Why You Should Be Happy About the Red Line Cuts

You could almost hear the collective groan coming from Davis and Porter squares Saturday morning. That was when the news came down that, between November and March, there will be no weekend Red Line service north of Harvard Square. That’s so MBTA workers can finish an $80 million repair project to the cracked and corroded floating slabs beneath the tracks — these are the concrete pieces that sit between the tracks and the small rubber disks installed below to help absorb noise and vibration. It sounds sort of complicated, but suffice to say that these slabs are the things the trains run on.

No doubt, this stinks. It’ll be hugely inconvenient for the folks who live up there and no help to the bottom lines of the restaurants and bars that depend on people taking the T up to northern Cambridge and Somerville on those weekend nights. (And yes, I know there will be shuttle buses, but those don’t count. Everybody who’s ever taken a T replacement route shuttle bus knows they are a special type of painful.)

But let me tell you, all in all, this is great news! Though it hardly puts a dent in the MBTA’s $4.5 billion backlog of maintenance projects, it’s an important thing to get done. My favorite thing I learned while reporting our package on all the MBTA’s troubles earlier this year was that the reason the T closes so early and can’t run longer hours is that maintenance workers basically need the whole night to get out there and work on the tracks. It’s not like we have a third set of tracks (like the New York subway system), so it’s the only opportunity for maintenance. It’s no stretch to say that T workers are out there every night holding the century-old system together with duct tape. The other thing I kept hearing over and over while reporting was that, too often, the T ignored un-glamourous maintenance projects — the type of mundane but important ones that you couldn’t necessarily cut a ribbon on. So yes, this is an un-sexy but crucial project that needs to get done, and there’s really no option but to close the tracks to do it.

Still not sold? Recall that this Red Line project is the one that caused Dave D’Alessandro, when he was preparing his report on the state of the T a few years ago, to say that he didn’t think the Red Line was safe to ride north of Harvard Square. If you need further convincing, here’s a link to the internal MBTA document that initially requested funding for the project. Note that it is labeled “high” priority — and that the funding request was from over two years ago. The MBTA document reads:

The slabs will continue to corrode, most likely at an increased pace as time passes. If not dealt with now the safe operation of trains would be adversely affected and a serious impact on Red Line service would result.

In other words, even if the MBTA didn’t do anything about this, service was going to be interrupted sooner or later. Let’s just be happy that the trains are stopping by MBTA offcials’ choice and not because some catastrophe forced their hand.