Problems on Mattapan line extend beyond trolleys

Redacted report indicates bridges, stations are in rough shape

A HEAVILY REDACTED study on the future of the MBTA’s rail link between the Red Line’s Ashmont Station and Mattapan indicates problems associated with the line are not confined to the 75-year-old trolleys themselves.

The study suggests many of the infrastructure components of the so-called Mattapan High Speed Line are in rough shape. Various elements of the infrastructure, including tracks, stations, bridges, signals, switches, and the maintenance facility, were ranked marginal or poor 41 times; fair, moderate, or functional 48 times; good 47 times; and excellent only 5 times.

The report said “immediate attention” is required to address deteriorating rail ties on two bridges along the Mattapan line – the Gallivan Boulevard bridge and the Medway Street overhead bridge. The report said the Gallivan Boulevard bridge’s wooden rail ties are in poor condition and need to be replaced to “ensure safe operations.” The bridges themselves suffer from cracks, deteriorating masonry, and paint issues, the report said.

The trolley maintenance facility, a barn-like structure that is open to the elements at both ends, is “barely marginal” for its intended use of servicing an aging fleet, the report said. “The limited and exposed maintenance area . . . makes large-scale fleet improvement efforts and internal modification programs extremely difficult, costly, and inefficient,” according to the report. 

The study also indicates compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is often marginal at the line’s eight stations, with access particularly problematic at Ashmont Station.

The Mattapan line, which runs through Dorchester and Milton, represents one of the more interesting challenges facing the MBTA as it seeks to bring the transit system into a state of good repair. The trolleys are practically rolling museum pieces, prone to breakdowns and expensive to maintain because many of the parts are no longer being manufactured. Yet the trolleys have a strong fan base among politicians who represent the area and are reluctant to part with rail service.

The T has moved cautiously in addressing the future of the Mattapan line. The agency set aside $7.9 million for overhauls to keep the trolleys running for several more years, and commissioned a $1.1 million study to assess the state of the line’s trolleys and infrastructure and the best course of action for the future.

Options include replica trolleys (historic-looking vehicles with modern components), light rail vehicles similar to those used on the Green Line, and alternative propulsion technologies. The MBTA’s consultant, CH2M, is also examining the possibility of removing the existing tracks and overhead wires and replacing them with a paved surface for bus rapid transit. The Mattapan Line runs over two bridges and two grade crossings, and one of the focal points of the study was to find out what options those areas could handle.

The consultant’s report was originally supposed to be released last winter, but the date was put off until June and then again until the end of 2018. The T is currently preparing to release its findings in January or February.

The report, obtained under a public records request and follow-up appeal, sheds little light on the feasibility of the various options or their cost because of sections dealing with current needs, possible improvements, and capital programs were redacted.

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The report concludes by noting that more research may be necessary on the line because the assessment of the Mattapan trolley infrastructure done by CH2M was based solely on visual observation. It recommends that the T consider doing a “full bridge and structures assessment . . . that would include a detailed structure and foundation review and an underwater assessment of bridges along the Neponset River.”

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that we have significant unaddressed infrastructure issues across the transit system.  There isn’t any reason to believe the Mattapan Line is immune from that,” said Jim Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation.  “This raises an important question as to whether these costs are included in the $7.3 billion figure that the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board estimates is needed to bring the entire transit system into a state of good repair.  The FMCB needs to order a review and update of that estimate before it sunsets in June 2020.”