Downtown View:Finally the T Did Something Right. Almost.

By Karen Cord Taylor

The new Government Center T station opened with cheers all around. It finished ahead of schedule despite complicated underground construction, trains that had to keep running while work went on and a setback with glass design.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief that finally the MBTA did something right. Inside, the new station is bright even down in the Blue Line’s level, underneath the Green Line. It is handicap accessible. Watching the creaky, squeaky, rusty trains come through is jolting in this clean, bright place.

The floors are colorful expanses of beauty, made of epoxy-based terrazzo that used recycled glass and seashell chips, according to Jason B. Johnson of MassDoT. During a recent rainstorm the glass roof leaked, but that can be fixed.

A couple of problems, however, can’t be. Although the design passed muster with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which determined there was “no adverse effect to any historic properties,” it is now impossible to see the Old North Church steeple from the plaque embedded in the Tremont Street sidewalk near the Omni Parker House. That view corridor, I was told,was written into the federal urban renewal agreement that was signed when Scollay Square was obliterated. Did the BRA and Mass. Historic forget that? Haven’t heard back from either agency, so I can’t confirm it.

Second, the glass headhouse is too big. (If you read this column regularly, you know I usually don’t mind big.) It hides the historic Sears Crescent building —the nicest edge on City Hall Plaza—from viewers on Cambridge Street. The headhouse’s box fights with the Sears Crescent’s gentle curve. An MBTA report justifies the dimensions: “The MBTA worked with the BRA to establish an overall height that balances many issues, including the civic scale of Government Center Plaza [sic], the Sears Crescent, the Sears Block, the view corridor to the Old North Church, and the visual proportion of the headhouse.” Apparently they didn’t work hard enough.

The materials other than the floor could pose a problem. They look cheaper than the materials at, say, the newish Charles/MGH station. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Less expensive materials can be fine. But some money-saving materials and strategies require upkeep. The MBTA is not noted for good maintenance.

Take a look for yourself. Paint attracts scuff marks, and it chips. How often will the posts be repainted? The bright white tile will get dirty. Will anyone wash it? The windows could be even more of a problem. You can’t see the Old North Church steeple now when the glass is clean. What will the glass look like when it is dirty?

Transit systems all over the nation are starved for cash and poorly maintained. The only-40-year-old Washington D. C. metro had to close for a day because it is in such bad repair. Yet city roads and streets are choked with private cars with only one occupant, causing American commuters to waste an average of 42 hours a year in traffic and suck up an extra 19 gallons of gas while stalled.

Commuting Bostonians spend even more hours in traffic—64—than do residents of such cities as Seattle, Chicago and all large southern cities with no underground transit.

I’m still a fan of the T. Dirty, noisy and delayed as it is, it gets me quickly to stations along the Red Line, although it is even noisier, dirtier and slower when I change to another color. I like the convenience of the Charlie Card, although apparently we’ll soon have new ways to pay with our cell phones. I like my fellow riders.

But “world-class” cities do it another way. Go to London. You’ll marvel at the fast, clean escalators, the tidy stations, the quiet trains and the upholstered seats that have nary a rip or a spot on them. Wherever you are in London, you are within a few minutes’ walk of a tube station.

You’ll learn that London is extending its Underground because it knows that the 13 miles of tunnel connecting 40 new and old rail and underground stations under that city on the new Crossrail line are critical to that city’s economic success. (Watch the construction on You’ll cry with despair upon returning to Boston, which still hasn’t managed to connect one and a half miles between North and South Stations or can’t figure out how to extend the Green Line to Medford.

Meanwhile, take a train through the Government Center station. It’s much better down below than it is above.

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