Winterization Of MBTA Tracks Means Shuttle Buses This Summer

As subway officials prepare to winterize tracks on the Red and Orange lines, the head of the MBTA said riders should expect shuttle buses along the above-ground routes this summer and fall.

"In order to get ready for next winter we'll probably be busing people at night on the Red and Orange lines as we do work on switches and third-rails," MBTA Interim General Manager Frank DePaola told lawmakers Wednesday. "The question will be, 'Would you rather be waiting on JFK for a bus at 9 o'clock on a July night or on a February night?' "

A lower-than-expected bid for assembling new Red and Orange line trains by the Chinese company CNR-MA will allow the state to spend more on track and signal maintenance and increase the number of Red Line cars it plans to purchase.

"We're hoping to exercise an option to buy more Red Line cars," said DePaola. He said the state is currently buying 74 Red Line cars, but he believes that could be increased to 150. The planned purchase of 156 Orange Line cars — increasing the size of the 120-car fleet — will allow for better service in conjunction with track upgrades, DePaola said.

Facing rider ire after service failures last winter and a panoply of suggestions from a gubernatorial task force, the MBTA is seeking a change in state procurement law that DePaola said would allow it to move more quickly and efficiently on projects.

DePaola said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is able to use a design-build bidding process where firms both develop the plans and perform the construction. DePaola said the process would allow for more creative bids and for basic work to begin earlier. The T is currently limited to an "archaic" system where detailed plans are developed and then a construction firm is hired to carry them out.

Gov. Charlie Baker's task force also recommended using design-build bidding processes.

While unable to estimate what the MBTA might have been able to save over the years if it used a more novel bidding method, DePaola said new bidding methods have proved popular in other areas of state government. He told the News Service, "There clearly is some savings to be realized."

Following a transportation reform law, the state — not the T — covers the cost of expanding the transit service. The MBTA's budget is about $2 billion, and debt service makes up about $450 million of its operating budget. The T recently estimated that about $6.7 billion worth of its equipment was below a state of good repair.

DePaola said the MBTA has become one of the "leaders" among the nation's transit agencies in asset management, and he said the T has a tool that allows officials to prioritize maintenance projects.

Much of the MBTA's costs are construction, and DePaola said he wanted the agency to operate more like a construction firm. DePaola said winter resiliency alone will cost about $200 million.

While the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets investigated the MBTA's plans for upkeep and asset management, others were digging into a report commissioned by Baker that recommended changes to the MBTA's governance and fare structure.

While DePaola endorsed the report generally, he left it to the Baker administration to lobby for changes in law to restructure fares and sideline his bosses on the MassDOT board of directors in favor of a finance control board.

"I'm going to leave that to the administration to make those requests and file the appropriate legislation, and we'll take steps accordingly," DePaola said of the recommended fare hikes and restructuring. About reorganizing the governance of MassDOT, DePaola said, "That would take legislation to implement and I know the administration is ready to engage."

The Bonding Committee is chaired by Rep. Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who rarely misses an opportunity to advocate for a commuter rail expansion to the South Coast, though he remained quiet on the project Wednesday. Though the governor's task force recommended suspending all non-federally funded transit expansion projects, aides to Baker said spending related to the planning for expansion of commuter rail service to the South Coast would continue.

"That's a fairly large project, so the design and permitting effort's going to take a while," DePaola told the News Service. "So I don't think he is as concerned because there was no construction spending planned in the near-term, so any moratorium on construction spending on expansions doesn't really affect that at this point."


More from WBUR

Listen Live