EDITORIAL: T work will be disruptive, but worth the inconvenience

·3 min read

Aug. 5—Rail riders in Boston and beyond are abuzz with the news that the state plans to shut down the city's Orange Line for a month for extensive repairs. If the MBTA's controversial plan works, commuters should get used to more service interruptions as the agency scrambles to make up for years of delayed maintenance work.

That could be a good thing if it means a safer commute in trains that are on time, stay on the track, and don't randomly catch fire. It would be amusing if it weren't so dangerous.

The stakes are enormous. The work must be done, however, and the Orange Line gambit is at least a sign that the MBTA and the governor's office are taking the safety and reliability of the system seriously after years of neglect. If the repair scheme succeeds, commuters from all over the region should expect to see it put into play in their hometowns as the T scrambles to make up for lost time. A month of pain and inconvenience for commuters is far better than years of fit-and-start work that is never truly finished. Frankly, it's an approach the agency and the governor — with support from the state Legislature, which has been slow to truly invest in the system — should have taken years ago.

But make no mistake: The disruptions wrought by such work go beyond mere inconvenience. The Orange Line shutdown threatens to separate workers from their ride to their jobs, students from their trip to school, and tourists and visitors from a way to get across town without clogging the road with out-of-town traffic.

First, the details: The Orange Line shutdown will begin at 9 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 19 and continue through Tuesday, Sept. 18. Having the route completely off line will allow MBTA work crews to handle several different repair jobs simultaneously. If the work were spreading out during weekends and the overnight hours, the traditional route, it would take roughly five years too long. Given the poor condition of the tracks and trains, that's simply too long.

"Most of the issues we're dealing with here involve speed reductions and slowdowns," Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday. "From our point of view, these projects were going to happen anyway. The issue here is to try to get them done faster and to get them done in a way that doesn't create this start-stop thing, which has been historically the way we've gone about doing these projects."

Clearly, the governor is downplaying the work and the nature of the challenge at hand.

Earlier this summer the Federal Transportation Administration called on the T to address immediate safety issues, including inadequate staffing at the agency's operations control center, a lack of safety protections in train yards, delayed track maintenance, and lagging training recertification of MBTA workers.

The Orange Line work will address a small fraction of that list. Each of the other subway lines requires significant work, as does every branch of the commuter rail. Some routes are in better condition than others, but none can be considered completely reliable.

Credit Boston Mayor Michelle Wu for pressuring Baker and the state to act.

"Decades of deferred maintenance — compounded by a lack of urgency even in recent years — has left us at a crisis point for the MBTA and the hundreds of thousands of commuters who rely on public transportation every day," Wu said in a statement. "A shutdown of this scale will be tremendously stressful for the region, but I'm hopeful that doing this necessary work now will save us years of disruption down the line."

Given the overall state of the T system, it's something commuters everywhere should be preparing for.