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Walsh steps up criticism of MBTA after latest breakdown

Commuters waited for shuttle buses outside of Maverick station.
Commuters waited for shuttle buses outside of Maverick station. (dink_floyd/Twitter)

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh stepped up his criticism of the MBTA Wednesday, calling on the agency to boost service on the same day the frailties of the system were again vividly exposed with a breakdown on the Blue Line that disrupted the morning commutes of hundreds of riders.

In a letter to state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, Walsh said “the MBTA is not currently a functional service for many of the residents of Boston,” and demanded that the agency immediately boost service on the Red Line and nearby commuter lines to compensate for the delays due to the June derailment on that subway line.

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“Red Line riders need better solutions today,” Walsh told Pollack.

The mayor urged the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to add more service on the Red Line during off-peak hours, and run more commuter rail trains along the Fairmount line and from the South Shore; combined this would cost the agency about $9 million a year, Walsh said.

A spokeswoman for Pollack, Jacquelyn Goddard said, “We share Mayor Walsh’s interest in improving the public transportation system for MBTA customers and all residents of Massachusetts.” She added that Pollack and T general manager Steve Poftak “look forward to meeting with Walsh.”

The mayor’s latest criticism came as riders on the T’s best-performing subway line, the Blue Line, were experiencing the kind of chaos that Red Line riders say they contend with frequently. A power failure between the Aquarium and Bowdoin stations around 8 a.m. shut down part of that line, affecting three trains, and forcing about 200 passengers to make their way through a subway tunnel to safety. Hundreds more riders were forced to wait at outlying stations for shuttle buses.

Poftak told the Globe there was an “area of track” along the Blue Line where the power shut off, which is something that “does not happen that often.”

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“We believe that was due to an issue with the vehicle,” said Poftak. “We’re currently investigating it.”

Blue Line rider Caroline Barnaby said her train suddenly stopped between the State Street and Government Center stations and sat idle for about 20 minutes before passengers were evacuated through the tunnel.

“Everything stopped working,” she said, adding that when the doors opened “it smelled like smoke” and someone mentioned a possible fire.

Noreen Rizzo had just switched jobs — and morning commutes from the Red Line — and was on her way to work at the Boston Public Library in East Boston when she learned the Blue Line was down.

“I seem to have gone from one problem to another,” Rizzo said, as she waited for a shuttle bus. “It’s frustrating given that the fares just went up,” she added, referring to the 6 percent increase in subway and commuter rail fares on July 1.

Another Blue Line rider, Brittany Rocheleau, 26, said her commute went haywire when the train she was on stopped — without explanation — between Maverick and Aquarium. After sitting in the tunnel for a half hour, Rocheleau said the train was rolled back to Maverick, where crowds gathered on the street waiting for shuttle buses. She finally squeezed onto a packed shuttle bus shortly before 9 a.m.

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” she said in a telephone interview from the crowded bus.

Those unhappy Blue Line riders added their voices to the chorus of criticism that has rained down on the MBTA, particularly since the June 11 derailment of a Red Line train that continues to affect commuters. Repairs on the Red Line are expected to last through the summer and the T has warned passengers to expect delays until the work is done.

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Prior to the Red Line derailment, Walsh had not been particularly outspoken on transit issues, even as others in the Boston political community, notably City Councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, frequently demanded that the MBTA improve service. But he has become much more vocal since the Red Line incident, demanding the fare increase be delayed until the T fully restores service on the line.

In a strongly worded attack in June, Walsh charged that the T’s deteriorating performance is hurting the rapidly growing city, and called for Boston to have a seat on the T’s oversight board.

Despite numerous calls to hold off on the fare increase until Red Line service was restored, the T went ahead as planned. Walsh referenced that snub in his letter Wednesday.

“It’s still uncertain when service will be fully restored on the Red Line and, despite strong public opposition, mine included, fares still went up two weeks ago and riders continue to pay more for less,” he said in his letter.

For her part, Wu said more can be done to improve public transit. Boston, for example, should implement more dedicated priority bus lanes throughout the city, and officials should push to make commuter rail fares within Boston more equitable; currently commuter rail riders in Hyde Park, West Roxbury, and Roslindale pay higher fares than in other parts of the city because they are in a different zone.

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Wu supported Walsh’s proposals, too, saying “we need to aim to expand service and meet resident needs in every way possible.”

“I think this is an issue that’s been escalating over time and we’re really at a point of urgency now,” she said. “Everyone should be speaking up now.”

Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, an advocacy coalition, welcomed Walsh’s letter.

“We think it’s great that he is turning his attention to our transportation challenges,” said Dempsey.

Th scene at Maverick Square station.
Th scene at Maverick Square station. (<a href="http://twitter.com/Zach4576">@Zach4576</a> via Twitter.)
Government Center station was unusually empty during the Wednesday commute after the Blue Line power problem interrupted service.
Government Center station was unusually empty during the Wednesday commute after the Blue Line power problem interrupted service. (John R. Ellement/Globe Staff)

John Ellement and Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Sabrina Schnur contributed to this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.