REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: An inside tour of the MassDOT

Ventilation tunnels and MBTA ‘secrets’

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated in the eighth paragraph that “many vent buildings are built into pre-existing buildings, including the upscale Intercontinental Hotel.” Rather, some of the buildings are built around vent cores, not into pre-existing buildings.

MIT students frequently use the T and other MassDOT transit systems; since 2010, our IDs even come with a built-in Charlie Card chip. But most students are unfamiliar with the inner workings of the transit system. I was excited to take advantage of one of the opportunities offered this IAP and take a tour of several MassDOT (Massachusetts Department of Transportation) facilities, including an underground ventilation tunnel system, bus operator training school, and the organizational headquarters for the T.

MassDOT offers variations of this tour every other week to Boston residents. The locations on the tour change based on weather. Ethan Feuer, Student Activities Coordinator for the MIT Energy Initiative, organized the tour for twenty five students in order to learn more about large infrastructures and emergency preparedness in cities.

Our tour was led by two MassDOT veterans, Adam Hurtubise, Assistant to the Highway Administrator at Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and Darrin McAuliffe, Director of Communications and Coordination.

We boarded our privately-chartered MBTA bus and departed for our first stop: bus driver training school. Driving a 40 or 60-foot bus through the crowded streets of Boston is no easy task. The rigorous training program accepts applicants with a Certified Driver’s License permit, and begins testing them only eight days later to determine if they will qualify to become a bus operator. For their final exam, students must complete a serpentine maneuver, back up in a straight line, parallel park, and drive through the streets to the satisfaction of their examiner.

As part of the training program, students are introduced to the feeling of the bus driver’s seat in a simulator. We were able to give the simulator a whirl. When I first entered the simulator cab, I was surprised by the size of the steering wheel. Making tight turns with the bus required not only excellent timing but also rapid spinning of the wheel. The size of the bus and the seemingly countless rearview mirrors were disorienting and meant I was never entirely sure where the back of my simulated bus was. I successfully right-turned and merged into traffic, only to hit a taxi seconds later as I tried to pull over to the bus stop.

The bus instructors entertained themselves by introducing obstacles, such as ambulances and elderly pedestrians, into the simulated roadway, and by turning the roads icy or making it snow in the view screen. During one particularly unfortunate drive, they caused a boulder to roll into the middle of the road. After struggling with the simulator, I am much more impressed by the MBTA drivers’ ability to maneuver these behemoths.

The next stop on our tour was Vent Building 4, one of 13 major ventilation buildings located throughout Boston. These buildings take in fresh air from above ground, pump it into roadway tunnels, and expel the exhaust-filled air from within the tunnel. This system is key to keeping the MassDOT Central Artery roadway tunnel system pleasant to drive through, and safe from smoke buildup in case of a fire.

Some buildings are built around vent cores, including the upscale Intercontinental Hotel. Vent buildings can be identified by the large vents on the side of them, but the vents are designed to be inconspicuous and the building interiors are mostly unaffected. You might never guess that the basements of such buildings house several-story-high fans, backup generators and batteries, and tunnels that connect most of the city of Boston.

We visited the Haymarket T station vent building. Before beginning this part of our tour, they outfitted us in outrageous orange hard hats and vests, because we were going to see “live traffic coming at us.”

According to Hurtubise, the Haymarket building has so much basement space that it is deeper underground than it is high. We took an elevator down into a chilly series of rooms made entirely of cement and lined with pump machinery and gauges (in case of “water infiltration,” said our guides), wandered past two large 8- and 12-cylinder diesel generators, which the city keeps in order to light the traffic tunnels in case of a power outage, through rooms containing large arrays of backup batteries in case the generators fail, until we came to a flight of stairs leading further down. The ceilings were very high, and at this point, we began to suspect the basements were even colder than the frigid 15 degree air at ground level.

“Congratulations,” said McAuliffe, as he directed us into an enormous room with fans the size of the MIT chapel lined up on one side, “you’ve found the coldest place in Boston.”

We were in the supply plenum of the vent building. Every vent building has a supply and exhaust plenum. The supply plenum is full of fans to suck fresh air into the building. In the Haymarket plenum, we could stand in the center, look directly up, and see straight out of the skylight at the top of the building. We also visited the exhaust plenum, which was much darker, creepier, and more damaging to the lungs.

Our guides assured us the levels of carbon monoxide within the car tunnels are continuously monitored to maintain a safe level. The vent system can also react to smoke from a car fire by pressurizing one part of the tunnel more than the other in order to dispel the smoke.

