Blue Line needs urgent attention

Current vision for the subway line borders on fantasy

THE MBTA’s BLUE LINE is on the brink. Generally known as the best of the system’s subway services (largely because of its relatively newer, reliable, Siemens subway cars), the Blue Line is increasingly failing to provide riders with the transit service they need and deserve.  And prospects are that things will soon be getting worse.

The issues confronting the Blue Line are both common to the rest of the system and unique. I want to focus on three areas of concern:  resilience, state-of-good-repair, and connectivity.

First, resilience. The Blue Line travels along a corridor that is often literally under water during increasingly common winter weather storm conditions. These conditions are no longer unpredictable; they are the norm. During the past two years, a single winter storm knocked out service at Aquarium Station, a critical transit link to Logan Airport and a key transit connection to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the waterfront, and the downtown business district.  Aquarium Station is adjacent to a large popular hotel and within easy walking distance to several smaller boutique hotels.  It provides access (obviously) to the New England Aquarium, and also to many harbor-related excursions and uses, and to Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

The tides that rise up at Long Wharf are now common events during winter storms and so-called King Tide events. The ocean waters literally pour into the Aquarium Station entrance at Atlantic Avenue, cascading down the long stairs, and causing the entire station to shut down. Additional complicating factors, notably the depth of the Blue Line tunnel at this point and seepage associated with the design of the Central Artery slurry walls directly above the Blue Line, compound the flooding issue. That’s just the beginning of the problem. Once the storm is over and the station re-opens, the elevators and escalators remain out of service.  This year it is taking well over six months to repair elevator damage from last winter. Since no changes have been made to the design of the station entrance, which is at the root of the elevator problem, and none are in sight, you can expect the flooding and the shut downs and the elevators to cease functioning again.  We aren’t even playing catch up – we are running on a treadmill.

The resilience problem is not confined to Aquarium Station. Several Blue Line stations were under water and over half the system shut down last winter.  There are good people at the T who are aware of and charged with dealing with these issues, but they need more resources, money, and direction to accelerate short and long-term fixes. A long-term permanent solution is certainly required, but, in the short term, Aquarium Station needs a redesign and reconstruction of its Atlantic Avenue entrance.  A strategy to place sandbags along the entrance, as has occurred in recent storms, does nothing to solve (and from recent experience barely mitigates) the extent of the predictable winter storm damage.  The T needs to move quickly from a sandbag strategy to a re-design and reconstruction of the station entrance.

Second, SGR, or state-of-good-repair.  Twice in August the Blue Line’s power systems failed (in one instance, on a particularly hot and humid August morning) requiring the evacuation of passengers from a train stuck in the middle of the tunnel under Boston harbor.  This unsettling event highlights the urgent need to replace and renew aging power systems – those on the Blue Line are approaching or are past the 100-year mark. Incredibly, T officials don’t view them as past their useful life (or they haven’t viewed them that way to date), and they aren’t included on its current state-of-good-repair plan. It’s time for the T to make the full details of its SGR plan fully transparent, so the public can see what’s on it and what isn’t, how those decisions are made, and whether and how they are revisited.

On a less service-critical note: almost the entire ceiling of the Logan Airport Blue Line station is peeling off, an unsightly and somewhat disturbing welcome to riders and travelers leaving Logan and entering the city via transit. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see while visiting a poor, dysfunctional third world nation, and it ought to be embarrassing and unacceptable to everyone who cares about the impression we give to travelers coming to Boston from Logan.

Paint is peeling on the roof of the Blue Line Station at Logan International Airport. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

What does it say about us as a civic enterprise that we let something like this fester, with no plan to fix it in sight? The Logan Blue Line Station ceiling is a result of bad design and shoddy construction materials, of neglect and an inability to keep pace with maintenance and repairs. It speaks ugly volumes about our values, and sends all the wrong messages about how we treat transit riders, and the strength of our commitment to and interest in moving more people to and from Logan via transit.  How do stakeholders like the MBTA, Massport, the city’s hospitality industry, and the city itself tolerate this?

Third, the Blue Line suffers from a severe lack of connectivity – being the only subway line that does not connect to the Red Line.  This failing has significant negative consequences for our economy, for access to health care, for travel to and from Logan Airport, and for social equity.  Look at the numbers: Logan Airport is expected to host 38 million passengers this year; that number will continue to rise as the airport supports our thriving, tech-oriented economy.

The Suffolk Downs development site is preparing to build out an anticipated 11 million square feet of residential and office space – a virtual city within a city. Mass General Hospital and Mass Eye & Ear attract tens of thousands of people, patients, and workers each year seeking or providing care at one of the world’s most renowned medical campuses. Because the Blue Line doesn’t connect to the Red Line, easy access to each of these critical destinations is limited or impossible for many transit riders.

This lack of connectivity deprives people in Cambridge from having an easy ride to Logan – forcing many to drive to Logan in their own car or via Uber, Lyft, or taxi, adding to the traffic congestion and pollution that plague East Boston. It deprives people in Revere and East Boston of a one-seat transit ride to health care. It leaves Suffolk Downs isolated from the energy and jobs in Kendall Square. It isn’t conceivable that the T would turn its back on completing the Blue Line and connecting it to the Red Line as a short-term necessity. Yet that is exactly where things stand unless Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and the Fiscal and Management Control Board insist that this project be given the priority treatment it deserves.

Connecting the Blue and Red Lines need not be unduly expensive or time consuming. A cut-and-cover connection from Bowdoin to Charles/MGH could be accomplished in a cost-and-time-effective manner. There are clear lessons learned from how the T managed the reconstruction of Government Center Station and the re-procurement of the Green Line extension project that can be applied to make the Blue-Red link a stunning success story. Why aren’t we applying these lessons to this project?

Our focus in recent years has been on the elements of the subway system that are regularly in most need of critical attention, and that for the most part has meant the Red and Orange lines.  But the Blue Line, too often overlooked, looms as an impending serious threat to our regional economy, and to social justice. The control board must promptly engage a plan of action to place the Blue Line front-and-center on its list of short-term fixes.

One important first step would be to include connecting the Blue and Red lines as an early action item in the final Focus 40 document.  The current draft includes a money-wasting pedestrian connector and a Blue Line vision so distant, so expensive, and so complicated that it borders on fantasy.  It is not currently a document that anyone can or should take seriously in its treatment of the Blue Line, and that must change before this year is out. The decision to connect Blue to Red ought to be made without delay, and a plan to redesign and reconstruct Aquarium Station should follow.

Meet the Author

It is good that the T is making progress on a number of fronts – purchasing new Red and Orange Line cars, advancing AFC 2.0 (automated fare collection); focusing on SGR with unprecedented focus – but it simply isn’t enough. Whether we like it or not, we have to admit that simply playing catch up doesn’t respond to our needs. Neglecting the critical connectivity and resilience issues presented by the Blue Line is bad for our economy, bad for our quality of life, and bad for our future.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.