The MBTA’s top infrastructure official told board members Thursday that the Green Line extension “didn’t meet construction standard,” seeming to offer an explanation for why narrowing tracks are forcing trains to creep at a walking pace on the newest stretch of subway to open in the Boston area since 1987.
“We’re going to dig in,” said chief of infrastructure Doug Connett. “But we know we have a problem.”
Pointing the finger at construction issues would be at once logical — experts said narrowing of properly installed year-old track is unheard of — and jaw-dropping given the Green Line extension’s $2.3 billion price tag, decades-long runway between idea and reality, and apparent safety signoff from state and federal oversight agencies before the project opened.
General manager Phillip Eng said after the board meeting that the T is still trying to figure out how the new tracks have become so defective less than a year after the full project opened to celebration, but stopped short of saying the companies that built the extension did something wrong.
“When you have something like this on new facility, one would look at construction — we need to look at it,” Eng said. “And that’s where we’re at right now. . . . How did this happen? We need to find out.”
Eng didn’t say whether he’s reached out to the construction companies about how the Green Line extension tracks have failed so fast. The project was built by GLX Constructors, a joint venture of Fluor Corp., a Fortune 500 company based in Irving, Texas; Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc., of Atlanta; Herzog Contracting Group, of St. Joseph, Mo.; and the Middlesex Corp. of Littleton. The companies didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“We’ve been having discussions internally to pull data together,” Eng said. “I have not had a deep dive into everything yet, because my focus has been to removing those restrictions.”
“I don’t know when we will have an answer but the public is deserving of an answer, so we’ll share that,” he added.
The Green Line extension branches to Union Square and Medford/Tufts, which opened in March 2022 and last December, respectively, are in such bad condition that the agency is now limiting trains to 3 miles per hour over sections that add up to more than a mile, making rides unbearably slow.
The T said the tracks were built “narrow,” but have narrowed further to an unsafe degree.
Eng said he is aiming to have the necessary work done to remove the restrictions on both branches by the time the Union Square branch reopens on Oct. 13. It is closed for 25 days to accommodate a highway bridge project.
“I ride that Green Line extension every day, as well. I talk to the riders. I fully understand their frustration,” Eng said. “These types of occurrences are unacceptable, and that’s why we’re working very hard in terms of capital delivery and working through these issues earlier.”
Narrowing of the tracks over time is “unusual,” Eng told the board.
“Obviously, as you’re running trains, you would typically expect the gauge to widen and that could be over time, wear on the rail, wear on the ties, and just the use of the track,” he said. Narrowing, he added, “is not typical, but I would not say it’s impossible.”
The agency has not explained why the project was built with narrow tracks or why such serious problems are happening so soon after it opened, or who, exactly, is responsible.
One member of the T’s governing board, Robert Butler, asked Eng what responsibility the construction contractor bears for these issues.
“Right now, the GLX team is responsible for addressing them,” Eng said, referring to the joint venture that build the extension. “I need to find out exactly how this came about. But the GLX team is responsible for addressing them.”
An “awarded contract” to GLX Constructors on the T’s website says the entity “warrants that the work shall be free of defects,” and lists a warranty period of at least two years “after contract substantial completion.”
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for former governor Charlie Baker promoted Baker’s record on transit. Baker was governor during the construction and opening of the Green Line extension.
Former general manager Steve Poftak, who led the agency in the final years of construction and opening, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Danielle Burney, a spokesperson for the MBTA’s state safety oversight agency, the Department of Public Utilities, said the DPU is “conducting a thorough investigation” to determine the cause of the defects.
“The Department recently requested records from the MBTA, which is also conducting its own investigation,” Burney said in an email. “The DPU will review the MBTA’s final report before issuing its findings.”
The project was certified as complying with relevant safety standards before it opened by the MBTA, the DPU, and the Federal Transit Administration, DPU spokesperson Maria Hardiman said Wednesday.
The T is trying to fix its tracks on the Green Line extension and across the subway system while facing new restrictions from the FTA about how it can perform inspections and repairs after six recent near-misses, in which trains came dangerously close to workers.
The agency is also dealing with a severely undertrained and mismanaged track department, recent reports from the agency and commissioned from an outside expert show.
Connett, the new chief of infrastructure, told board members that the maintenance of way division that is in charge of track safety, among other things, currently has 294 employees, 281 of them active, but is budgeted to have 372 workers.
Put another way, the department is very understaffed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, another T rail project decades in the making that was most recently scheduled to open this year is delayed again. The first phase of South Coast Rail that will restore train service between parts of Southeastern Massachusetts and Boston is now expected to start carrying passengers in the summer of 2024, chief operating office Ryan Coholan told board members Thursday.
He did not explain the reason for the most recent delay.
MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston said in an email that the agency needs more time for safety assurances.
“We awarded these contracts during the pandemic, and despite supply chain issues, we have come a long way, however, to meet rigorous safety certifications, testing, and qualifications, we anticipate that the South Coast Rail public revenue service will begin beyond the targeted launch date of late 2023 but instead will commence summer 2024,” she said.