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As back-to-school traffic adds more buses to streets, Orange Line shuttles take twice as long for some – The Boston Globe

It was no crisis. But for many, wow, was it a headache.
A surge of commuters, young and old alike, tested the MBTA’s replacement system for the shuttered Orange Line on Thursday as students and staff returned to Boston schools amid an increase in traffic after the holiday weekend.
Crews continued replacing track at a good pace along the subway line from Jamaica Plan to Malden, the MBTA said. But above ground, shuttle buses slowed to a crawl along parts of their routes as more cars and school buses clogged the streets, further delaying travel already waylaid by the subway line’s month-long closure. One shuttle bus collided with a car.
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The Orange Line is the MBTA’s second busiest subway and usually sees around 100,000 trips each day. The first two weeks without the line have been relatively smooth even as gridlocked shuttle buses have sometimes offered a slower ride than a moving train.
Commuters said they planned ahead for Thursday and woke up earlier. Still, some arrived late for school or work.
During morning rush hour, the shuttle bus ride from the southern end of the Orange Line at Forest Hills to Back Bay took 40 minutes — nearly double the time it took on the first full weekday of the shutdown, according to a Globe analysis, and nearly three times as long as the Orange Line on the last Thursday it was running, according to travel data posted by TransitMatters.
Several University of Massachusetts Boston students who commute to school on the Orange Line and Red Line were waiting for shuttle buses at the Oak Grove station midmorning Thursday. All told, the trip to campus — now an odyssey of trains, buses, and subways — takes as long as two hours.
Calvin Moy, 19, who is studying computer engineering, said he has to wake up a lot earlier to make it to school on time. “I’m really tired in class,” he said.
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And the slowdown seemed to ripple through the city.
Six-year-old Isabella, a METCO student, arrived at her school bus stop near Roxbury Crossing at 6:45 a.m. Thursday with her mother, Dominga Vega. The bus to the John D. Runkle Elementary School in Brookline was supposed to pick her up at 7. But at 7:40, still no bus. They had been waiting for nearly an hour.
“This is the worst day of my life!” Isabella cried.
Vega, a South End resident, blamed the delays on the Orange Line shutdown.
“Because of the closures, the METCO buses are also impacted,” Vega said. “Now they have more traffic and the children aren’t able to get to school to get their breakfast on time.”
Vega was frustrated because she believes parents weren’t given enough time to prepare for the shutdown and its ripple effects.
“The next two weeks are gonna be outrageous,” she added, “for parents, for traffic, for trying to get the children transitioned in a routine.”
Isabella’s bus finally came at 7:52 a.m.
Johnathan Alfonso, 17, a senior at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, was up at 5 a.m. and out the door of his Charlestown home at 5:45 a.m. Normally, it takes him 20 minutes on the Orange Line to get to his school in Roxbury. Thursday morning, he budgeted an hour for his commute — with some wiggle room.
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He said he’s counting down the days until the Orange Line is up and running again.
“These next couple of days are going to be rough,” Alfonso said on the shuttle from Copley Square to Roxbury Crossing. His trip took about an hour and a half.
Only half of BPS school buses showed up on time Thursday morning and a school spokesperson attributed the tardiness to Orange Line traffic congestion and a crash at a school bus yard in Readville.
The added traffic from the first day of Boston Public Schools and Labor Day vacations ending was especially dense on the narrow streets of Jamaica Plain.
Around 9 a.m., an Orange Line shuttle bus and gray Honda Civic collided as the bus turned from Washington Street onto Williams Street.
The collision blocked traffic on Williams Street for about 10 minutes. The driver of the bus behind the one involved in the collision got out to direct traffic. By 9:20, shuttles were rolling once again.
MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said Friday could bring some relief from the uptick in traffic since it’s a less popular travel day. The T has been advising people to avoid driving if possible.
“We’re seeing slightly elongated travel times on the shuttles,” he said. “We’re hopeful that simmers down.”
Meanwhile, Poftak said he’s confident the T will finish its scheduled track work on time.
Joe Cheever, MBTA chief of engineering and maintenance, said 24-hour access to the tracks has allowed crews to get work done.
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During the shutdown, Cheever said, after the track department had replaced some ties along the Orange Line, the signal department said its equipment no longer aligned perfectly.
Normally, Cheever said, crews scramble to finish working during the brief two-hour overnight maintenance window and would patch over it and plan to fix it soon.
“Given this opportunity, we had a meeting out there, we said, ‘We can do better,’ ” he said. “We’re going to replace these timbers in kind so this switch can be perfectly aligned and we don’t have to fix it later.”
Desiree Patrice, deputy chief of capital transformation, said that some of the track parts the T is replacing are more than 30 years old and have been badly damaged.
The huge inconvenience for riders is not lost on her. But she hopes the work will improve Orange Line service.
“This is something we will be proud of when we can lift these slow zones and have more confidence that these unplanned disruptions will be mitigated,” she said. “We hope that people take an opportunity to look at the big picture.”
The big picture was on the mind of David Morales, 58, as he waited for the commuter rail at Oak Grove station Thursday morning to head into work as a custodian near North Station. At the end of the day, he used to arrive home in Melrose when it was still light out sometimes. Now, the trip is much longer, especially when he has to wait as long as 45 minutes for an MBTA bus at Oak Grove.
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He has been taking the commuter rail during the Orange Line shutdown, which is faster than the shuttle buses but less convenient because it doesn’t run frequently, he said.
An Orange Line rider his whole life, he is hopeful the shutdown will improve service.
“I’ll be glad when the trains are up and running,” he said. “I got to hang in there.”
Deanna Pan and James Vaznis of the Globe staff and correspondent Alexander Thompson contributed to this report.
Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.
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