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State Records Show MassDOT Overlooked Broken Stairway At JFK/UMass Station

A MassDOT bridge inspection in February 2020 acknowledged that the stairway to the JFK/UMass station had been closed, but did not address why, or recommend any repairs. Courtesy of MassDOT.

In their most recent inspection report for the Columbia Road bridge next to the JFK/UMass Red Line station, MassDOT bridge inspectors neglected to address any of the safety hazards associated with the bridge's broken staircase, where Boston University professor David Jones of Milton died this September.

David Jones.
David Jones. Courtesy of Boston University.
David Jones. Courtesy of Boston University.

A MassDOT bridge inspection report from Feb. 25, 2020 notes only in passing that the stairway had been closed, and does not address any of the reasons why.

"The stairway on the south sidewalk for access to the Bus Depot on Old Colony Avenue has been closed to pedestrians since previous inspection. See photo #1," wrote the bridge inspectors under an "access note" at the beginning of their report.

In a later section of the report (shown at the top of this article), "Photo #1" illustrated the blocked-off entrance of the staircase from the Columbia Road sidewalk. But the staircase itself, and its hazards, are hidden from view.

The inspection report goes on to make note of dozens of maintenance needs on the bridge, including several "severe" deficiencies on the bridge's crumbling pier walls, deck joints, and sidewalks.

Photographs of those issues suggest that the inspectors were working for several hours in close proximity to the broken staircase. But beyond the brief "access note," there are no other references to it in the inspection report, nor are there any recommendations for its repair or removal.

The inspection report is dated February 25, 2020. That's just a two weeks after the MBTA issued an alert to riders that the stairway would be closed "until further notice."

Google Street View imagery taken later that year, in November 2020, shows that the stairway is clearly missing several steps, about 15 feet above the ground, just below the level of the Columbia Road sidewalk.

StreetsblogMASS obtained the MassDOT inspection report from a public records request it filed to MassDOT and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) after Jones died in September. As part of that request, StreetsblogMASS also obtained several dozen related email messages among state officials.

Those messages reveal that in the days after Jones fell to his death, MassDOT and DCR officials scrambled to figure out who was actually responsible for the stairs and their dangerous state of disrepair.

The DCR owns and maintains parkways throughout the Boston region, including Old Colony Avenue and Columbia Road. However, a 2009 transportation reform bill transferred dozens of DCR-controlled bridges, including the Columbia Road bridge over Old Colony Avenue, to MassDOT.

On Tuesday, Sept. 14th, Jeff Parenti, DCR’s Deputy Chief Engineer, wrote to his colleagues that “I don’t think the stairs are ours either. Naturally the MBTA threw us under the bus in the (Boston) Globe story today…  I am betting this structure was orphaned after the transfer – not explicitly listed in the documents and no one claimed it."

In another email chain, DCR officials discussed evidence that MassDOT had not done any work on the broken stairway since its closure in early 2020.

"DCR has not received a request for a construction and access permit from any state or private entity to work on the staircase," wrote Nick Connors, DCR's Deputy Commissioner, in an email message on Monday, Sept. 13. "When MassDOT or their vendors do work on DCR property they are generally diligent in seeking and securing appropriate permits to notify the agency... DCR has canvassed and has not identified any notification from the MBTA/MassDOT... that the stairway in question was in need of repair."

Read the Feb. 2020 bridge inspection report from MassDOT

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