Editorial: Briefing needed on Trolley Line delays

Two state lawmakers are pressing MBTA brass for answers this week after an investigative report by NBC10 Boston documented delays with the refurbishment of trolleys on the Mattapan High-Speed Line.

The report claimed that the $7.9 million project to restore existing Presidential Conference Committee (PCC) trolley cars is two years behind schedule and could impact a larger, $118-million plan to modernize the light-rail line between Mattapan Square and Ashmont.

On May 6, state Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley and her colleague, Rep. William J. Driscoll, Jr. sent a letter to MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak citing the news report and requesting a briefing for lawmakers “as soon as possible.”

“As you know, our legislative delegation in the state House of Representatives has been seeking updates on the progress of the Mattapan High Speed Line related projects, most recently in a letter dated November 25, 2020,” the letter reads in part. The lawmakers added: “…the Covid-19 pandemic can understandably account for much of any delay between March 2020 and May 2021; however, it does not explain the apparent void of any action on the PCC car refurbishment between March 2019 and March 2020— a full year prior to the pandemic.”

The lawmakers noted that the first refurbished trolley was supposed to be returned to service in August 2019.

“Today, that first trolley to start rehab is still sitting, stripped and disassembled, in the repair facility. It appears that nothing has been done since the spring of 2019 or earlier.”

Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the T, told NBC10 Boston that “extensive lead paint removal” was the cause of the delay, suggesting that the scope of the problem was not known before the work began. T officials say that even though there wasn’t obvious work happening to the shell of the cars, it doesn’t mean other work was not proceeding, such as making parts that could be made elsewhere and installed.

The report said T officials think the first renovated trolley should be in service by August, with more rolling out after upgrades on a pace of roughly every five months.

In January 2019, MBTA officials unveiled a ten-year-plan to “transform” the Mattapan trolley corridor by gradually phasing out the 70-plus-year-old cars and replacing them with newer, used Green Line trolleys that can roll along the same tracks. However, the plan will require upgrades to other infrastructure along the 2.6 mile-route, including a new facility to maintain the vehicles and, critically, upgrades to bridges that need reinforcement to handle newer vehicles.

When revealed in 2019, the plan was generally well received. It meant that the vintage cars, already long past their expected lifespan, would continue to roll for another decade. And it locks in the T’s commitment to light rail along the line instead of buses, or worse: nothing.

On Tuesday, the Pesaturo said that Poftak’s office is working on scheduling the briefing requested by lawmakers.

He told the Reporter: “The project team was confronted with a number of obstacles beyond its control, but now the overhaul work is continuing at a steady pace. The MBTA fully understands how important this project is to the communities served by the Mattapan Line,” said Pesaturo. “The first two rebuilt cars will be in service this year, while the remaining cars will be back before ridership returns to pre-pandemic levels.”

-Bill Forry