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Confusion, frustration reign as Boston region braces for 30-day Orange Line shutdown

A T contractor employee removed incorrect signs at the North Station Orange Line entrance.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Incorrect signs at subway stations, last-minute changes to shuttle bus routes, and concerns about shortcomings in service for Chinatown residents set an unsettling tone on the last full day of preparations for the unprecedented shutdown of the Orange Line, which begins Friday evening.

Or, as Mayor Michelle Wu warned Thursday, “It will be impossible to avoid chaos altogether.”

After a public meeting Wednesday meant to help residents of Chinatown navigate the disruption, many said they were left with more questions than answers about how to get to work, school, and doctor’s appointments.

“I learned there will be people at the stops to help, but they won’t speak my language,” Yia Kuong Lo, 72, who travels from Chinatown to Somerville for physical therapy three times per week, said through an interpreter.


Just over two weeks ago, the MBTA announced it would be shutting down the full length of the Orange Line, from Malden to Jamaica Plain, for 30 days, something it has never done before. The drastic step will allow the transit agency to make much-needed upgrades to its tracks and improve service, officials said.

The MBTA is encouraging Orange Line riders to take the commuter rail, which will be essentially free for those who show a Charlie Card or CharlieTicket to conductors at stations in zones 1A, 1, and 2. Commuter rail trains will stop at Forest Hills, Ruggles, Back Bay, North Station, Malden Center, and Oak Grove stations.

Plans released last week show the T will provide free shuttle bus service north of Boston on a route from Oak Grove to Government Center stations and to the south on a route from Forest Hills to Copley stations. Riders can connect to the Green Line at Government Center and Copley stations to switch between routes. The initial plans did not include shuttle bus stops in Chinatown.


After pushback from Wu and others representing the Chinatown community, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Thursday the T will add additional shuttle bus service between Government Center and the Chinatown and Tufts Medical Center T stops every 30 minutes from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. The T will also add a stop on the outbound Silver Line 4 bus route in Chinatown.

Still, people who live and work there are concerned about navigating the diversion.

Jie Zhen Li and her husband haven’t had a good night’s sleep since they learned about the shutdown last week. Li, 52, commutes from Somerville every day except Sunday to her job in Chinatown as a home health aide for the elderly. Her husband makes the same commute into Chinatown, and then takes a bus provided by the restaurant where he works to Marlborough.

Li said her husband recently got turned around on the T — which does not have Chinese translations in stations — while trying to return from work and didn’t arrive home until 1 a.m., three hours after she was expecting him.

“Because we don’t know English, we are afraid to go anywhere,” she said through an interpreter. “The restaurant vans don’t wait. I’m very worried.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Li pleaded with T and city officials for signs written in Chinese and Chinese-speaking staff at each stop along the Orange Line to help with navigation, but was told that that won’t likely be possible.


At a news conference Thursday, Wu urged employers not to penalize workers who arrive late during the Orange Line shutdown. City authorities also detailed a multitude of road infrastructure and traffic changes to accommodate shuttle buses temporarily replacing the MBTA line.

“This will impact every single commuter,” Wu said. “Your commute will be affected in some way even if not directly on the Orange Line.”

Wu said the city of Boston is continuing to allow hybrid work at managers’ discretion, and students in the city’s public schools who are late for class will not be penalized.

To alleviate congestion and help as many as 200 shuttle buses move as quickly as possible, the city has installed dedicated bus lanes and restricted parking in some areas, and will prohibit car traffic entirely on some stretches, including Dartmouth Street between St. James Avenue and Boylston Street, State Street between Congress and Washington streets, and Washington Street northbound between Williams Street and the Arborway.

The road infrastructure changes will affect traffic, said Boston Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge. He discouraged people who typically take public transit from driving, noting that one full Orange Line train is equal to a 4-mile line of traffic.

The city is encouraging people to try biking and is making free, 30-day Bluebikes passes available starting Friday on the Bluebikes app and website.

In another sign of coordination issues at the state level, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation announced midday Wednesday it would “implement moving closures” along the popular Southwest Corridor bike path, which runs parallel to much of the Orange Line south of downtown Boston, starting Friday and continuing through Sept. 2. But, in the face of online outrage and calls from Boston officials, the state reversed course hours later, saying the repairs would be completed by Monday.


That wasn’t the only confusion. A few signs outside of some T stations this week appeared to say that the Orange Line is shutting down starting on Aug. 22. The actual shutdown begins Friday, Aug. 19.

Several transit riders pointed out the problem with the signs after spotting the errors outside of Haymarket and North Station on Thursday.

The MBTA responded shortly after riders flagged the issue and said the team responsible for handling and posting the signs in the affected areas would be addressing the matter.

In an e-mail to the Globe, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the transit agency was aware of the problem with the messaging. “The MBTA apologizes for the error. The signs are being replaced with the correct date,” he said.

When asked Thursday about the confusing signs, Wu said, “This is why we need all of your help in getting the word out,” referring to a scrum of reporters around her.

“This is quite confusing when residents still see this, but we hope that our efforts to spread the word,” along with partnering organizations, will help “fill some of those gaps,” she said.


Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.