BOSTON — Beacon Hill leaders are preparing to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the MBTA amid shutdowns and an ongoing federal safety probe of the state’s beleaguered public transit system.
On Wednesday, MBTA officials took the unprecedented step of shutting down the Orange line for 30 days beginning Aug. 19 to address safety concerns identified by the federal probe. The T’s Board of Directors approved a $37 million contract to provide shuttle bus service to temporarily replace trains on the major artery.
Speaking to reporters, Gov. Charlie Baker said the shutdown is part of plans to accelerate the MBTA’s infrastructure upgrades and service improvements.
“The T, as we know, was underfunded for decades and while our administration has made significant investments updating tracks, signals and cars, the T still faces a number of significant challenges,” Baker said at a briefing. Over the past several months those challenges have led the FTA to direct the T to implement an action plan, update employee safety directives and address staffing shortages.”
Baker said in addition to the Orange line work, the T will also be upgrading tracks and other equipment on the Green and Red subway branches as well as an acceleration of ongoing signal work along the commuter rail system.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Wednesday that the move to shut down the Orange line is “unprecedented” but will allow the MBTA to do “around the clock work” on multiple projects to upgrade the subway system.
“We have never shut down an entire line in this way in order to make sweeping improvements,” he said. “But we’re doing this because it’s the fastest, most efficient way to deliver the benefits to our customers.”
The move follows a massive infusion of public funds — approved by the state Legislature as part of the state budget and other spending bills — aimed at fixing the T, which is under investigation by the Federal Transit Administration following a string of breakdowns, crashes and fatal incidents.
MBTA officials have estimated that it will cost about $300 million comply with the FTA’s directives but the state has only budgeted $100 million.
Baker signed a $52.7 billion state budget last week that devotes $266 million to a reserve for the MBTA to help address workforce issues and any safety recommendations from the federal probe.
Separately, the Legislature has approved an $11.3 billion infrastructure bond bill that would make $400 million available for the transit agency.
“The safety record on the MBTA is simply unacceptable,” Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, said in remarks from the Senate floor ahead of the bill’s passage. “Accidents and derailments have led to the tragic loss of life, serious injury and a complete lack of confidence among riders.”
The FTA has issued a series of safety directives intended to address immediate safety issues, including runaway train incidents at MBTA yards.
Last week, the federal agency ordered a “safety stand-down” at the MBTA, requiring all workers who operate or work with disabled trains and other transit vehicles to stop work until they participate in a safety briefings with FTA officials.
In a letter to the MBTA, the FTA’s chief safety officer Joe DeLorenzo faulted the T for a “continued failure to sufficiently prevent unintended and controlled train movements by disabled trains” citing three incidents in May and July involving runaway trains in Dorchester and Braintree.
He said the FTA has determined that “a combination of unsafe conditions and practices exist such that there is a substantial risk of death or personal injury.”
While there were no injuries from the incidents, DeLorenzo wrote that “uncontrolled train movements, especially on the mainline, are exceptionally dangerous, can result in collision or derailment, and pose substantial risk of injury or death to employees in the path of the trains.”
The MBTA said in a statement that the state agency shares the FTA’s concerns and will “immediately” begin taking steps to comply with the orders.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.