Friday, July 19, 2024

A bicyclist trudges along an MBTA red line platform. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

A fifth MBTA red line train shutdown for Cambridge and Somerville has been scheduled for 2024 – the second coming in February – and officials are doing everything they can to keep commuters from putting more private cars on the road when they can’t take their usual mass transit.

In addition to an expected Feb. 5-14 shutdown from Alewife to Park Street, state transportation officials need one Feb. 24-25 from Harvard to Broadway, city councillors learned at their Monday meeting.

The MBTA plans to rely on shuttle buses to replace absent train services, but with so many commuters depending on the red line, it will be difficult to keep up. More cars on streets with  buses will cause significant traffic delays, lengthening commute times for everyone on the road, officials warned.

More people driving “is really going to compound the problem pretty significantly” said Brooke McKenna, transportation commissioner for Cambridge, telling commuters to expect heavy traffic throughout early February when cold weather discourages bicycling and walking as alternatives.

“We aren’t going to sugarcoat that this will be a difficult period for commuters,” City Manager Yi-An Huang said.

Massive outreach expected

The council hopes employers will make accommodations.

“I just want to understand a little bit more about how we’re ensuring there is a systemwide understanding of the impact, because it will be quite dramatic if we don’t do everything we can,” councillor Patty Nolan said, urging contact with employers and universities to encourage “allowing different kinds of work schedule so travel can be spread out through the day.”

That flexibility is being encouraged in a massive outreach effort not just to top employers but with translated messages being spread through community engagement teams, the Council on Aging, the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities, libraries, public schools, transportation management associations, the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations and neighborhood groups, places of worships, universities, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, Housing Authority and Health Alliance, pro EMS and Cambridge Office For Tourism, as well as internally at City Hall. “We’re also in the process of putting up a dedicated city webpage” and have started outreach through the city’s daily email update and social media, McKenna said. The city also plan to use a police department alert system.

Four minutes becomes 20

There are approximately 37,000 riders on the Cambridge and Somerville sections of the red line each day who now face 36 total days of shutdowns needed as part of the MBTA’s track improvement program to end frustrating speed restrictions, giving 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.

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.

“I took the red line this weekend. I was at the Charles/MGH stop, which is out in the cold in the sub-zero weather,” city councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said, “and waited 20 minutes for a train that was supposedly four minutes away.”

Huang said that experience is all too common among people trying to use mass transit now.

“The red line really is one of the core backbones of the MBTA and mass transit within the region,” Huang said. “The existing service levels are already very disruptive. We are experiencing frequent disruptions and failures in the line, and so this is really needed work.”

Worse before it gets better

Unfortunately, things will get worse before they get better. “We recognize how disruptive this period is going to be,” Huang said.

The city and state are working on improving the experience for people who take shuttle buses during the shutdowns, including ensuring parking is cleared at corners so buses can navigate more easily and adding temporary bus stops. The shuttles will follow the red line’s route, McKenna said. 

The commuter rail will be free during the shutdowns and the state is looking at adding an extra morning train to a ride that is typically “very full,” McKenna said. During warmer-weather shutdowns later in the year, Bluebike rentals may be free too.

Red line closings within Cambridge and Somerville are now scheduled for:

  • Feb. 5-14 from Alewife to Harvard
  • Feb. 24-25 from Harvard to Broadway
  • 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 dates are tentative and could change, and it’s possible dates will be added for additional repairs, said Elise Harmon-Freeman, communications manager for Cambridge’s Department of Traffic, Parking and Transportation.