“We originally planned to lose the northern end of the line around August [and] we had a number of other weekend diversions planned in the fall and spring,” Poftak said.
But that timeline for making these security improvements apparently wasn’t fast enough for the FTA.
“Clear directive [was] that we need to give our crews more access to that track,” Poftak said. “They want to make sure our crews have access so we can make repairs in a faster way.”
The availability of replacement buses was also a factor. The T has contracted with Yankee Line to provide up to 200 buses for the north end of the line, between Oak Grove and Government Center, and the south end, between Forest Hills and Copley Square. Commuters who must travel through downtown between Government Center and Copley are advised to take the Green Line because, as Poftak said, “bus travel through downtown Boston is extremely challenging.”
Poftak said providing up to 200 buses a month means taking “every available bus east of the Mississippi.” Poftak said if the T didn’t stock these buses now, they might not be available at a later date.
“We felt we had to strike while the iron is hot here,” Poftak said.
Poftak declined to say how much the Orange Line work will cost, but said it is largely in line with what is budgeted in the T’s capital plan. He also declined to say where the buses would be located, except to say the T has provided spaces near both ends of the Orange Line for overnight bus parking. He also noted that there would be no guarantee that riders would always board the new Orange Line trains when service resumes a month from now — the T is separately in the middle of a multiyear process to replace Orange Line and Red Line cars. Line — and that it could take a few more weeks before the agency is satisfied with removing the speed limits after the reopening.
Another big question business leaders have asked: Couldn’t this have been done earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, when more people were working from home? Poftak noted that the T has planned more detours, particularly at Green Line branches, during the pandemic and that managers had no idea the health emergency would last as long as it did. “The idea that it would be simple or easy to close the T during the pandemic, I think is a bit of revisionist history,” he said.
For many in the business community, closing the Orange Line represents a major setback on two interrelated fronts: getting more workers back to the office and reviving a downtown district hit by a relative lack of commuters.
“Businesses that are able to offer their employees more work-from-home flexibility, they plan to do it,” chamber CEO Jim Rooney said in an interview. “Until this announcement, there were few plans to return to more activity in the office after Labor Day. This may be delayed.”
Rooney, a former MBTA administrator, said closing the Orange Line is counterproductive to the chamber’s efforts with Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration for a downtown revitalization strategy.
“I find myself in fashion [now], saying, ‘Let your people work from home,’” Rooney said. “Hopefully, we can get them back in mid-September when this is over.”
The biggest concern in the business community, Rooney said, is how smoothly alternative modes of transportation are operating for Orange Line riders during the shutdown — bus rides, free commuter rail rides and 30-day passes funded by city for the Bluebikes bike-sharing program.
“One of my big takeaways today is the extent to which T and his management team will have to … make dynamic, real-time decisions based on the conditions of the moment, whether it’s the buses that are full and they can’t” to stop [or] traffic situations,” Rooney said. “There is a plan and then there is the implementation. This will require a great deal of management still on the implementation side.”