MBTA officials announced a grim series of setbacks on projects that will impact hundreds of thousands of transit riders and the state’s climate goals Tuesday, including more delays on new Red and Orange line cars as well as the infrastructure for electric buses.
At the same time, General Manager Phillip Eng told oversight board members that the well-publicized track problems on the Green Line Extension could be resolved as soon as mid-November.
The companies that built the Green Line Extension — on the hook for its major fixes — are proposing shutting down service on both the Union Square and Medford branches from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. for around 10 to 14 nights starting next Wednesday to complete the work of repositioning the rails to bring the gauge, or distance between the rails, back in line with the construction specifications, Eng said. The MBTA is still reviewing their proposal, and at the board meeting, Eng did not specify when the agency expects to make a decision.
“This is not going to be something that continues on for months and months or even longer,” Eng said. “It is something that can be addressed in a matter of weeks and right now.”
Last week, Eng announced that most of the Green Line Extension — the first addition to a subway line in Greater Boston since 1987 — will have to be adjusted less than a year after it fully opened.
Most of the new tracks on the Medford and Union Square branches were built with the rails too close together, Eng said last week, requiring repairs to avoid more walking-pace slow zones in the future like the ones seen in June and last month. Project managers at the MBTA knew about the widespread problem for years, Eng said, but he only found out last month, five months after he began leading the beleaguered agency.
The companies that built the Green Line Extension will be responsible for repositioning the rails throughout around 80 percent of the Medford branch and 50 percent of the Union Square branch, Eng said.
Following the announcement about widespread defects last week, Green Line riders endured service disruptions on Friday and Saturday due to electrical problems, the T said. The T shut down the entire Green Line Extension for several hours during the evening rush on Friday when a train’s pantograph, the part on the roof that connects to the overhead electrical wires, failed.
Then, on Saturday, a similar problem with the electrical system caused the T to shut down Green Line service for nearly 6 1/2 hours between Kenmore and Park Street stations, the Boston core of the line.
Eng said the MBTA continues to investigate both incidents.
As Eng briefed the board Tuesday about the setbacks on the Green Line on Friday and Saturday, there was yet another Green Line problem. The MBTA replaced trolley service with shuttle buses between Kenmore and Copley stations because of a power problem, Lisa Battiston, a spokesperson for the MBTA, said in an email.
The problem was detected just before 10 a.m. and affected all four branches of the Green Line. Battiston said the problem doesn’t appear to be connected to the overhead power issues that impacted portions of the Green Line on Friday and Saturday.
The MBTA Power Department addressed the issue and the agency announced on social media at 12:01 p.m. that trolley service was resuming.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, MBTA board members also got updates on several other highly anticipated and long-delayed projects. Those setbacks will impact riders and hurt climate efforts because progress on fighting climate change is partly premised on a reliable, frequent, and electric transportation system that gets people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.
The plan the T launched last year to redesign the bus map to increase service by 25 percent over the next five years won’t start to be implemented until January 2025, T staff members told the board Tuesday. It was originally supposed to be launched this year.
A shortage of bus drivers is preventing service improvements, the T has said.
On Tuesday, Eng said hiring and retention progress is being made thanks to a new labor contract that includes a $30 per hour starting wage for drivers and retention bonuses. The T saw a spike in applications in August and September, Eng said, and there have only been 10 worker “separations” so far this month compared with 91 separations last October.
In another setback, there are more delays to the agency’s plans to electrify its bus fleet.
Earlier this year, the T said its first garage set to be retrofitted with enough chargers for 35 battery electric buses, in North Cambridge, would be delayed and cost $43 million, up from the previous budget of $25 million, because of design modifications for fire mitigation and “global supply chain issues.” Board members approved a $27 million contract Tuesday that will fund part of the garage costs with an expected opening date of November 2025, far later than the previously projected opening in 2023.
The second garage, located in Quincy, was already a year behind schedule as of February. The T said then that the 120-bus facility would be completed in December 2025. As of April, it was not slated to open until the summer of 2026, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said, because of “global supply chain issues.” Board members approved a $299 million construction contract for the facility Tuesday.
Now, the Quincy facility is projected to open in March 2027, Pesaturo said. The third and largest garage, for 200 buses, on the Arborway in Jamaica Plain, is now projected to open in 2029, Pesaturo said, two years behind schedule.
Also still way behind schedule is the delivery of the long-awaited new Red and Orange line cars from CRRC, the Chinese firm building the rail cars at a factory in Springfield.
Eng said the T has received just 94 of the 152 Orange Line cars it ordered in 2014 and only 14 of the 252 Red Line cars it ordered in 2014 and 2017. This is an increase of only 16 Orange Line cars and two Red Line cars since January, according to the T.
The original contract called for CRRC to deliver eight new cars to the T per month. In February, the T said it was working with CRRC to try to get four new cars delivered per month. All new Orange Line cars were originally supposed to be delivered by January 2022 and all new Red Line cars by September 2023, according to the T. Both those dates are now in the past.
The MBTA system saw around 385,000 weekday subway trips and 312,000 bus trips last month, just around 50 percent and 76 percent, respectively, of the weekday trips taken on those modes in September 2019.
CRRC may be on the hook for delay fees, Eng said.
“There are liquidated damages that are being accrued as a result of the schedule,” Eng said. “The importance of these cars to our ability to provide service are vital . . . Right now my focus is to actually get these cars continuing to come to us, to maintain the quality that we’ve been seeing, but also find a way to increase production.”