If you ride the T, you know: Ceiling tiles are so waterlogged they collapse. Grime is so sticky it’s impossible to scrub off the floor. Pipes are so damaged that they can’t produce water when a train’s on fire. Escalators fail, sending commuters careening backward.
All of which is to say Dennis Varley, the new MBTA executive in charge of stations, has his work cut out for him. The task is nothing less than fixing up hundreds of subway, bus, and commuter rail stops where conditions range from not great to something-just-fell-on-me-as-I-was-waiting-for-my-train bad.
“It’s a big challenge,” he said. “It’d be nice to leave it better than when I found it.”
On Wednesday, just over one week into the job, Varley took in the particularly grim surroundings of JFK/UMass Station on the Red Line, around where in 2021 a set of blocked-off stairs were so decayed that a man fell through them to his death. The stairs have since been removed.
JFK/UMass didn’t always look like this. In 1988, the MBTA celebrated the grand opening of the newly renovated and expanded station three months ahead of schedule. It had gone from “dingy” to “attractive,” and even “pleasing” and “well-lighted,” according to Globe coverage.
“No longer will confused tourists be welcomed to the Kennedy Library by a dingy station and be forced to hike to the bus stop through a passageway more appropriate to the Bastille than to Boston,” the Globe said.
Fast forward 35 years and the station looks straight-up haggard.
The tile floor of the subway entrance and lobby has dozens of missing pieces filled in with rough, discolored concrete. Divots, some deep enough to be tripping hazards, mark the train platform floor and bases of columns. Above, paint peels off rusted braces connected to the ceiling.
The T can do better, Varley said.
“When you come down and see peeling paint, it gives the impression that the system is not well maintained,” he said. “It’s not what the people deserve.”
After more than three decades of New England winters, a station in this condition should be slated for a full overhaul, Varley said (”water and salt are really our biggest enemies”). But that’s not in the cards for JFK/UMass — at least not yet. Instead, the plan is to repair or upgrade the most drab elements when the T closes part of the Red Line for track repairs for16 days in October.
“Right now, it’s to bridge that gap,” he said.
Crews will cover the patched lobby floor with a slip-resistant material — a pilot to see if this cheaper, quicker alternative to replacing the actual floor can work in a subway station. They’ll carve out the divots from the platform and refill them to form a smooth, non-hazardous surface, replace burned-out lights with new LED bulbs, sand down and reseal the benches, and chip off all of the cracked paint and repaint, among other improvements, he said.
Savin Hill Station will also be getting a facelift, Varley said, including a set of temporary stairs until its new ones arrive.
When riders return to the stations on Oct. 30 — part of JFK/UMass will be closed for the work, but riders will still be able to access the Braintree branch and northbound trains — Varley expects they’ll see “a noticeable difference.”
“I’d like them to come in here and say, ‘Wow, they really did something,’ ” he said. “I would not be happy if people came down and said . . . it looks the same.”
Varley, who will make $265,000 a year, can’t say which T station is in the worst shape, and he swears he’s seen worse elsewhere.
He came from Long Island Rail Road, where he held roles like deputy chief engineer, assistant chief engineer-structures, and assistant chief facilities operations officer. And general manager Phillip Eng, who took over in April, brought him on after a recent series of safety incidents at T stations.
In March, a ceiling panel at Harvard Station had become so sodden that it fell suddenly, nearly hitting a passenger on the platform. The T hired an outside consultant to inspect the ceiling.
Exactly two months later, also at Harvard, a strap holding a utility box in place had become so rusted that it gave way, dropping and injuring a commuter standing below.
In June, a section of ceiling at Downtown Crossing station fell, narrowly missing a rider waiting for a train. And in July, the bottom of a train caught fire at Charles/MGH. But when firefighters arrived, they found the station’s fire suppression piping system, called a standpipe, was broken, forcing them to lug water up to the elevated tracks. The T said the piping system passed a pressure test in 2019, but couldn’t say for sure when it was last inspected.
In a perfect world, the MBTA would have an asset management system that could predict when every piece of its infrastructure, down to the screws, would need fixing before something breaks down. In the real world, the T is still working on creating a digital repository of its physical assets, a process Varley said can take years. For now, he’s going to start with a station assessment and inspection schedule to figure out what urgent upgrades are needed and hopefully fix things before they fall, crack, or become irredeemable.
“As long as you keep up with that inspection, you’ll maybe get 90 percent,” he said. “You’re not gonna eliminate every surprise.”
Fixing all the dozens of T stations will require spending a lot more on upgrades than the T has in the past. Asked if he thought the T has the political support to get more funding for these repairs, Varley said to ask Eng — who said he’s going to put the limited dollars the agency has to the best use.
“As we start to see the environment improve, I believe we will start to see ridership return, I think we will rebuild public confidence,” Eng said. “I’m not going to ask them for the dollars we need without showing them that we can demonstrate how to deliver properly.”
For his part, if Varley is overwhelmed by the state of things, he doesn’t show it. What’s most stressful is still living out of boxes at his new Cambridge apartment. At Eng’s urging, Varley ended his job at LIRR on Friday, Aug. 25, and began his job overseeing the T’s benighted stations on the following Monday.
It’s too soon to say whether he really could have used a vacation before starting.