edwards. “Which I think will then also help those Orange Line riders by reducing the traffic on the streets.”
By making the commuter rail essentially free to board at stations in Zones 1, 1A, and 2 with a T pass or ticket, Edwards said he’s hopeful people will choose trains instead of cars for the duration of the shutdown, from the evening of Aug. 19 to the morning of Sept. 19.
Moving approximately 160 shuttle buses that aim to arrive at stops as quickly as every 45 seconds will require tweaks to city streets in some cases and drastic interventions in others. The planners are considering repainting lane dividers, removing street parking, or creating bus-only lanes to give shuttles more room to maneuver, especially in areas with ongoing construction.
On busier stretches, like Dartmouth Street between Columbus Avenue and Stuart Street, and parts of Washington Street in Jamaica Plain, they’re considering eliminating car traffic entirely.
While trying to make the right turn onto Boylston Street from Dartmouth Street Thursday, the shuttle bus slowed to a crawl to avoid hitting a parked sedan on the corner. T and city planners winced, raised their eyebrows, and jotted down notes on their printed-out engineering plans, spotting a turn that could definitely be improved.
A turn off Columbus Avenue onto Amory Street drew similar reactions when an overgrown tree covered much of the bus’s windshield. More on the to-do lists.
The all-hands-on-deck preparation has hardly left a city department untouched, said Wu, with police, forestry, transportation, and education departments all involved.
Before the T announced the Orange Line shutdown, Wu advocated for bold action as T riders continue to endure safety incidents and reduced subway service due to a dispatcher shortage. The T has traditionally used night and weekend shutdowns to replace and repair tracks. A “ripping the Band-aid off” approach was needed, she said.
Wu said she will consider the shutdown successful if slow zones on the Orange Line are eliminated, more new trains are on the tracks, and trains are running more frequently
“Everyone I’ve talked to from regular commuters to business leaders to neighborhood leaders all say we want more predictability and if the short-term pain makes that possible, everybody has said let’s just get this done,” she said.
During the shutdown, students and educators will return to schools and voters will make their way to the polls for the state’s primary elections. The bad timing is not lost on the city and the T.
“Having this happen right as everyone is making that adjustment is a lot to take in, but I am so inspired by the amount of work and coordination that is going into all levels of government, all agencies coming together to make the most of it,” said Wu. “Every little detail that we’re seeing here has already been thought through.”
Mike Costa, who manages A Yankee Line, the main shuttle bus vendor for the T during the shutdown, said shuttle buses and their drivers are coming from as far as Texas and Florida. Starting Monday, drivers will go through training and complete the routes at least five times before show time on Aug. 19, he said. There will also be 20 wheelchair-accessible vans scattered across the shuttle bus routes to take people directly to the station closest to their destination.
In a statement, T General Manager Steve Poftak said the test runs on the shuttles will allow for course correction before the shutdown begins.
“Make no mistake — this is a monumental undertaking, both underground as we make critical track repairs and above-ground as we continue to finalize plans to get our Orange Line riders where they need to go,” he said. “The MBTA is rising to the task, and looks forward to returning regular train service to riders on September 19th.”
Thursday’s test drive was one of the last steps to finalizing the shuttle bus routes, which don’t currently include stops near Tufts Medical Center or Chinatown stations. Navigating into downtown Boston to reach those stations would slow down the service considerably, Edwards said. The Silver Line bus serves both stations, and Edwards said the T is considering increasing Silver Line service during the shutdown. Boylston Station on the Green Line is one block away from Chinatown Station, he said, and can connect riders to the north and south shuttle bus routes.
Wu said the issue is still being worked out.
“The T needs to provide alternatives to reach Chinatown and Tufts,” said Wu. “I’m not exactly sure what that will look like at this point.”
Earlier this week, the MBTA placed fliers at Orange Line stations indicating the shuttle bus plans before they were finalized. Those fliers were taken down by Wednesday evening. At a T board subcommittee meeting Thursday, MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville said riders can expect an update on the plans as soon as Friday.