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Starts & Stops

Curious about what makes the T tick? Take a tour

Richard A. Davey, general manager of the MBTA.
Richard A. Davey, general manager of the MBTA. Globe Staff

My parents and two or three other readers may recall that I began covering transportation the same week in March 2010 that Richard A. Davey became general manager of the MBTA. On my first assignment on the beat, I covered a meeting between Davey and a panel of transit riders on the eve of his confirmation.

One rider asked Davey why Boston lacked a transit museum to rival New York’s. If he didn’t quite answer that one, Davey did say he wanted to expose more of the T’s inner workings to the public and do a better job telling its story and celebrating its history. He wondered aloud about opening the dusty trolley cars at Boylston Street Station as a walk-through exhibit and inviting the public to tour maintenance facilities.

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Those cars at Boylston are still locked behind a cage, but the all-access tours are about to begin. The curious can now sign up online to visit the T’s Operations Control Center, Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility, and Subway Main Repair Facility.

The OCC, in Boston’s Financial District, is the dispatching hub of the subway and trolley network, where employees monitor more than 2,600 trips a day over the 63-mile rapid transit system beneath a two-story bank of blinking maps and larger-than-life video screens, fed by more than 900 closed-circuit cameras in station lobbies, platforms, and tunnels. The T is offering tours from 10 to 11 a.m. Nov. 30 and again Dec. 15.

The Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility, also known as the Boston Engine Terminal, is the massive blue and purple building visible from Interstate 93 in East Somerville. At 370,000 square feet, it houses nearly nine acres under one roof, serving as the primary facility for the electrical, plumbing, and mechanical needs of the T’s 80 diesel locomotives and 410 commuter rail coaches. Those tours will also be held Nov. 30 and Dec. 15, from 10:30 to noon.

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The subway repair facility in Everett is the primary service center for the T’s heavy and light rail lines, staffed with blacksmiths, electricians, and other skilled hands responsible for keeping the aging fleet running. With one-third of the Red Line cars dating to the late 1960s and all Orange Line cars at least 30 years old, replacement parts often must be fabricated from scratch. The tour includes the machine shop, motor room, blacksmith area, truck and brake shop, sheet-metal shop, and other areas. It will be held Dec. 15 from 9:45 to 11 a.m.

All tours are limited to 10 people. You can sign up at mbta.com or by e-mailing Topendoors@mbta.com.

“It’s taking transparency to the next level,’’ said Davey, now the state’s secretary of transportation. “[We want] to show off frankly the good work that our employees are doing and how complicated a system it is.’’

The tours follow the GM for a Day contest that drew 174 mini-essay entries last February. After Somerville grad student Timothy Fleck spent the day shadowing Davey, the T last spring began inviting the most enthusiastic runners-up to come to the OCC for tours and pizza-lunch roundtables with the GM - first Davey and now the acting general manager, Jonathan R. Davis.

The facility tours are a pilot program, but the T expects to repeat them quarterly in 2012, spokeswoman Lydia Rivera said.

Now about those cars at Boylston . . .

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Casey Overpass overhaul options to be discussed

The Casey Overpass, an eyesore even by 1950s elevated highway standards, is the dilapidated and partially closed span that carries the Arborway, also known as Route 203, between the Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park over Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills section.

It is too deteriorated to be repaired, and the state Department of Transportation has spent most of the past year working with a neighborhood advisory group to refine two alternatives.

One would rebuild an overpass. The other would replace it with a ground-level network of improved streets, intersections, and well-timed traffic lights.

The state will try to gauge public opinion over the two options at a meeting tomorrow night at the State Laboratory, 305 South St., Jamaica Plain. The meeting is slated for 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., with an open house at 5:30 for those who want to get a head start.

Traffic engineers say both options could capably handle the reduced vehicle counts on Casey, which was conceived as an important connection between the South Shore and the western suburbs before the interstate highways were built.

The ground-level option would save taxpayers millions in construction and maintenance, allow for protected bicycle and pedestrian paths, and provide better recreational connections with the Emerald Necklace. But as is often the case - see: Rutherford Avenue, Charlestown - many residents are skeptical of claims that removing the overpass would not prove ruinous to traffic, creating gridlock for the surrounding neighborhoods.

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“People tend to think about roadways a lot like pipes,’’ said Charlie Denison, advocacy director and board member for the regional LivableStreets Alliance, which promotes more room for walking, biking, and transit on what it considers overbuilt urban streets. “If you have a big pipe automatically that means you can handle more traffic than if you have a smaller pipe. But the reality is more nuanced than that.’’

Case in point, Denison says: Nonantum Road along the Charles River in Newton, where the state recently halved the number of vehicle lanes - but added left-turn pockets - to widen a recreation path and maintain traffic flow while trying to reduce rollover and rear-end accidents.

Questions from a Route 3 newbie

Reader Dight (not to be confused with Dwight) Crain of Hingham, a recent transplant to the South Shore, wrote in with two questions that have intrigued him driving between his new home and Boston:

“On Route 3, North & South, between the end of the Expressway and Route 18 exit, there are many places where the road has pockets of missing hot top, where the reflectors were on the white lines. When are these pockets of missing hot top going to be replaced?

“As one leaves the Expressway and starts down Route 3, just before the Union Street exit, behind Best Buy, in the rail yard and T yard, there are always a number of black railroad tank cars stored there. What do these tank cars contain?’’

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Let’s tackle the second one first. According to Michael Verseckes of the Department of Transportation, the black tank cars are owned by Twin Rivers Technologies, a chemical producer with a facility on the Quincy side of the Fore River channel. The cars contain nontoxic oleochemicals derived from plant and animal fats that will eventually end up in laundry detergent, shampoo, and other goods.

The yard in question behind the Braintree Best Buy is actually owned by the freight rail company CSX, and the cars typically sit there for 12 to 48 hours before being brought to Twin Rivers so the material can be processed, Verseckes said.

As for the other question, I sent it over to MassDOT too late in the day on Friday to get an answer. Stay tuned next week.


Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.