T analysis: Time for long goodbye to Mattapan trolleys

Study calls for major infrastructure improvements, leans toward repurposing Green Line cars

AN MBTA ANALYSIS concludes the trolley line running between Mattapan and Ashmont Station on the Red Line requires a significant infrastructure investment over the next decade and suggests the historic-but-broken-down trolleys that currently carry passengers should be replaced – most likely with redeployed Green Line vehicles.

Most of the concern about the Mattapan line has focused on the trolleys, which date to the 1940s. The historic cars have many fans who would like to see them keep running, but the analysis concluded that would be impractical because the outer shells are falling apart, maintenance costs are extremely high, and the vehicles don’t work well in the snow and are not handicap accessible.

The MBTA analysis found the line’s basic infrastructure is in rough shape, requiring bridge work, station repairs, power system improvements, a new maintenance facility, and traffic lights at Capen and Central Streets. The cost of that work is estimated at $90 to $115 million.

Five vehicle options were analyzed in addition to staying the course with the existing trolleys. Each option came with its own specific infrastructure requirements. Electric or hybrid buses cost $20 million, but the tracks would have to be removed and the line would have to be widened and modified to accommodate the vehicles at a cost of about $100 million. New vehicles designed to look like historic trolleys could be purchased at an estimated cost of $40 million with an infrastructure price tag of $70 million. New light-rail vehicles could be purchased for $65 million with an added infrastructure cost of $80 million.

The final option was to shift some of the 24 light-rail vehicles just starting to be delivered for the Greeen Line extension to Somerville and Medford and repurpose them in eight to 10 years for the Mattapan Line. The vehicles have an operating life of 25 to 30 years. The vehicle cost for that option would be zero, but needed infrastructure improvements would tally $75 million.

The analysis, presented on Monday to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, made no official recommendation, but T officials made clear the repurposing of the Green Line vehicles was the preferred option. Using those vehicles, the entire project would cost $190 million, roughly $35 million less than the next cheapest option.

The MBTA’s decision-making process on the Mattapan line has been very slow and deliberate because politicians representing the area have taken a strong interest in the debate. Some are big fans of the existing trolley cars, while others have been worried the T would replace the trolleys with buses, which could theoretically be yanked out of service at any time.

“The biggest feedback we got from everyone was no buses,” said Jeffrey Gonneville, deputy general manager of the T, referring to opinions solicited at public meetings.

Members of the control board had little to say about the report on the Mattapan line, but they urged T officials to include in their cost estimates the cost of operating the various vehicles and to take into account which approach would be the most resilient to climate change. The current vehicles are notoriously unreliable in wet and snowy weather, and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack suggested electric buses (which wouldn’t require overhead catenaries to get their power) might be the most resilient option.

The line runs from Ashmont Station to the Lower Mills section of Dorchester and then along the Neponset River through Milton before ending up in Mattapan Square. The line has eight stations and  6,600 average daily weekday boardings, which is about half of one of the T’s busiest bus routes.

The T was so worried about making a wrong move on the Mattapan line that it bought some time for a study by allotting $7.9 million to fix up the existing trolleys so they could last another 10 years. The work – repairing the bodies and replacing obsolete propulsion systems and other parts with new equipment from Brookville Equipment Corp, a Pennsylvania firm that specializes in historic reproductions – hasn’t gone well.  Lead paint and asbestos were discovered in the old trolleys and had to be carefully removed.

The T hoped to have the repair work done by now, but the first car won’t be finished until August 2019. The others will be completed in 2020.

The T is spending $1 million to replace just some of the internal systems on each of the existing trolleys. By contrast, the T is spending $2.3 million for each of its new Orange and Red line cars, which are fully accessible and filled with top-of-the line technology and safety equipment.

“It is a significant investment on the part of the MBTA,” Steve Poftak, the T’s general manager, said of the trolley repair work. But he said spending time to study all facets of the line was a wise move. “I think it was money well spent,” he said.

A Mattapan trolley makes its way by Cedar Grove Cemetery in Dorchester. (Photo by Michael Manning)

 

 

 

 

Meet the Author

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.

Currently, the T has five working trolley cars which attempt to pick up and drop off passengers at stations every six minutes. The availability of trolleys, however, varies quite a bit from week to week. Two weeks ago, for example, only two trolleys were working and the T had to run buses to provide regular service. When it snows, the trolleys are often replaced with buses. “The cars are extremely intolerant to moisture,” Gonneville said.

The T plans to host three meetings with the public to get feedback on the analysis of the Mattapan line. The control board is expected to make a decision about the line and its vehicles sometime in the summer.