MBTA stairs at JFK/UMass shut down, fixes are a ‘priority’

A once-heavily-used set of stairs at JFK-UMass MBTA station have been blocked off since engineering consultants discovered “structural concerns" last month. Gintautas Dumcius photo

Longer wait times for subway trains and shiny new train cars taken out of service. Those are two of the major issues facing the MBTA as the public transit agency faces inquiries from state lawmakers and federal officials.

Add another thing that’s affecting riders to the list: Stairs were recently closed off at JFK/UMass Station, which serves the Red Line, three commuter rail lines and various buses.

MBTA officials shut down the stairs with little fanfare on May 19, the same day staffers and engineering consultants discovered “structural concerns.” With safety as a “top priority and out of an abundance of caution,” the stairway was closed, according to MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston.

Commuters can get to the station by using a nearby ramp.

“A repair plan has been developed and materials to complete repairs have just been received this week,” Battiston said. “Crews are mobilizing now to complete the repairs as a priority.”

The repairs will be finished in the “coming weeks,” she added.

For regular commuters, the JFK/UMass stairs have long appeared rusty, and pieces of lumber were at some point put in place underneath the steps.

Notably, the stairs are steps away from another set of stairs that were the focus of a death investigation last September. A 40-year-old Boston University professor fell from dilapidated stairs that connected the Columbia Road overpass to Old Colony Avenue, which is next to JFK/UMass Station.

State workers demolished the stairs after the death of the professor. Another state agency, the Department of Transportation, was in custody of the stairs for more than a decade. The stairs had been blocked off and in disrepair for months, even as a sign with MBTA branding said they would be closed until “Fall 2020.” The repairs did not occur before the man’s death and ensuing demolition.

After a Reporter inquiry in September about the JFK/UMass stairs and others owned by the MBTA, agency officials said all stairs are routinely inspected by agency employees and reviewed by third party engineering firms, with “patch repair work” happening from time to time.

The T spends roughly $31 million annually on maintenance and upkeep, according to T officials at the time.

State lawmakers are planning an oversight hearing focused on the MBTA after the Federal Transit Administration cited safety issues in a review of the system. The FTA review prompted the T to cut back on frequency of weekday subway service, including on the Red Line because it was out of compliance with the required number of subway dispatchers at its operations control center. The service cutbacks went into effect this week.

Additionally, T officials earlier this week pulled all new Orange Line and Red Line cars out of service due to an offline Orange Line vehicle’s “battery failure” in the agency’s Wellington Yard in Medford. The new trains are manufactured by Chinese-owned firm CRRC, with factory workers in Springfield assembling the train cars.

Mayor Michlle Wu, who regularly rides the Orange Line, expressed frustration with the new train cars getting pulled out of service.

“With the T, it’s just always two steps forward, one step back. Three steps back,” she said. “So we need to make sure we are putting in the resources to fix what needs to be fixed, maintain and plan ahead. We have no choice. Public transportation has to be the foundation for how we open back up our economy, how we make sure that in the summer, as more in-person events are happening, kids are trying to get to internships, families are looking to get around the city and people are going back into work, it is absolutely essential.”

Wu said she was “grateful” to the Legislature for stepping up oversight of the T.

“We are here as a result of decisions not being made, or delayed, over the last few years and deferred maintenance for decades before that,” she said.

She added that she felt safe riding the T.

Massachusetts House and Senate leaders said the Legislature’s Transportation Committee will have a hearing in the “coming weeks,” citing an “increased need to better understand the agency’s shortcomings and help restore public confidence.”

State Rep. Liz Miranda, who is running for the Second Suffolk Senate seat on the ballot later this year, said in a statement that she will press for more state funding of the MBTA.

“People across the Second Suffolk rely on bus connections to these lines, and longer wait times mean they need to leave even earlier and get home even later. People who get on the Mattapan Trolley need to know that they’ll be able to catch a train at Ashmont,” she said in a statement. “We need to think about the T on a system-wide level, and these cuts tear the rug out from people who are just trying to make their connections.”

Material from State House Service was used in this report.

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