There were torrential downpours on a recent evening in April when Erin Murphy had to head back into Boston from her home in Central Square.
Like she has done over the last year whenever she’s needed to take the T downtown, she rolled herself in her wheelchair to Kendall Square where she could access a platform to take the train inbound. It’s been the most reliable option for her since the elevator servicing the inbound track of the Red Line at the Central Square T station closed for repairs in April 2018.
By the time she arrived at her destination that evening, she told Boston.com, she was soaked.
As a full-time graduate student at Suffolk University who also works part-time downtown, Murphy said the closure of the Central Square elevator that provides access to trains headed into Boston has affected every aspect of her life.
The work on the elevator was initially projected to be completed by April this year, but construction is now expected to continue through early 2020.
The MBTA told Boston.com in a statement that the delay is due to “unforeseen conditions that require mitigation,” involving a leaky pipe and a connection for the fire department.
During a field survey a contractor working on the elevator “confirmed” that a fire department connection (FDC) would have to be relocated in order to build the new, bigger elevator shaft, according to the MBTA:
When the existing stand pipe was tested to relocate the FDC in August 2018, zone 21B of the existing standpipe failed a pre-air test. The stand pipe system needs to be repaired before elevator work can continue. Determining the location of the leakage in the standpipe is a difficult and lengthy process due to the stand pipe’s location embedded in the platform structure slab. In November 2018, the contractor also discovered 17 unforeseen existing conduits in the elevator shaft that need to be relocated for elevator construction to continue.
The work to repair the stand pipe and relocate the conduits can only be performed between 1:30 – 4:30 a.m. because it requires the shutdown of the “train pit/right of way inside the station,” the transit agency said.
“This means the contractor can only work about three hours each night,” the MBTA said. “The stand pipe has since been repaired and has passed the City of Cambridge FD water test provisionally with minor deficiencies, which will be repaired over the next few weeks. The conduit relocation work is continuing and will take 3 to 4 more weeks to complete. Once the stand pipe and conduit relocation work is completed, the contractor will resume elevator work within the construction zone during the day and the amount of construction time will be more than double each day.”
Murphy said there are serious consequences for her with the extended outage of the elevator, since it impacts her both professionally and socially.
“Everything I do is affected by being able to commute from where I live,” she said. “I don’t have access to a car, and [the MBTA] is my primary mode of transportation.”
With the closure, she has three options for getting downtown using the train. The first is for her to roll in her wheelchair from Central Square to Kendall, a distance of about a mile, where she can take an elevator down to the platform. It’s the substitute route she primarily takes.
“It is the most reliable way of doing the commute,” she said. “It can take me about 35 minutes to do that.”
While the project is underway, the MBTA is offering shuttle bus service between Central and Kendall. Inbound passengers getting off at Central who need the elevator are being instructed to take the train to Kendall, where a shuttle will take them back to Central Square. Commuters like Murphy, who would be boarding inbound trains at Central, are being told they can take the shuttle outside the station to Kendall in order to take the Red Line into Boston.
Murphy said her experience with the shuttle service — her second option — has been “hit or miss.”
“There have been times where it’s come within 10 minutes, but then I’ve also had experiences where it has taken 20 or more minutes,” she said. “So I’ve stopped using the shuttle all together because it’s very unpredictable for me. I probably haven’t used it since the winter due to its unpredictability.”
The third option, which she described as “equally as challenging,” is for her to take the Red Line from Central outbound to Harvard, where she would need to switch to an inbound train. That method takes a lot of time, Murphy said, because once she gets off at Harvard, she has to wait again for a train.
“It’s not like I can get on right away, because sometimes during rush hour it’s very, very busy,” she said.
A fourth, more expensive choice, is for her to take the RIDE, the MBTA’s paratransit service. Passengers need to be approved before making reservations with the service, and it costs $3.15 each way, compared to the $2.75 for the subway.
“The last time I used it, they were running with delays themselves,” Murphy said. “They got me to work a little bit late. And I’ve been running into some reliability issues with that as well.”
Since the elevator closed last year, Murphy estimates that she has allocated an extra 35 to 40 minutes for her commute to get to her destinations on time. Her entire commute — traveling from Central Square to Park Street — usually takes “close to an hour” in total, she said. During the winter, the snow added an extra 20 minutes to her commute.
