Keeping up appearances is struggle at aging T stops
Returning from a recent shopping trip, Olga Fakturovich set down her parcels on the Government Center platform and waited for the Blue Line to Revere.
Overhead, white paint flaked off a support beam, and a sad strand of rubber dangled from a dingy light fixture, devoid of elasticity and purpose. Down the tracks, a grimy SCOLLA was all that was visible of the old “Scollay Square’’ mosaic sign, a cracked tombstone from a bygone era.
“It looks ugly,’’ Fakturovich said, longing for the grandeur of the Moscow Metro, or even the Kiev system in her native Ukraine. “I know, MBTA, it’s very poor.’’
But with that, a sleek stainless-steel train glided into the station - part of a 94-car, $178 million acquisition three years ago - to whisk Fakturovich and other afternoon riders toward a series of refurbished stations: State, Aquarium, Maverick, Airport.
It was an illustration of the stark contrasts in a subway system that traces its origins to the late 19th century and that bears the scars of age and 20-hour-a-day use.
State, the most recently renovated of the bunch, was the site of a ribbon-cutting a few weeks ago for the near-completion of a $68 million station facelift. That means one less shabby station. But there are still plenty of eyesores underground, as the T proceeds incrementally to refurbish tired stations.
“Government Center is probably the biggest dog, if you will,’’ said Richard A. Davey, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. “Certainly, there are a few.’’
The T has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years on station upgrades, centered on making the system more accessible to riders with disabilities - improvements spurred by a federal lawsuit. On the familiar spider map, 27 of the 30 busiest subway stations now carry the blue-and-white icon for wheelchair access.
There is no such map for station aesthetics, more open to interpretation than accessibility, and traversing the spectrum from dumpy to dazzling. One rider’s blighted bunker is another’s historic marvel.
But where some may see art in benches etched with graffiti or find haunted charm in the spare catacombs of the Green Line, sometimes decay is just decay: puddles of rust-brown water on the Haymarket platforms; gnarled mineral deposits hanging like stalactites over the Tufts Medical Center track pit; a bandaged duct at Park Street weeping like an infected wound.
Private crews pick up trash daily, but the deeper cleaning, painting, and refreshing that the T once performed on a rotating five-year schedule at major stations has been on hold for nearly a decade for lack of money, not counting those stations that have been modernized for accessibility. Michael A. Turcotte, assistant general manager for engineering and maintenance, said he hopes to carve out money within the budget in the coming year to restart that program at least in part.
The lack of maintenance shows, said Peter Zalewski, 53, a South Boston resident who contacts the T periodically to appeal for more trash cans at Broadway station and report concerns. Last week, he e-mailed about a pair of poster-size chunks of plaster, a few inches thick, that crumbled onto the outbound tracks.
“Why isn’t there a maintenance schedule?’’ said Zalewski, whose home station is among the dingier ones. “It shouldn’t just be neglect, neglect, neglect.’’
There is a backlog of about $4 billion in needed maintenance for the T’s stations, garages, fleet, track, and other infrastructure, forcing a triage approach that puts critical investments first. And the typical customer wish list ranks reliability and efficiency over looks. But appearances matter, inspiring confidence and potentially attracting and retaining more fare payers, said Brian Kane, budget and policy analyst for the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents communities served by the T.
“When I go into Aquarium, and now State Street, it’s like going into a new airport. It’s kind of beautiful and elegant, and it gives you a sense of really going somewhere,’’ said Kane. “But if you go into Boylston, it’s like going into your garage.’’
Turcotte, who came to the T from the private sector in 2009, said reviving the five-year program might cost $1 million or more per station for sprawling warrens such as Downtown Crossing, with myriad stairwells, platforms, and passageways. Without the money to do everything, he said, his team is trying to figure out ways to “do things better and faster with less,’’ conferring with other transit agencies to compare practices.
From that, they are now painting the ceilings at Park Street black. The surface there, and at many stations, is a popcorn-style flame retardant with a nubby surface that attracts brake-shoe dust, and is notoriously difficult to clean. Years of metal-on-metal dust have turned many of those white ceilings a blotchy gray.
Black paint hides the dust better. If customers respond favorably, other stations will get the same treatment, Turcotte said. The T is also reassigning painters to night shifts to work more efficiently and making low-cost improvements, such as installing 50 fans this summer in stations where customers have complained of stifling conditions.
“I have to do everything I can with my team to try to keep these stations in a condition that I personally want to walk into and say, ‘This is a comfortable place to be,’ ’’ Turcotte said.
On a swing through 15 stations, it was easy to find signs of woe, but there were also gems. Sometimes, it is a matter of architecture; cobbled together across generations, the T lacks the unified look of Washington’s Metro, designed at once in a 1960s-vision-of-the-future style.
Some dazzle, like the new Maverick in East Boston, where a graceful headhouse - the above-ground entrance - of glass, steel, and granite gives way to an airy underground station, with smooth concrete floors offset by granite trim.
The Orange Line’s Tufts Medical Center stop, not yet 25 years old, has all the charm of an abandoned locker room, dimly lit and bricked over in shades of rust. The mezzanine windows overlooking the platforms, elsewhere rendered in glass or open ribbing, are a cloudy and graffitied plexiglass.
Some spaces can only be improved so much. The Winter Street concourse, a century-old passageway providing a lesser-known pedestrian link between the Green Line at Park Street and the Orange Line at Downtown Crossing, evokes the bowels of the old Boston Garden: low ceiling, exposed duct work, crumbling concrete. It spent most of its windowless life as storage space, before opening to customers in 1979.
“No one’s asked us if they can hold their wedding reception there,’’ quipped Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman.
At the Park Street end of the concourse, Tom Lydon, who has worked for the T for 38 years, said he had come to appreciate the appearance and atmosphere of the station, where a crowd roughly equal to that of a
“You have to go by how it looks, how it smells, how accessible it is, and how helpful it is, because there are so many people on the T at this time of year that don’t know the system at all,’’ said Lydon, a Red Line chief inspector, between helping tourists with directions. “Could it look better? Yes. But it’s always going to be a little ragged. It’s here to move people - as quickly and as efficiently and as swiftly as it can.’’
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.