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How to get around the MBTA’s 30-day Orange Line shutdown

MBTA Orange Line cars at the Wellington train yard in Medford after T leaders announced the line will be shut down for 30 days later this month to handle a backlog of repairs and upgrades. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
MBTA Orange Line cars at the Wellington train yard in Medford after T leaders announced the line will be shut down for 30 days later this month to handle a backlog of repairs and upgrades. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The MBTA's unprecedented plan to shut down the entire Orange Line for 30 days has begun, and officials are warning commuters of all sorts to brace themselves.

The closure started at 9 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 19, and is expected to run through Sunday, Sept. 18 — coinciding with a separate four-week closure of the Green Line north of Government Center that begins on Monday, Aug. 22.

The service suspensions are intended to give MBTA crews around-the-clock access to catch up on a backlog of maintenance projects, after federal regulators found that overnight hours weren't providing enough time for sufficient repairs. All in all, officials expect to complete five years-worth of upgrades during the next month.

Still, they acknowledged the diversions will be "disruptive" — and not only for Orange Line riders. During a press conference, Gov. Charlie Baker said there will be travel impacts on drivers, bikers and pedestrians as well. And officials said all commuters in the Boston area should give themselves extra time, no matter what mode of transportation they use.

Of course, the impacts will be most severely felt by the tens of thousands of people who rely on the Orange Line each day. Here's a look at the alternatives for residents commuting in from Oak Grove, Forest Hills and every stop in between:

One familiar option is shuttle buses.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak says the agency has "literally" chartered "every accessible bus east of the Mississippi" to replace train service during the closure.

The buses run from both the north and south ends of the Orange Line, making stops at nearly every station on the line, as well as Government Center and Copley Square, to help rider switch onto the Green Line.

Initially, the plan was to skip four harder-to-reach downtown stops: State Street, Downtown Crossing, Chinatown and Tufts Medical Center.

However, after pushback from local officials, the T announced it will run "supplemental shuttle service" looping from Government Center to the Tufts Medical Center and Chinatown every 30 minutes between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. in the morning and from 8 p.m. to the end of service at 1 a.m. They also added an outbound Silver Line stop on the SL4 route at the intersection of Surface Artery and Kneeland Street to serve Chinatown.

While anyone can jump on any of the shuttle buses for free, riders do then have to contend with the Boston area's brutal traffic. City officials have warned it will still be relatively slow going — though they are adding bus lanes by Government Center, Copley, Sullivan Square and on the Gilmore Bridge between Cambridge and Charlestown.

MBTA officials say that the shuttle buses will be accessible for those with mobility needs — either low floors or (more likely) wheelchair lifts at the back. They're also deploying about 20 wheelchair-accessible vans that will be on call at each of the Orange Line stations.

Additionally, since the shuttle buses are free, all RIDE trips that begin and end within ¾ mile of the Orange Line will be free for users of the door-to-door paratransit service during the 30-day shutdown.

Another option is the commuter rail.

During the 30-day shutdown, all commuter rail stops in Zone 1A, Zone 1 and Zone 2 will allow riders to board by simply showing their CharlieCard or CharlieTicket.

Technically, you don't even have to pay; you could simply use an old CharlieCard or CharlieTicket with zero balance — or grab a blank CharlieCard for free (they're available at six Orange Line stops and dozens of other retail locations). Just show it to a conductor and you're good to board.

It will also be easier to catch a commuter rail train on the lines that run adjacent to the Orange Line.

On both sides, T officials are boosting service. During the morning rush, Poftak says there will be seven additional trains from Forest Hills to South Station and four additional trains from Oak Grove to North Station.

To note, Haverhill Line trains will actually stop at Oak Grove station (which the line usually bypasses), in addition to its usual stops at Malden Center and North Station. And on the south side, Poftak said Needham and Providence line trains will make stops roughly every 30 minutes at Forest Hills, Ruggles, Back Bay and South Station. Between Back Bay and South Station, they'll be even more frequent.

The MBTA has also posted the full-day commuter rail schedules for both north side and south side Orange Line stops. Rather than focusing on individual commuter rail lines, they illustrate the time at which trains will hit each of the stations.

Try other subway lines or buses.

MBTA officials are also encouraging riders to check out other subway lines and bus routes that could get them to their destination.

For three of four Orange Line stops with no shuttle bus service, officials suggest the Green Line. Government Center is a short walk or Blue Line trip from State Street; Downtown Crossing and Park Street are connected by an underground tunnel; and Boylston is a "healthy block" from Chinatown, as Poftak put it.

The T is also running more frequent Silver Line buses on the SL4 and SL5 routes that stop at Tufts Medical Center, Chinatown and Downtown Crossing.

You can use the T's trip planner to see if there are any other good alternatives.

For trips from the south end of the Orange Line, the Green Line's E Branch and the Fairmount commuter rail line could be serviceable options. T officials also suggest the 39 bus for service between Forest Hills and Back Bay station.

From the north, the CT2 bus does connect Sullivan Square and Ruggles Station, albeit through a somewhat circuitous Cambridge route. You can also try the 92 and 93 routes to head downtown from Sullivan Square — or the 43 between Park Street and Ruggles.

There's always cycling.

Biking on Boston's streets is not for the faint of heart, but there are some good bike trails matching the Orange Line route. The Southwest Corridor bike path can take you all the way from Forest Hills to Back Bay station (but note that officials are planning some repairs from Aug. 18-20). It's admittedly a little more tricky from the north, but the Metropolitan Area Planning Council has a good map of bike path and lanes to rely on.

And if you don't have a bike, the city of Boston announced it will pay for free 30-day passes for Blue Bikes, a regional bicycle rideshare program, during the Orange Line closure. (If you already have a monthly pass, it will renew this month for free.) From Aug. 19 through Sept. 18, literally anyone can get a free 30-day pass — good for an unlimited number of up to 45-minute trips, no matter where they live.

One important note if you're biking on city streets: watch out for the shuttle buses. Officials warned that they have different turning radiuses and blindspots that make them more dangerous near turns and intersections

Stay home — if you can.

While Poftak said he thinks the commuter rail will be a "really efficient option" for some, he also encouraged Orange Line commuters to work from home during the shutdown, if they can. He also encouraged employers to give their workers that flexibility — though he acknowledged that not everyone can do that.

Seriously, don't drive.

This might seem like an easier option than charting a new multi-modal commute, but officials emphasized that people should really avoid driving. If you do choose to drive, hit the roads at off-peak times.

Across the Boston region, they're expecting "substantial" spillover effects from the Orange and Green Line closures. Jonathan Gulliver, the state's highway administrator, said their modeling predicts "severe" traffic congestion, particularly during rush hours.

And in additional to bus-only lanes and various parking restrictions along shuttle bus route, Boston will also close parts of several streets by Government Center and Copley during the closure:

  • State Street between Congress Street and Washington Street
  • Dartmouth Street between St. James Street and Boylston Street
  • Washington Street (northbound-only) between Arborway and Williams Street

Gulliver said that roadway capacity along the Orange Line route "will be effectively cut in half in some areas."

"I know that some of the transit users may be considering driving as an alternative to the shuttle busses," Gulliver said. "I assure you that that is not a good option."

This article was originally published on August 03, 2022.

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Nik DeCosta-Klipa Twitter Newsletter Editor
Nik DeCosta-Klipa is the newsletter editor for WBUR.

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