Sunday, June 23, 2024

Some of the six red line pilot cars undergo testing. (Photo: MBTA via Twitter)

In a city where development and much of daily life relies on mass transit, word of a yearlong delay in the first new MBTA cars in decades – and the increased capacity they promise – has been met with resignation and a boost for bikes and buses.

The news of a delay was tweeted Oct. 5 by state Department of Transportation officials, unusual for an agency that regularly sends out press releases on such mundanities as “Newburyport/Rockport Commuter Rail Line Changes at Salem Station This Weekend and Halloween Weekend.”

It comes atop significant delays in implementation of the MBTA’s new fare system after assurances last year that riders would enjoy essentially a new T in 2023. The new target date is the winter of 2024 – though in one way it’s worse for people served by the orange line: Though they will see new cars running in the summer of 2023, that reflects a 15-month delay.

There are now six new red line cars being tested, with the first train set “expected to enter revenue service” by the end of this year, state officials said. But the bulk of the 252 red line cars on order will be late.

The delays will be a setback “for so many Cambridge residents who depend on public transit, especially during a pandemic when a faster, more reliable T would also improve public health,” said councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, chair of the City Council’s transportation committee.

Though manufacturing and production issues at the state assembly facility is called the primary cause of delays, an earlier shutdown in manufacturing in China contributed, state transportation officials said.

“The more recent delays from the pandemic have only compounded some earlier issues that [China Railway Rolling Stock Corp. Ltd.] was experiencing in pre-pandemic times,” material procurement difficulties and problems with employee retention, MBTA deputy general manager Jeffrey Gonneville said in an Oct. 5 meeting.

Development and Kendall Square

Much Cambridge development relies on easy access to mass transit, both in the justification for its placement and when it comes to marketing itself to tenants. Nearby mass transit nodes are also cited when it comes to asking for special permits for fewer parking spaces than zoning demands. But an overburdened red line is a constant theme of debate on larger developments and special permits, and more than a year ago the Kendall Square Association under president C.A. Webb declared a transportation “state of emergency.”

The innovation industries of Kendall Square employ nearly 100,000 people, and “our employees live everywhere, including Cambridge,” Webb said through a representative. “Before the Covid-19 pandemic, over 41 percent of our community commuted to work by public transportation, and now the way we commute has drastically changed, creating uncertainty.”

“We know that public transit’s future is still an essential part of our recovery – and that Kendall’s continued growth is reliant on public transit and sustainable modes of transportation,” Webb said.

But in addition to continuing to advocate for expanding MBTA service, the association wants greater access and equity for all public transportation modes, “including improved bus routes,” she said, pointing to adoption of a dedicated bus lane on Charles River Dam Road between the Lechmere and North Station stops on the green line.

Buses and bicycles

City councillor JIvan Sobrinho-Wheeler, chair of the council’s transportation committee, seen in January. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

Sobrinho-Wheeler agreed there should be more emphasis on buses, as well as on bicycles.

“What doesn’t get enough attention is how fast and good bus service is. Bus-only lanes can be a big part of that,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

There are new bus-only lanes in Somerville on Broadway, in Everett and in parts of Boston, “and Cambridge has at least a couple corridors that are both high use and high delay,” he said. One of the bus routes that suffers from traffic delays is the No. 1, which passes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology between Boston and Central Square. In conversations with the MBTA, he’s urged a dedicated lane that would let riders know they might arrive at their destination in a reliable 20 minutes rather than a possible 45.

While low ridership during the extended coronavirus lockdown hides the problems of red line capacity, the T’s announced delay “makes it all the more important that we will have reliable bus service,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said. Like Webb, he pointed to East Cambridge, noting that the dismantling of the green line Lechmere stop for relocation forced increased support of buses in the neighborhood. “We hope we can see a similar pattern here, where there’s this massive delay on the contractors’ part that the MBTA needs to push more on. But that could be a way to say, ’You know, this isn’t working. We need some other way to ensure that transportation is on time,’” he said.

Only a day after the MBTA announcement, the council passed a Cycling Safety Ordinance update ordering a fully connected 22.6-mile network of protected bike lanes by May 1, 2026, installing approximately 3.8 miles per year. Sobrinho-Wheeler called it “the other piece” in ensuring red line limitations don’t define Cambridge transportation.

New reliance on cars

Meanwhile, said Janie Katz-Christy, director of the nonprofit, transportation-focused Green Streets Initiative, car sales have been booming during the pandemic because people are told “it’s irresponsible to not have one,” and that the price of gas has sunk to “shockingly” low rates.

“We could have passed a gas tax,” Katz-Christy said.

The state and federal governments are in need of stronger leadership, with an emphasis on mass transit and alternative forms of transportation that get cars off the road, she said.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack promised some leadership this month, vowing to hold CRRC – whose $567 million bid in 2014 was significantly lower than its competitors’ – to its contractual commitments. The state noted that it can seek delay damages of $500 per day, per car from the company, and Gonneville suggested damages would be pursued at the end of the contract.

“The MBTA needs these improvements, and they should seek compensation for the delays by the manufacturer,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.