MBTA knew years ago that GLX tracks were too narrow and needed repairs, Eng says

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MBTA officials knew as far back as April 2021 that large swaths of Green Line Extension tracks were defective and too narrow – but the agency opened the lines anyway – General Manager Phillip Eng said Thursday as he pledged that the public would not carry the burden of paying for needed repairs.

The issue extends far beyond what was previously known and the MBTA made public this fall. Eng said half of the Union Square branch and 80% of the Medford-Tufts branch require repairs only a week after the MBTA said it had cleared slow zones that forced trains to run at walking speeds in some areas.

“That does not mean that the trains are running today unsafely,” Eng said. “It means that we’re going to have the GLX Constructors re-guage the track to bring it back to what the project called for. And once we have a plan in place, we’ll share that with the public. And the goal is to make sure that we do that in the least impactful way, the most efficient way and put this behind us.”

Gov. Maura Healey said she was frustrated and disappointed by the revelation that “senior MBTA officials under the previous administration knew about issues with the Green Line Extension tracks years ago and did not disclose them to our administration or address them on their watch.”

“The people of Massachusetts deserve better. I applaud GM Eng for uncovering this and taking swift action to hold people accountable and demand a work plan from the contractor to fix the narrow gauges on their own dime,” Healey said in a statement.

A political spokesperson for Baker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A public dashboard first showed multiple slow zones last month on brand-new tracks where trains were running at 3 mph, the average walking speed of any given person, which the transit agency said were put in place after finding some areas along the extension narrowed.

Questions were immediately raised over how long the agency had known about the issue and who was at fault for defective tracks that first opened in March and December 2022 under former Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration.

Eng previously said a case of narrow tracks “certainly is unusual.”

The first instance of narrow tracks were observed in April 2021 by inspectors for the contractors building the project, GLX Contractors, Eng said. Another inspection in November 2022, prior to the opening of the Medford-Tufts line, found 29 locations where tracks were narrow, which were addressed prior to the start of service, he said.

The November 2022 inspection also found “significant portions” of both the Union Station and Medford-Tufts branches that had tight tracks where repairs were needed but trains could run safely over, Eng said.

Eng said he believes there was an opportunity before opening the Green Line Extension to address the tight tracks, which he said eventually led to future conditions that required speed restrictions.

“The early indication as I mentioned that there was tight gauge in this yard facility, that was back in April 2021,” he said. “We also had other reports in November 2022 that indicated the widespread need to address more than just these isolated conditions. Back in April 2021, it’s my belief that it could have been and should have been more proactively investigated prior to opening and prior to installing what we’ve done.”

Baker opened the Medford-Tufts branch in December 2022 with a ribbon cutting that signaled the end to a project that cost the state $2.3 billion dollars and promised to bring reliable Green Line service to more areas of Greater Boston.

Officials said at the time that almost all of Somerville would be within a 12-minute walk of an MBTA station when taking into account Red and Orange Line stops. The five GLX stops were estimated to serve 50,000 riders each day and take about 45,000 car trips out of traffic, the MBTA said.

But issues with the tracks that surfaced in the past month have cast a long shadow over the extension at a time when the MBTA is already facing myriad problems, including the need to comply with a raft of federal safety orders.

Eng said he met with GLX Constructors last week and instructed them to come back with a proposal to address the large-scale need to bring track width into compliance with dimensions laid in the original project requirements.

He said GLX Constructors provided a proposal that MBTA officials are reviewing.

“This is not something that the public should be paying for. It’s not going to pay for. We’re reviewing the root cause still. What I’ve given you is my thought process on where I see some of the challenges,” he said.

Some were quick to blast the agency Thursday afternoon.

The Conservation Law Foundation, which filed lawsuits in an attempt to open the Green Line Extension, said the level of “dysfunction and irresponsibility defies explanation.”

“The previous administration was clearly more interested in cutting a ribbon than getting this project done safely and correctly. CLF sued to ensure that this extension was built, and this is now an opportunity for the Healey administration to commit to public transit and repair public trust,” Conservation Law Foundation Attorney Seth Gadbois said in a statement.

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