“I have to make sure that I leave enough time for other issues that may occur, whether that’s signal problems or other issues that are occurring on the T,” she said. “So there’s a lot thrown in the mix. It’s not like I just go down to the platform and then I find out that there’s an issue. I have to travel to another platform and then find out whether or not there’s an issue there as well.”
Getting into Boston for her responsibilities at work and school has become a constant source of stress, since she is always worried about being late. She requested an alternative work schedule with a later start time because of the elevator closure.
Construction, with bumpy or closed sidewalks in the Kendall Square area, and the weather can add another layer of challenges, since she’s most often using her manual wheelchair to get to the station in the booming tech neighborhood in Cambridge. But even with the potential “curveballs” with the weather, it remains her most reliable method, she said. Though a side affect is her hands and clothes often get dirty from having to push herself to the station that is accessible.
“It’s uncomfortable, it’s unpredictable, and it’s exhausting,” she said of her new commute. “It really is exhausting. Because whether I’m going to church or whether I am going to work or meeting friends, it just takes so much time to be able to travel just three T stops. It’s exhausting.”
Murphy initially reached out to the MBTA and public officials at the beginning of last April, with the aim of getting an understanding of why the closure and repair of the elevator would take a year.
“I have witnessed with my own eyes skyscrapers going up in that amount of time, if not slightly longer than that,” she said. “So it was baffling to me that it would take a year and now they’re talking about two years for an elevator install.”
State Rep. Mike Connolly is one of the officials Murphy contacted, hoping for more information and help with the situation. In early April, he shared an update with his constituents about efforts to address the disruption in a blog post.
He told Boston.com that he’s been in regular contact with the MBTA since he started hearing from about a half dozen people last year about the closure and has been urging the agency to not “leave any stone unturned” in trying to expedite the repairs.
“I think they’ve made efforts to deal with what they’re dealing with as best they can, but the bottom line is it’s not acceptable and they have to do better,” Connolly said.
The representative said the situation “illustrates where we are at with our public transit system” in Massachusetts and shows the impact “at the human level.” A report from earlier this year found the MBTA needs an investment of more than $8 billion over the next 10 years to address repairs needed in the system, he pointed out.
“One of the things that I’m doing in the Legislature right now is really pushing for a significant increase in revenue for the transportation system as well as many other things,” Connolly said. “And in particular with transportation so that the MBTA can really get ahead of this maintenance backlog and then go even further and modernize and expand the system so that hopefully we can avoid these sets of circumstances in the future.”
Both Murphy and Connolly said they have asked the MBTA whether service on that stretch of the Red Line could be temporarily shut down on a weekend, as is sometimes done for track repairs, to allow more time to work on the elevator.
The MBTA told Boston.com the measure was “not possible.”
“A station shut down alone without cutting off traction power for the train does not provide access to the right of way where the work needs to be performed,” the agency said. “Additionally, there is extreme difficulty in quickly planning a weekend shuttle bus diversion due to Central Square’s location, available bus resources, and already-scheduled weekend diversion work.”
The MBTA said safety remains its first priority even as it looks for options to speed up the projected timeline for work on the elevator.
“The MBTA understands the frustration of our customers and is exploring all possibilities to expedite the work while maintaining Red Line service and work site safety,” the MBTA said. “Efforts to expedite include exploring the possibility of performing some conduit relocation work without a shutdown of the power for Red Line trains where it is safe to do so.”
Connolly said he will continue to push for “long- and short-term solutions” for the Central Square elevator closure.
“It never should have been allowed to reach this point,” he said. “But I think again this is reflective of what happens when a public transit system has been subject to the kind of austerity that we’ve seen in Massachusetts over the past few decades.”
Murphy said she hopes people will continue to think “outside the box” for ways to alleviate the burden that she and others with mobility impairments are facing with the outage. At Harvard and Kendall, she said fellow commuters can help by being mindful of wheelchair users trying to get on the train.
In addition to the outage at Central, both elevators at Andrew Station are closed for replacement through this summer, as is the one at Harvard that services the lobby of the station. An elevator at Alewife is also closed.
“The biggest thing that I can say is that it is exhausting, and — being someone who is going to school full time and working part time — it’s time that I don’t have to be spending on a commute,” Murphy said. “Especially when I live so close to where I need to be, it’s hard for me to understand why it’s taking me so long to get to places.”