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MBTA boss explains to business leaders why 30-day shutdown of Orange Line is necessary

General manager Steve Poftak points to FTA oversight, potential shuttle bus storage.

The Assembly Orange Line MBTA station.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

With the MBTA’s Orange Line on the brink of a 30-day closure starting Friday night, business leaders have been wondering why such an unprecedented step is necessary instead of doing repairs through nighttime and weekend route diversions.

On Thursday morning, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak found himself on the hot seat, answering that question during a virtual meeting of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

The primary factor, as Poftak explained it, is the Federal Transit Administration’s involvement. The FTA, spurred by a number of incidents on the T, is conducting a safety audit of the system’s operations. The impending Orange Line work was already mapped out in the T’s capital plan. But Poftak said it was clear that the FTA wanted the work to be done more quickly than the T management envisioned. Working around the clock on projects such as new signals at the Oak Grove and Malden Center stations and replacement of crossover tracks throughout the line is far more efficient than setting up and breaking down a construction site every day to make way for commuters.

“We originally planned to lose the northern end of the line for roughly the month of August [and] we had a number of other weekend diversions planned in the fall and spring,” Poftak said.


But that timeline for making these safety upgrades apparently wasn’t speedy enough for the FTA.

“The clear directive [was] that we need to give our crews more access to that track,” Poftak said. “They want to make sure our teams have access so we can make the repairs in a more expeditious manner.”

Availability of replacement shuttle buses was also a factor. The T has contracted with Yankee Line to provide up to 200 buses, for the northern end of the line, between Oak Grove and Government Center, and the southern end, between Forest Hills and Copley Square. Commuters who need to travel through the downtown between Government Center and Copley are advised to hop on the Green Line, because, as Poftak put it, “running buses through the heart of downtown Boston is extraordinarily challenging.”


Poftak said securing up to 200 buses for a month stretch meant getting “every available bus east of the Mississippi.” Poftak said if the T didn’t round up these buses now, they might not be available at a later date.

“We felt we had to strike while the iron is hot here,” Poftak said.

Poftak declined to say how much the Orange Line work will cost, but said it is largely in line with what’s budgeted in the T’s capital plan. He also declined to say where the buses would be staged, other than saying that the T has secured spaces near both ends of the Orange Line for parking buses at night. He also noted there would be no guarantee that riders would always board new Orange Line trains when service resumes a month from now ― the T is separately in the midst of a years-long process of replacing Orange Line and Red Line cars — and that it could take a couple weeks more before the agency is comfortable with lifting speed restrictions after the reopening.

Another big question business leaders have posed: Couldn’t this have been done earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, when more people were working from home? Poftak noted that the T has scheduled more diversions, particularly on Green Line branches, during the pandemic, and that managers had no idea the health emergency would last as long as it did. “The idea that it would be simple or easy to shut down the T during the pandemic, I think, is a little bit of revisionist history,” he said.


For many in the business community, the Orange Line shutdown represents a major setback on two related fronts: bringing more workers back to the office, and reviving a downtown district battered by a relative dearth of commuters.

“The businesses that are able to afford their employees more work-from-home flexibility, they plan to do it,” chamber CEO Jim Rooney said in an interview. “Up until this announcement, there were some plans to return to greater in-office activity after Labor Day. That might be delayed.”

Rooney, a former MBTA administrator, said the Orange Line shutdown is counterproductive to the chamber’s efforts with Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration on a downtown revival strategy.

“I find myself in the mode [now], saying, ‘Let your people work from home,’” Rooney said. “Hopefully, we can ramp them back up in the middle of September when this is all over.”

The biggest concern in the business community, Rooney said, is how smoothly the alternative modes of transportation for Orange Line riders work during the shutdown — shuttle bus trips, free rides offered on the commuter rail, and city-funded 30-day passes for the Bluebikes bike-share program.


“One of my big takeaways today is the degree to which the T and its management team are going to have to ... make dynamic, real-time decisions based on the conditions of the moment, whether it’s buses that are full and can’t stop [or] traffic situations,” Rooney said. “There’s the plan and then there’s the implementation. This is going to require a great deal of management still on the implementation side.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him @jonchesto.