Orange Line shutdown to reverberate on roads

Highway administrator predicts bus-only lanes will lead to 'significant congestion'

BAKER ADMINISTRATION officials said the upcoming month-long shutdown of the entire Orange Line and a chunk of the Green Line will affect not only transit riders but people coming in and out of the city by car.

Officials said efforts to move the replacement shuttle buses along at faster speeds will mean the creation of new bus-only lanes, the closure of some streets, and the development of new bus pickup and dropoff areas. The officials said the various measures will cut traffic capacity in half in some areas and cause severe congestion.

“These shutdowns will have substantial regional traffic impacts beyond just transit users,” said state Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver. “It is evident that the shutdown will produce significant congestion that will be felt throughout the region.”

Gulliver said traffic congestion could increase 20 percent in some areas and specifically mentioned Charles Circle, Leverett Circle, and Sullivan Square.

At a press conference at the state Transportation Building, state and Boston transportation officials explained how they are trying to minimize disruption by operating 162 shuttle buses, offering free Blue Bike passes for a month, and opening bus-only lanes, the first coming Monday night at Copley Square.

State Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver warns of traffic congestion due to Orange Line shutdown. Gov. Charlie Baker is behind him. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Gov. Charlie Baker walked a tightrope on the Orange Line shutdown, which begins at 9 p.m. on August 19 and runs until September 19, and the Green Line closure, which starts August 22 and runs through September 18.

The governor said the shutdowns will inconvenience riders, but sought to portray the shift to shuttle buses as merely a larger version of what the T has been doing repeatedly since he came into office in 2015.

He said the shutdown of the Orange Line will give maintenance workers uninterrupted access to the line and allow contractors to do what would have taken five years of weekends and nights in 30 days.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief of streets, said the city is doing all it can to help the MBTA through what Franklin-Hodge called a “transportation emergency.”

“We are hopeful that we will look back on this moment as a turning point,” Franklin-Hodge said. “Boston needs safe and reliable, fast transit. And while we expect the shutdown to be painful, it will provide an unprecedented opportunity to perform a large volume of critical work quickly. We are optimistic that it will deliver the kind of real and tangible benefit to riders that we so clearly need.”

The Federal Transit Administration, which is doing a top-to-bottom safety review of the MBTA’s subway system, has raised as an immediate issue that needs to be addressed the T’s inability to get adequate maintenance work done working just nights and weekends.

Baker said the T is launching the shutdown to address work that the T already had planned to do. He said the FTA did not order the specific maintenance work.

“We took this project to the FTA and said this is something we would like to do,” he said. “This was on our list. We were going to do this anyway.”

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said funding for the repair work is included in the transit authority’s five-year capital spending plan.

The T has hired a private contractor, A Yankee Bus Line, to provide roughly 160 shuttle buses for the duration of the shutdown at a cost of up to $37 million.

“We have an extraordinary number of shuttle buses,” Poftak said. We’ve been told by some of the supporting teams we have that we literally have every accessible bus east of the Mississippi in service here running these alternative shuttles. It’s not a question of if we only got a couple more shuttles we could do some things differently. We have every accessible shuttle bus we can possibly get our hands on.”

The T is waiving fares on the shuttle buses and urging passengers to ride commuter rail trains and Blue Bikes whenever possible. Passengers can ride commuter rail trains in Zones 2, 1 and 1A by showing a Charlie Card, which Boston Mayor Michelle Wu characterized as “fare-free” in a tweet.  Free monthly Blue Bike passes are also available.

MBTA officials estimated the foregone fare revenue over the course of a month will fall somewhere between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, although it’s unclear whether lost commuter rail fares are included in that calculation.