What’s the plan?

We need a protocol for unexpected subway shutdowns

IT’S HAPPENED TWICE this year.  It will certainly happen again.

A major incident shuts down a critical section of the inner urban subway system. In June it was the Red Line derailment, which caused havoc the morning of the incident. More recently, it was the Orange Line, which was out of operation through the entirety of Monday’s morning rush hour, the consequence of contractor mishap and a potential unintended outcome of performance and productivity metrics associated with the subway shutdown work.

While no one can reasonably anticipate that similar massive subway outages will recur, it is unfortunately more likely than not that they will.  Our system is too old, the scope and the scale of repair and modernization needs too vast, to expect otherwise.  Moreover, I wonder whether contracts for the weekend shutdown work (which I support) may place inappropriate focus on achieving certain performance metrics at the expense of reopening the system on time.  That is something the Fiscal and Management Control Board needs to look into as a matter of some urgency.

Given this reality, it is vitally important that the MBTA and the municipalities hosting its inner urban core subway and bus system establish an effective approach to managing street traffic and mobility in the aftermath of such incidents.  What is shockingly clear following the Red and Orange line shutdowns is this: there is no protocol for rapid and coordinated law enforcement response during an inner core subway shutdown, designed to ensure unobstructed bus priority lanes and effective traffic management at key intersections and bus routes. If such a protocol exits, it is either failing or it is not functioning at any level of satisfactory performance.  The time has come for the MBTA and the inner core municipalities, led by the city of Boston, to publicly address this issue and resolve it.

During Monday’s Orange Line debacle, Commonwealth reporter Andy Metzger tweeted out what has become for transit advocates an iconic photo of a commercial truck parked illegally in a dedicated bus lane, the truck driver nonchalantly tying his shoe, while buses filled with rush hour commuters endured needless delay and disruption.  The people on those buses were unable to take their usual Orange Line commute because the line was shut down.  One woman reported a three-hour bus ride to simply travel the three miles from Sullivan Square to Haymarket.  That is third world mobility.

Commuters forced onto bus shuttles ought to be given priority transit service on enforced dedicated lanes.  After all, the whole point of operating a public transit system is to give people access to jobs, schools, and health care. This is not trivial stuff. Access in a crisis like a subway shutdown is even more critical, as it tests the agility and resilience and effectiveness of the system to actually do its job.

Many of us were heartened when Gov. Charlie Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation said without equivocation that Massachusetts needed to start implementing policies that moved more people and fewer vehicles.  That is the right policy, but we’ve got to have protocols in place that make it actionable.

The failure to have a protocol in place that effectively responds to these recurring subway shutdown emergencies is Exhibit #1 in the case that proves we aren’t following the clear message of the governor’s commission.   At a time when our economy is groaning under the weight of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, at a time when auto emissions continue to soar (a recent report noting a 26 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles in the past decade), we should be providing bus transit priority at all times of the day, as a proven and effective way to encourage more sustainable mobility.

But it is unconscionable for the MBTA and the municipalities of Greater Boston’s inner urban core to not have in place effective rapid response protocols for moving T riders with priority during subway shutdown emergencies. If such protocols exist, they need to be made public and the responsible authorities need to answer to the obvious question: why don’t they work?

At the very least, in emergency circumstances like those presented by the Red and Orange Line rush hour shutdowns, our state and local governments should have in place a process and protocol that ensures both public safety and orderly mobility with the clear objective of moving T riders quickly and safely from one place to another.

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Bus shuttles operating during a subway shutdown do exactly that: they are and ought to be the mobility lifeline in such circumstances.  Instead they are ignored, bus shuttles left to sit in traffic congestion, dedicated bus lanes left clogged by commercial trucking scofflaws. The absence of an appropriately scaled traffic enforcement presence sends one message to everyone: you’re on your own.  That is a profoundly bad message, and one that ought to be found unacceptable by state and municipal leaders.

I asked this very question in June after the Red Line derailment, and I ask it again now in the aftermath of the Orange Line shutdown: what’s the plan for effective, coordinated rapid response providing safe and fast bus transit mobility in circumstances when an urban subway system is unexpectedly shut down?

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a member of the board of TransitMatters.