MBTA Shutdowns Could Jeopardize Full Economic Recovery, Business Leaders Fear
Boston’s public transportation system is weaved into almost every facet of its economy, from real estate and businesses to its restaurants and nightlife. That system will soon face a dramatic disruption.
The Orange Line, the second-busiest line in Boston's transit system, will shut down entirely for four weeks starting Aug. 19, and the northern portion of the Green Line will shut down for four weeks starting Aug. 22, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority announced last week.
The closures, announced within two days of each other, have caused consternation among the city's real estate leaders. Several sources tell Bisnow that they worry it will further hamper their efforts to bring employees back to the office, and it could create significant economic pain from downtown Boston to suburbs like Malden and Somerville.
“The 30-day closing of the Orange Line could not have come at a more inopportune time as Greater Boston continues to emerge from the pandemic and property owners are struggling to repopulate downtown buildings,” Greater Boston Real Estate Board CEO Greg Vasil said in a statement to Bisnow.
The Orange Line shutdown came after the Federal Transit Administration ordered “an immediate safety stand down” of services due to multiple incidents, including a runaway train and a fire on that line.
In addition to the closures, poor maintenance has led to an overall slowdown in service this year including on the Red Line, the city's busiest line, the Boston Globe reported Monday.
With Labor Day right around the corner and students coming back from summer vacations, some business leaders are condemning the MBTA for not giving warning of the shutdown sooner.
Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Rooney told Bisnow that transit agencies in the past have typically had much more in-depth planning and notification processes when shutting down lines.
“In this case, it was very short notice," Rooney said. "[The MBTA provided] no information about the ways in which people will be able to commute with the Orange Line shut down. That was unfortunate and unfair to communities and to the business community.”
The MBTA declined to comment beyond the press release it posted last week about the closure. The release said the shutdown will allow the MBTA to make "substantial improvements" to the system's safety and efficiency. It provided travel alternatives such as the Commuter Rail and buses, but it said Orange Line riders who are able to work from home are "strongly encouraged" to do so.
Rooney said the GBCC has heard from business leaders who felt the MBTA's communication about travel alternatives has been insufficient, and this led his team to put together a list of resources for those trying to get information about the closure.
This is no small disruption to service. The Orange Line makes up the second-highest ridership in the city. The subway line had a total of 2.7 million monthly riders back in April, according to the MBTA Open Data Portal.
“It's not overstating it to suggest that public transportation is really the backbone of the regional economy in so many ways,” Rooney said.
Economic revitalization initiatives like the mayor's summer and fall event series downtown and the GBCC's own efforts to get workers back in the office could suffer major setbacks from this shutdown, Rooney said.
"When you have an entire transit line that carries 100,000 people a day shutdown, you're beginning to do things that work against re-creating the vitality," Rooney said.
The percentage of riders who say they are comfortable with the T had reached a pandemic-era high in March, according to a survey conducted that month by A Better City. The urban advocacy organization found that 73% of riders were comfortable riding the T again, compared to 53% in March 2021 and 12% in March 2020.
Scott Mullen, transportation demand management director at A Better City, said the survey showed the willingness of riders to take the T. But now with the shutdown and multiple safety incidents in recent months, that willingness might be fading.
“If you think of this as a Covid survey, you can think well, three-quarters of folks don't have any issue with public transportation," Mullen said. "That's the trust we're going to lose. Right? And that's what we cannot afford to lose."
“I don’t define a city by its borders but by its subway,” said Kevin Duffy, strategy and business development officer for the city of Malden. “What this does now is shrink the borders of the city.”
Duffy said that the MBTA has helped the city attract a younger population that can hop on either of the city’s two Orange Line stops: Malden Center and Oak Grove. The subway has also helped Malden’s business community, including its emerging life sciences sector and other industries, but the shutdown could make it harder for employees to commute.
“Malden has a good corner on the food manufacturing market,” Duffy said. “These are 100K SF facilities and there are a lot of employees. These companies are having a hard time because they have shifts running and they don’t want employees showing up late.”
J Malden Center, a Jefferson Apartment Group development that was completed in August 2020, marketed its proximity to the Orange Line's Malden Center stop on its website. Many tenants don’t just use the T to get to work but also to go into the city on the weekends or to shop at nearby Assembly Row.
Sandi Silk, senior vice president at Jefferson Apartment Group, said the transit alternatives during the Orange Line shutdown aren't enough for many residents.
“The Commuter Rail helps in the long haul, but it doesn't help for the person who, when sold on the dream of transit-oriented development, is relying on that transit for their everyday getting around from place to place, not just for commuting purposes,” Silk said.
Some residents and business leaders are cautiously optimistic that the shutdown will allow the MBTA to finally get the service and maintenance it needs. But Rooney said he thinks this could be the gateway for more disruption in the future.
“We should interpret this as a sign of things to come," Rooney said. "The more information that is trickled out regarding the condition of the T leads me to believe that we're going to see more of these on different lines."