Long wait for Red, Orange Line improvements

Long wait for Red, Orange Line improvements

Final signals contract awarded, but major benefits unlikely until 2024

THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD on Monday awarded the final major contract needed to complete an  overhaul of the Red and Orange Lines, but the milestone agreement was another reminder of how long it takes to implement change on the state’s transit system.

The contract for new Red and Orange Lines cars was awarded in October 2014, toward the end of former governor Deval Patrick’s last term in office. Many more contracts for infrastructure and more train cars have been awarded since, culminating with Monday’s vote by the Fiscal and Management Control Board to spend $217.7 million over the next several years upgrading the signal systems on the two subway lines.

That work, combined with 404 new rail cars and a host of infrastructure improvements, should allow Red Line trains to stop at stations every three minutes and Orange Line trains every 4 ½ minutes. But officials cautioned that those goals won’t be met until the entire project is completed in 2023 or 2024 on the Orange Line and 2024 or 2025 on the Red Line. Those target dates come nearly a decade after the overhaul process began.

T officials stressed that riders will see incremental improvements starting in late December or January when the first Orange Line train is expected to come on line, but the full benefit of the state’s huge investment in the two lines won’t materialize until the entire project is completed.

Gov. Charlie Baker is running for reelection this fall, and a key part of the campaign centers on his administration’s ability to turn around the T. His Democratic rival, Jay Gonzalez, has called for a new tax on college endowments to fund investments in transportation and education, while Baker has indicated no new tax revenue is needed.

T officials for more than a year have been trying to convey to current riders of the transit system that improved service is coming. MBTA General Manager Luis Ramirez said on Monday that Danny Levy, the T’s chief customer officer, is developing a social media campaign and video with a theme of “RebuildingtheT.” Levy said she is working on something but its content and timetable are still being developed.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, raised concerns on Monday that the MBTA may be unable to reach its goal of spending $8 billion over the next five years on capital projects to improve the transit system.

“I am deeply concerned about the ability to spend that $8 billion,” he said.

The T divides its capital spending into two buckets, one for the expansion of services and one for investments to bring the existing system up to a state of good repair. Nearly half (46 percent) of the $8 billion in funds comes from the federal government, 27 percent from MBTA bonds, 14 percent from the state, and 11 percent from an annual appropriation by the Legislature.

As recently as fiscal 2014, the T spent less than 50 percent of its planned capital spending, investing only $469 on state-of-good-repair work. In fiscal 2018, which ended June 30, the T spent 91 percent of the money allotted for state-of-good-repair work, falling $70 million short of its $790 million goal. The goal for coming years is $850 million in the current fiscal year, $950 million in fiscal 2020, $1.2 billion in fiscal 2021, $1.25 billion in fiscal 2022, and $1.4 billion in fiscal 2023.

“This is a big mountain to climb,” Aiello said.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The new signals contract, awarded to Barletta Heavy Division, is designed to speed up subway service. Currently, a 1970s-era analog system signals to trains when to slow down or stop because of trains or track issues ahead. With the current system, signal warnings are often difficult to decipher and speed and other settings can only be reset manually. The new digital system is expected to allow the T to diagnose problems more quickly and adjust speed and other settings remotely. New sensors are also being installed between Columbia/JFK and North Quincy on the Red Line to reduce delays there caused by false signal alerts.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, said the new system could be modified in the future to allow the system, rather than the train operator, to control a train’s acceleration and deceleration.

The new system will require 46 weekend closures – 26 on the Red Line and 20 on the Orange Line – to complete the installation. The Red Line is expected to be done by December 2021 and the Orange Line by April 2022. Bus service will be provided when sections of the track are shut down.