In a major investment that would sharply expand subway capacity, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority received approval Monday to replace the rest of its Red Line fleet by the end of 2023, an overhaul that would allow the agency to run trains every three minutes at peak times.
The MBTA’s fiscal control board voted to authorize as much as $277 million to buy 134 Red Line cars from a Chinese company already building a new batch of MBTA subway vehicles. A local subsidiary of the China Railroad Rolling Stock Corp., a state-owned company looking to expand in North America, in late 2014 won a $566 million contract to build 284 Red and Orange line cars.
The substantial change to the contract bypassed standard bidding procedures — a sign that the MBTA sees an urgent need for new cars — but even so, all 134 Red Line cars won’t be in use until 2023. The agency initially wanted to overhaul old cars, but decided that new cars were essential to improving service.
“There is no question that these vehicles right now are due for some form of a major overhaul or replacements,” said Jeffrey D. Gonneville, chief operating officer of the MBTA.
The multimillion dollar contract amendment was welcomed by transit specialists, many of whom have watched warily as the MBTA has aggressively cut costs under Governor Charlie Baker’s administration.
“Tremendous growth is projected along the Red Line over the next 10 years,” said Eric Bourassa, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency. “New Red Line cars will be needed to accommodate that growth and prevent overcrowding and delays.”
The expanded fleet would allow the Red Line to carry 10,000 more riders an hour by running trains every three minutes, instead of the current standard of every 4½ to 5 minutes, Gonneville said.
The latest contract calls for 120 new cars, with an option to extend the order for 14 more.
Under the initial contract, new Orange Line cars would begin arriving in 2018, with an initial batch of new Red Line cars coming the following year.
The cars will be the first subway vehicles the Chinese company has built for a US entity.
Under federal law, the MBTA is typically required to solicit bids on such a substantial order, as a safeguard against excessive contracts. But MBTA officials argued that they are justified in buying from the Chinese company to acquire “goods that are available from only one source,” saying that only the company could make the same standardized vehicles.
Officials said they have documented that buying exclusively from the company will standardize the fleets, allowing for easier maintenance.
The new cars will cost as much as $310,000 less than repairing some of the decades-old Red Line models, they added.
Apparently, the MBTA had been negotiating for months with China Railroad Rolling Stock and had briefed board members in closed sessions, using a provision in the open-meeting law that allows private meetings about litigation, said Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary.
This fall, even as officials spoke publicly about buying new Red Line cars, they refused to say they would be purchased from the Chinese company.
Specifics of the agreement were revealed publicly for the first time Monday. Despite the magnitude of the deal, board members were asked to approve it the same day. All of the board members who were present — chairman Joseph Aiello, as well as Brian Lang and Steven Poftak — voted for the agreement.
Pollack said officials asked the board to approve the deal quickly because a delay could allow China Railroad Rolling Stock to increase its prices. They also worried the company would take on another project once it completes its contract for the first batch of cars for the Orange Line and Red Line.
“We want them to do ours, and we don’t want them to do someone else’s,” Pollack said.
Officials from the company, a product of the recent merger of two major Chinese rolling stock companies, aggressively courted the MBTA for the contract. As part of the deal, the company announced plans to build a factory in East Springfield to assemble the cars.
The new contract will put added pressure on the company, the world’s largest rolling stock outfit. Boston marks its first foray into the heavily regulated US market.
A subsidiary of the company had landed a major deal with the Chicago Transit Authority this year, more than a year after they agreed to make the MBTA’s vehicles, according to media reports. In that deal, they also promised to build a new factory.
At Monday’s meeting, several supporters pushed the board to approve the deal.
“It makes a ton of sense,” said state Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Democrat who represents Watertown and Belmont. It would help Red Line riders, who have long been suffering under current service levels, he said.