The Red Line: Will the MBTA's Troubles Never Cease?

In George Orwell's 1984, the world operates as smoothly as a well-oiled machine under the dictates of Big Brother. Human problems exist, but they are quietly and successfully squelched. To talk to Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) officials, the construction of the extended subway line--due for completion in 1984--is part and parcel of Orwell's perfect world. But beneath the boarded construction loom large problems that even two Big Brothers, Harvard and the MBTA, can't handle.

* * *

The short walk from Johnston Gate to the Store 24 is like walking through a mine field. Shoppers tread on shaky wooden boards while on the left and right simultaneous explosions, car horns and workers' shouts make conversation impossible. If this is annoying for the pedestrian, construction troubles, sky-rocketing costs and labor troubles have caused nothing but headaches for the MBTA.

While L. Edward Lashman, director of external projects for the University, paints a rosy picture of the MBTA project and its relations with Harvard--he says the University is satisfied with its $900,000 settlement with the MBTA for the use of University land and subcontracting priviledges--he refuses to comment on the construction's effect on Hemenway Gym, an issue which is worrying more than one MBTA project engineer.

According to MBTA Engineer George Wey, the outbound tunnel from Harvard Square to Porter Square will come within feet of the gym, which is located on "very soft soil." In the past, the University worked out an agreement with the MBTA to soundproof and underpin certain Harvard buildings, including Wigglesworth and Wyeth Halls. But Wey says that no provisions have been made for the gym.

If Harvard isn't expressing concern, the MBTA is. However, it plans to wait another two months until the construction is 150 ft. away from the gym before starting comprehensive tests, Wey says. He adds that, if their fears are borne out, the money for the $60,000 underpinning exists, but the MBTA doesn't want to spend it "unless it's absolutely necessary."

Although Lashman admits a contracting firm's report on the potential damage is due soon, athletic and Hemenway officials say they haven't heard anything about the possible underpinning. Nevertheless, the very possibility makes John P. Reardon '60, director of athletics, more than a little nervous. Hemenway is the home of Harvard's squash teams and the courts "are the best in the University," Reardon says, adding "I haven't heard anything about this but if it did happen, that would be a disaster."

The Harvard station isn't the only place where the MBTA has run into unexpected construction troubles. Recently, the Alewife station crews dug up soil in a W.R. Grace and Co. chemical landfill. Going undetected, the acidic soil would have eventually eroded any construction on the site. However, after months of negotiations, the MBTA and the chemical company finally settled. They are now jointly neutralizing and removing the more than 10,000 cubic feet of contaminated soil, but the bargaining slowed the construction for weeks.

And there are some construction troubles all the MBTA negotiations in the world can't remedy. Inflation has sent the project's costs soaring: the original $300 million price tag has doubled to more than $600 million.

The MBTA project has also been bogged down by labor troubles. This summer the pile drivers who build the wooden floors above the construction walked out for three weeks. That isn't all. The plumbers' union has been out since August 31. Construction crews have been building around the plumbing sites, Gary Balboni, the project engineer for Perini Construction Co., says, adding, however, that "we can't do that forever."

At the moment, the plumber's Local 12 and the Master Plumbers Association of Greater Boston stand far apart in their rancorous negotiations. Paul J. Madden, business manager for the plumbers, blasted the association for being inconsiderate of workers' rights. "We insist we be allowed to have stewards on the job," he says. But according to the associate director of the Plumbers Association, the steward issue is "merely political"--the real issue is the management of fringe benefits. Meanwhile, Thomas A. Sullivan, the group's associate director, accuses the union of trying to "cloud our offers," adding "we're ready to settle-they aren't." Neither side will predict when the strike will end, and neither side is optimistic.

For the MBTA, the strikes are part of the "day-to-day difficulties of building the line," MBTA official George Holland says. But no matter how par for the course these daily problems are, the MBTA this weekend averted a more significant, threatening electricians strike. The electricians, whose contract expired August 31, recently voted overwhelmingly to strike, a union official says. Around-the-clock negociations ended with the electricians voting on September 6 to accept the new contract. "The strike would have been a disaster for the MBTA," Holland admits. This averted "disaster" is one of the few bright spots for the MBTA in recent months.

All these recent difficulties, coupled with the two construction-caused water main breaks that flooded Mass Ave last year make many Cambridge residents wonder if the whole project is worth the trouble. "It's such a mess," Doris Salvoni of East Cambridge says as she ploughs her way across Mass Ave "I don't know anyone who thinks its a good idea."

Historically, Cambridge residents have never though the project was a good idea. Two years ago, a group of citizens and the City Council brought suit to block the Red Line extension, which was originally slated to go from Harvard all the way to Arlington. They lost the suit and construction continued, as did the problems. Before the construction even began, tight finances cut short the line at Alewife Brook Parkway instead of Arlington. But once the MBTA surmounted the legal and financial battles a few years ago, the plan hit few other hurdles--until now.

Nevertheless, the work will continue as best it can under the conditions. The temporary station that sprouted opposite Belgian Fudge this summer will be used for passengers disembarking from trains outbound from Boston, when the construction going on opposite the passenger platform at the central Harvard Square station will continue for several months; and workers are currently rerouting track toward Porter Square.

Balboni however did have good news for Square pedestrians and Harvard students. The area between the Store 24 and the temporary station will, as of December, completely take place underground. On the other hand, the major obstruction in the Square--the huge pit between Johnston Gate and the Cambridge Common--will remain open "for an indefinite period."

"It will all take time," Balboni explains as he stares down into the pit where incoming and outgoing tunnels will eventually travel. He excitedly discusses the underground bus tunnel that will be constructed above the subway tunnel. The 80 men working in the pit below look, from 100 ft. above, like beetles scurrying to and fro.

Balboni's next words are drwoned out by another blast and a crescendo of car horns. Only a few of the people in the Square pay attention to the noise. The mess, the clatter and the traffic jams have become the norm and it's almost difficult to remember what the Square looked like before Big Brother started it all.