Why the MBTA shut down Government Center for 2 years

It was actually the fastest option.

BOSTON, MA - 10/27/2015: The Government Center station had to replace all of its glass walls. Some of the replacement glass is already up, right next to City Hall. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff Photo) SECTION: METRO TOPIC 28government
David L Ryan, Globe Staff

Delays are not uncommon when it comes to the T. For instance, the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford—its fate still in question—was once scheduled to be open by now. On a more granular level, well, let’s just say the T’s trains aren’t always a model of promptness.

But when it came to the reconstruction of Government Center station, things went more or less as the T planned.

The station was shut down in March 2014 for a two-year renovation. On Monday, it is set to open precisely 730 days after the closure.

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Government Center’s reconstruction wound up costing $88 million, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said Friday. That figure means the project was completed at less than the T’s $91 million estimate, though it does exceed the price tag of the $82 million contract the agency awarded to construction firm Barletta. The project’s design and engineering costs ran about another $25 million, Pesaturo said.

MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola said the scale of the project and the station’s two-year closure allowed the T to keep to the planned construction schedule.

To accomplish the major renovation—which includes the addition of four elevators to allow for wheelchair access, a 12,800-square-foot big “glass box” entrance, new flooring, and new stairways and escalators—the old station was completely torn apart.

“We just ripped the old head house completely out, opened up a big hole, and were able to start building the frame for the new station,” DePaola said.

While the announcement of the two-year closure raised eyebrows for its length, DePaola said that completing the work while keeping the station open would have stretched the project’s duration to as long as six years. In that scenario, the increased timeline and the need to work around an active station could have made delays and higher costs more likely, DePaola said.

“Because the way we have done it in the past, where we were working on small pieces at a time, if we run into an issue on that piece we can’t move anywhere else,” he said. “But by having the whole station available to us, it gave the whole area available for work. So if there were any issues, they were able to be addressed without it causing a delay to the completion date.

While commuters are likely more familiar with long-term construction at stations, the T has used the shut-it-down approach in recent history. The Orient Heights Blue Line station closed for eight months to be made accessible before a 2013 reopening. Also on the Blue Line, a one-year closure of the Aquarium station about 15 years ago wrapped up on time, according to Boston Globe archives.

Faulty glass panels that had to be replaced marked the biggest issue during Government Center’s reconstruction. The T did not absorb the cost of the problem because it was the manufacturer’s mistake, DePaola said, and it did not cause any delays.

“That’s a good example of having full range of the station,” he said. “So even though that was an issue, we were able to address it within the confines of the overall project schedule.”

While the project’s construction went smoothly, DePaola noted that the pre-construction period “had its challenges,” with a few starts and stops.

The Globe archives show discussions about renovating Government Center dating back to at least 1999, with a “glass atriums” in the works even then. The Boston Herald described one design, which went over budget, as “looking like an enormous sail made of cables, columns and ‘engineered fabric’ extending from Tremont Street to City Hall.”

Clarification: A prior version of this article said the station’s design and engineering costs were $50 million, based on an interview with MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola. However, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the figure was actually $25 million.