Sunday, July 14, 2024

A rendering of the Kendall headhouse due to open in June 2025. (Image: Boston Properties)

The MBTA red line in Cambridge and Somerville will see shutdowns four times in 2024 from February to December, city staff warned Cambridge’s Transit Advisory Committee at a Dec. 7 meeting.

The 33 total days of shutdowns are needed as part of the MBTA’s track improvement program to end frustrating speed restrictions and give crews time to replace 5,000 feet of rail and do 13,000 feet of tamping, which supports the foundation below the rails and rail ties.

Transit officials hope that the improved tracks will improve rider safety, increase train speeds and minimize delays. “We’re all really, as city staff, very excited about the fact that the MBTA has a plan now to address the speed restrictions,” said Andy Reker, a transit planner for Cambridge. “We are very concerned about the impacts.”

With approximately 37,000 riders on the Cambridge and Somerville sections of the red line each day, transit closings present logistical issues. A city working group aiming to minimize disruption began meeting Dec. 7 – but with the first work arriving in February, “that really means we only have six weeks to plan,” Reker said. “The big one in July is the one that really makes me kind of shake in my boots.”

Red line closings within Cambridge and Somerville are scheduled for:

  • Feb. 5-13 from Alewife to Harvard
  • July 8-23 from Alewife to Kendall
  • Oct. 15-20 from Kendall to Broadway in South Boston
  • Dec. 14-19 from Harvard to Park Street in Boston

The most likely solution for replacing T service is shuttle buses, but “boardings at Cambridge stations are some of the highest along the red line,” or close to 10,000 a weekday, Reker said. “The July one in particular is just really hard to imagine … even if we get 50 percent of people on the shuttles, that’s a lot of people and a lot of shuttles. So we will have to evaluate that. We have not come up with any plans just yet.”

As one city that’s part of a state transit system, there’s only so much power Cambridge has to improve outcomes. But the working group and other staff plan to make T alternatives function as smoothly as possible by filling potholes, fixing cracked sidewalks and making other repairs; looking at new shuttle stops; and pitching the MBTA on other ways to make up for rider hassles.

“We’re asking the T to think about free or reduced fares for alternate service on the commuter rail, for example,” Reker said. “If anyone’s headed downtown, they could just hop on at Porter.”

Advisory Committee members brought up ideas to explore, starting with adding temporary bus lanes and instituting signal priority for buses; and ensuring commuter rail rides are free for the duration, increasing their frequency and suggesting that trains passing through Cambridge be the bi-level models that hold more riders. Mixing into the schedule some express buses that skip stops between destinations – such as between Alewife and Kendall – has been asked of the T, Reker said, and “they are more open to it than I have historically heard that they are.”

One committee member proposed a temporary commuter rail station at Alewife.

“I don’t know if that’s feasible for February,” Reker said. “But we’ve put it out there to the T.”

At their peak, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trains travel 40 mph. Speed restrictions imposed March 9 for safety concerns led to extensive sections of rides that took trains down to 10 to 25 mph – though some green line track problems slowed trolleys so much that people could walk faster than the vehicles rolled.

The speed restrictions have been in place for 41 weeks; by the end of the December red line shutdown it will have been 93 weeks.

Other business

The committee also discussed a $17 million headhouse renovation project for the Kendall/MIT red line station for the outbound platform – originally attached to the building occupied by the MIT Coop. An access tunnel is scheduled to open in the basement of the replacement Google building at 325 Main St. in May as the headhouse becomes inaccessible through the end of construction in June 2025.

Designs for the project, which is paid for the private developer Boston Properties, show a glass-walled building housing stairs and escalators set back from the street, topped by a wood-floored deck and surrounding by a plaza with seating. Next to the headhouse are improvements that opened in June 2022 with public restrooms, shared kitchen facilities and pickleball courts. “It’s been pretty remarkable seeing how much more lively the use of the park has been since its previous design,” said Tom Evans, executive director of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.

Along with headhouse construction, the advisory committee reviewed a shared bus boarding curb and cycle lane on Belmont Street in Strawberry Hill. Typically, there is a bus boarding island for MBTA bus riders; on Belmont Street, bus riders need to cross a bike lane to board. The committee plans crosswalk markings across the lane.