A sinking feeling

Leaky MBTA tunnels have been seeping Boston’s groundwater for years. Can a new plan prevent potential catastrophe?
April 30, 2008 4:47:50 PM


Smells like T spirit!
Boston’s mass-transit system dates back to 1631, when sailboats ferried passengers from Chelsea to Charlestown. In the subsequent 377 years, service has become a teeny bit faster — but at a price that has put the MBTA in debt to a tune of more than $8 billion. With transportation issues getting renewed scrutiny under the Patrick administration, Phoenix staffers fanned out to kick the T’s tires.

• The trolley Svengali: Why Dan Grabauskas might actually fix the T — if he can keep his job. By Adam Reilly.
• Trouble 'round the bend? MBTA workers have been without a contract for two years. Arbitration will settle the matter soon, but could stir an angry hornets’ nest for 2010. By David S. Bernstein
• Seven habits of highly effective T-riders: Keep your hands on the pole and not on your neighbor’s ass, bucko. By Sharon Steel.
• The T and the Tube: London’s Underground is seething with danger. Boston’s T has cuckoo juice. By James Parker.
• Underground art: Reviewing the MBTA’s subterranean aesthetic. By Mike Miliard.
• State of hock: If the MBTA wasn't in debt, these items would be at the top of its new wish list. By Jason Notte.
• The Phoenix editorial: Is the MBTA on track?

For years, critics have called the MBTA a contributing culprit in the dangerously declining groundwater levels under the Back Bay and other parts of Boston — a problem that threatens to literally destroy much of the city’s architecture. But with a little-noticed announcement two weeks ago, MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas may have turned the agency into the solution — if he can pull it off.

Groundwater levels are declining for several reasons, but one is the leaky MBTA system. Rainwater that should be staying in the ground is instead dripping into MBTA tunnels in the Back Bay, South End, and elsewhere, where it gets pumped away to keep the tracks dry.

So, instead of replenishing, the groundwater drops — leaving exposed the wood pilings holding up the city’s buildings. Exposed wood rots. Rotted wood collapses.

To stave off this potential catastrophe, a multi-agency working group, pulled together by Mayor Tom Menino, has been dealing with the groundwater issue since late 2005. But individual agencies — such as the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and, of course, the MBTA — were none too keen on getting stuck with the blame and the bill, activists have told the Phoenix.

In what one former critic dubs a “U-Turn” in attitude, however, the MBTA announced in mid April that it will spend $3 million over the next six years on a long-term solution.

That will include the installation of walls to prevent water from escaping the affected areas, and the construction of a well system that will monitor and recharge the water supply.

If all goes according to plan, construction should take place in 2010, with the system becoming fully functional in 2011.

That might be overly optimistic. Once design begins, the cost estimate could easily change — even double, warns one source, who doesn’t want to be named casting gloom on the welcome progress. The MBTA isn’t exactly flush with extra cash to pour into the project.

Construction could be tricky and disruptive, too. The cut-off wall would go underneath Berkeley and Chandler Streets in the South End — site of the Chandler Inn and other buildings, along with their attendant underground utilities and other impediments to dropping a wall into the ground. The pumping system must run along Chandler Street and Columbus Avenue, eventually winding to a Follen Street pumping station. This will serve primarily to secure the corridor on the south side of the Turnpike. The Back Bay on the river side — and Beacon Hill, Chinatown, the North End, and Fort Point — will require other plans.

Still, the MBTA’s commitment is a huge step forward — and an acknowledgement that groundwater levels are a major public issue deserving of large-scale solutions. Who will pay for those remains open for argument.


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