The Green Line extension is riddled with so many defects — far more than previously disclosed — that workers will now have to reposition the rails along much of the 4.7-mile stretch, MBTA general manager Phillip Eng announced Thursday, marking the most stunning setback yet for the multibillion-dollar project that fully opened less than one year ago.
The fundamental problem with the $2.3 billion expansion, which stretches to Medford on one branch and to Union Square in Somerville on the other, is the track itself, Eng said in an interview. Before the project opened, when the ribbons were cut, and ever since, it’s been too narrow, a grave error that Eng said was known within the agency, but neither fixed nor shared with him until last month.
“I did not know the extent of it until recently, after having a chance to review the project documents,” Eng said. “I wish I had known earlier. Yes. Because then I think we would have tackled this.”
The scope of the problem is vast, Eng acknowledged.
The ties, the wood supports that lay perpendicular to the rails, each have two metal plates that hold the rails in place and determine the gauge — or width — between the rails. But the T has found the rails in many areas are too close together, Eng said.
“The problem is tied to the fabrication of the ties and the plates,” he said.
Now, Eng said, the T is working with the construction companies that built the extension to reposition plates on the ties throughout the project. That process involves unscrewing bolts from tie plates, filling the holes with epoxy or wooden dowels, and then drilling new holes and securing the plates at the correct gauge. Eng did not say how long the work will take to complete, but indicated it could take weeks.
“It’s the whole length of the project that I believe needs to be regauged to be back within the contract requirement,” he said. Eng emphasized, however, the Green Line extension is currently safe for riders.
T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said 50 percent of the Union Square branch track and 80 percent of the Medford branch track will have to be regauged.
“We’re going to hold them accountable to the contract requirements,” Eng said of the construction companies.
A joint venture of several construction companies called GLX Constructors made up of Fluor Corp., Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc., Herzog Contracting Group, and the Middlesex Corp. built the Green Line extension. The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Stella-Jones Corp., a North American wood manufacturer, made the ties for the extension, according to the T. A spokesperson for Stella-Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Eng said the plates were “pre-installed.” It is not clear who made them.
In a statement, Governor Maura Healey, who took office in January and later appointed Eng to run the T, pointed the finger at unnamed officials. She said “senior MBTA officials under the previous administration knew about issues with the Green Line extension tracks years ago and did not disclose them to our administration or address them on their watch.”
Healey lauded Eng for uncovering what happened and “taking swift action to hold people accountable and demand a work plan from the contractor to fix the narrow gauges on their own dime.”
The extension opened last year with the defective tracks in place even though some at the T knew as early as April 2021 that the plates made the track gauge too narrow and didn’t meet construction requirements, Eng said. He cited an April 2021 inspection report from Terracon, the firm hired by the project’s construction companies to do quality control.
“Widened gauge sections of yard track found to be pre-plated too narrow,” the report, obtained by the Globe, said. “Upon inspection it was found that many of the curves . . . built were found to be too narrow and did not have the design gauge. . . . "
Eng said he had “no indication” there was a rush to open the project on behalf of former governor Charlie Baker. But, he said, the T should have been “more proactive” after that warning.
“We should have paused, we should have questioned and reviewed,” Eng said. “And we should have determined if we had a larger-scale issue.”
Instead, construction carried on and the project opened last year with thousands of narrow-gauge areas outside construction specifications, internal emails obtained by the Globe show. Any deviation from the contract specifications requires the builder to get an exemption, Eng said, and he isn’t aware of any.
Internal T emails obtained by the Globe show the members of the T’s track department implored Green Line extension manager John Dalton to fix not only the most extreme narrow-gauge areas where speed restrictions would be needed, but also thousands of others that were still too narrow, covering 24,000 feet of track where the gauge was outside construction specifications in the days leading up to the Medford branch opening.
“This is outside reasonable construction tolerances and will need to be corrected,” Arzu Kurkoglu Hemann, then deputy director of the Maintenance of Way department, wrote to Dalton.
But those defects never were corrected, Eng said.
When local, state, and federal officials gathered to cut the ribbon on the Medford/Tufts branch on Dec. 12, 2022, the tracks were safe, Eng said, because workers had scrambled in the final days to fix the most serious problems.
But many narrow-gauge defects remained, including ones close to the limit that would later show up in geometry scans as requiring speed restrictions, Eng said. Such scans measure tracks for defects that must then be confirmed by hands-on measurements.
The extent of the track problems on the extension, the first new stretch of subway to open in Greater Boston since 1987, became public last month when the T forced trains to travel at just 3 miles per hour along much of the new tracks, prompting questions about how the infrastructure had failed so dramatically after less than a year in operation.
The T said it fixed all of those areas last week and eliminated the speed restrictions.
Jim Conroy, a spokesperson for Baker, said in a statement that the governor’s office “was never informed of the gauging issues with GLX and Governor Baker hopes that MBTA and the contractors involved will address these issues as soon as possible.”
Conroy added that the extension project was “on track to never get built when the Baker-Polito administration first took office and while these setbacks are massively inconvenient for riders, the project itself will deliver enormous benefits for the greater Boston area for decades to come.”
Eng also said he’s tapped a new leader to see the project through completion: Maureen McDonough, the chief of capital program support.
Pesaturo said two people with senior roles on the Green Line extension project are no longer employed by the T as of Thursday.
The state first promised to build the extension in 1990 as part of an agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation to mitigate the environmental impacts of the Big Dig. The group sued the state in 2005, accusing it of stalling the project, and settled in 2007 when the government agreed to complete it by 2014.
The years dragged on with little progress until early 2015, when the state won a $1 billion federal grant for the extension. But later that year, Massachusetts halted the project and considered scrapping it entirely after the total cost ballooned to $3 billion.
Dalton, brought on by the MBTA under Baker in 2016, is largely credited with bringing the project back from the budget brink and getting it finished. Dalton, who left the T earlier this year, and former general manager Steve Poftak, who served from 2019 through early January of this year, did not respond to requests for comment.
Like all major construction projects, the extension utilized a web of quality control inspectors meant to catch mistakes during construction.
GLX Constructors relied on a Kansas-based consulting engineering firm called Terracon to oversee quality control on the project, often surveying ties for defects. The LiRo Group provided quality assurance for the project, according to its website.
It is unclear how, despite those safeguards, problems with the track were allowed to persist. A spokesperson for Terracon referred questions to GLX Constructors. LiRo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ultimately, the T was and is the owner and overseer of the project.
The T certified the project as safe and the state safety oversight agency, the Department of Public Utilities, reviewed the certification and agreed, according to DPU spokesperson Maria Hardiman. The US Federal Transit Administration certified the T and DPU had followed proper safety certification procedures, a spokesperson for the agency said previously.
“Based on the certification documentation reviewed, the narrow gauge was not flagged by the MBTA as a track issue during the certification process,” Hardiman said.
A spokesperson for the FTA did not respond to a request for comment. Hardiman said that the DPU has increased its staff and bolstered its oversight of the T under Healey.
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