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Orange Line commuters adjust to changes

Jeremy Siegel and Gal Tziperman Lotan
Orange Line commuters adjust to changes
Shuttle buses turn onto Ruggles Street near Ruggles Street station. BANNER PHOTO

Roubbins Jamal LaMothe, who lives in Malden, knew he should practice his commute to Tufts Medical Center before Monday morning, the first weekday morning of the Orange Line’s complete 30-day shutdown. So he boarded a shuttle bus to Oak Grove Sunday night as he got back to Massachusetts from a trip to Indianapolis to catch a Colts preseason game.

It did not go smoothly.

He said he had asked three MBTA employees for directions over the weekend, “and none of them had a clue.” One sent him in the wrong direction.

“Granted, I got home late,” he said. “But it’s beating the anxiety I would have had when I woke up today.”

By Monday morning, he had a plan. His usually simple Orange Line commute from Oak Grove to Tufts Medical Center would become a multimodal odyssey, about 45 minutes longer than his normal commute.

“This is going to go all the way to Government Center,” LaMothe said, ready to board a southbound shuttle. “From that point, I will walk towards Park Street, catch the Silver Line, and that will take me all the way to my job.”

LaMothe was just one commuter who woke up Monday to a new reality. The MBTA’s second-busiest line has been replaced by a patchwork of shuttle buses, increased commuter rail service and the Green Line, which itself is shut down north of Government Center for three weeks starting Monday. The month-long shutdown was announced two weeks ago as an extreme measure to let the MBTA handle years’ worth of deferred maintenance to tracks.

Orange Line riders boarded shuttle buses from Oak Grove to Government Center, where passengers are expected to board the Green Line to Copley Square, then get on another shuttle bus to Forest Hills to continue south.

Shuttle buses started leaving Oak Grove at about 4:30 a.m. Monday, earlier than the first Orange Line trains would have departed. MBTA workers were helping riders navigate the first weekday of the commute, hoping the earlier start times would help make up for the longer trip ahead and get people to their morning shifts, classes and appointments on time. Workers were visible at Oak Grove station Monday morning.

But like some other passengers, LaMothe was not optimistic that the T will meet its 30-day deadline and resume service on the Orange Line by Sept. 18.

“The MBTA, when they drop the ball, they drop the ball,” LaMothe said. “I don’t care if it goes on for three months. Just get it together before the wintertime.”

Getting passengers used to the new system was an undertaking. In Malden, Mayor Gary Christenson was at the Malden Center stop wearing a suit, tie and bright yellow safety vest, handing out Charlie Cards that people could show to ride the commuter rail for free and giving directions.

“We’re all in this together, and that’s why I’m out here, just doing what I can to help the situation,” Christenson said.

Malden police were at every intersection along the shuttle bus route in city limits, Christenson said, trying to ensure buses got through Malden as quickly as possible.

“This is all new for us, and what I’ve been encouraging everyone to do is work together,” Christenson said. “I think I even had one person report a pothole, so we’re doing everything we can to help.”

Some riders woke up especially early, unsure of how long their commutes would take.

Sylvia Yang usually takes the Orange and Red Line from Oak Grove to Cambridge, where she’s training as a residential counselor.

She had already had to take an Uber over the weekend to make it to work on time, she said. On Monday she went from the commuter rail to a bus.

“The commuter rail, it doesn’t come as often. So past 5:45, I can’t make it to work on time,” Yang said.

Other riders were concerned about whether they could even board the A Yankee Line buses the MBTA had contracted for shuttle service. Unlike MBTA buses, which passengers can board at curb height, some of the shuttle buses require people to climb a set of narrow stairs.

Mike Saunders of Malden said is “lucky enough” to be able to take a few MBTA buses to his job at a nursing home. The shuttles are not an option for him, he said.

“They have the nice Yankee bus lines with the big seats and the small aisles,” he said. “I couldn’t climb the stairs.”

He’s seen parents with young children try to get on and off shuttles with strollers, struggling to wrangle them up and down the stairs, he said. Even big backpacks can be awkward to maneuver down the aisles.

Downtown, Norman Bonin was midway through his commute from Haverhill to Kenmore Square. He’ll usually take the commuter rail to North Station and board the Green Line from there, but on Monday the MBTA started terminating Green Line service at Government Center so construction crews could work on the Green Line Extension, Lechmere Viaduct, and the Government Center Garage demolition.

Bonin planned to board a bus at North Station to take him to the Green Line at Government Center, where he could get on a train to Kenmore. Bonin uses a cane to get around because of an injury to his leg and said the steep stairs on shuttle buses are hard to navigate.

“It’s a nuisance,” Bonin said. “This should have been arranged a lot better.”

Karina Martinez, who lives near Oak Grove and works at Boston University, said she was worried about getting to work on time.

“Right now it’s barely on schedule,” she said. She had to walk all the way around Oak Grove station to board the commuter rail to North Station, and an MBTA worker gave her inaccurate directions that got her briefly lost.

“Honestly, I’m a little annoyed by it,” she said. “I mean, I think they’ve done a good job about setting up stations and putting people to help everyone. But it’s feeling a little disorganized.”

Jeremy Siegel is co-host of Morning Edition at GBH News. Gal Tziperman Lotan is a digital producer for GBH’s Morning Edition.

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