While in the plenum, our guides showed us a place where the room narrowed into a car-size tunnel. They explained such tunnels connect most of the vent buildings together, meaning you can travel across Boston via them, in a similar way to traveling through the MIT tunnels, although perhaps not quite as luxurious. Sometimes, said Hurtubise, the tunnels get so narrow you have to crawl. The vent building also connects directly to the car tunnel it ventilates. So, it was time for us to see some “live traffic.”

Our guides opened a door which led to a narrow concrete platform in one of Boston’s car tunnels. I had seen maintenance doors countless times in traffic tunnels, but never imagined what was on the other side. From our position, we could look down to see cars driving through the tunnels and feel the freshly ventilated air blow into our faces.

At the ventilation building, we visited one of the emergency systems MassDOT has in place in case of superstorms like Hurricane Sandy. The low-point pump room, the deepest part of the building, deals with any flooding that may occur in that section of the tunnels. We could see evidence of the most severe flood experienced in Vent Building 4: a water mark about three feet high on the walls. According to our guides, MassDOT is unsure of how its systems would be affected by a sudden rise in water level, such as Hurricane Sandy caused in New York, and is currently conducting a study on how much their infrastructure could handle.

By now, we were ready to warm up and feel our extremities again, so we proceeded to the MassDOT Highway Operations Center. This office, housed on the second story of an inconspicuous office building, resulted from the merger of Massachusetts Highway Authority and the Turnpike Authority, which occurred during the formation of MassDOT in 2009.

Most of the office was a single large room that resembled spy headquarters from an action movie. The back wall of the office displayed multiple video feeds from some of the 900 video cameras dispersed along the Massachusetts highway system.

The Highway Operations Center monitors the video feeds with help from computer algorithms to identify traffic accidents and provide emergency responders with exact location and visual information. The cameras employ an accident-finding algorithm, which triggers an alert when one camera shows non-moving tail-lights, which means the camera is viewing the back-up behind an accident, or when a camera shows no traffic at all, which means the camera is trained on the roadway in front of an accident.

The manager of the operations center, Michael Fitzpatrick, shared stories with us about incidents the office handles. The center has over-height vehicle detection systems, which alert when a truck that is too tall for a tunnel is en route to pass through it. They respond by flashing warnings on digital signs on the side of the road. Fitzpatrick said once a driver ignored the warnings and scraped a video camera off the tunnel ceiling. Police followed him in order to retrieve the camera, which was dangling from the back of his trailer.

Being MIT students, we were especially interested to learn more about their computing systems. Another unique algorithm the Highway Operations Center developed works like the Google Maps traffic feature to track the speed of traffic. Sensors identify bluetooth devices in vehicles, mainly cell-phones, and record how long it takes the devices to go from checkpoint to checkpoint. Fitzpatrick explained the color coding on the traffic map. Since it was the middle of the day, most roadways were green; amusingly some stretches were blue, indicating the average car speed was above the posted speed limit.

Although the Highway Operations Center uses some clever algorithms, several issues from the merger remain. According to Fitzpatrick, many of their monitoring and data-collection systems run on different platforms, so they do not communicate with each other.

Our final stop on the tour continued to indulge our tech-oriented sides. We parked our bus outside of a inconspicuous office building. Most passerby did not give the building a second glance, but the security guard in the foyer made us realize this building was important.

“No one really knows where this building is,” said Hurtubise. “We don’t advertise it.”

We were inside the MBTA Operations Control Center, home to the logistics departments responsible for deploying T trains and MBTA buses. The operations centers for these two transit systems were located on separate floors.

In the bus headquarters, we learned more about the role of MBTA buses. They respond to emergency situations, such as building evacuations or natural disasters, by providing buses for shelter or egress. Employees in this office were responsible for tracking the location of buses and making calls to drivers to keep them within five minutes of schedule.

The T train operations center looked like the command center from a sci-fi ship. All the walls were painted black, employees sat at computers arranged on terraced platforms facing the front wall of the room. On this wall a huge projected graphic depicted the train lines, stops, and trains currently on the track.

This tour left me amazed the with amount of detail MassDOT manages every day and great respect for its employees. Feuer called it a “wonderful” and “holistic” tour which covered many aspects of the MassDOT system.

This is the first time the MIT Energy Initiative has organized such a tour with MassDOT. The tour fit in well with this month’s theme at the Energy Initiative, “Preparing for Climate Variability.”

Due to the New York subway shut-down in the aftermath of Sandy, Feuer wanted to find out how prepared Massachusetts’ transportation systems are for such an event.

Feuer said he was pleased by the feedback he received from both students and our tour guides, and, luckily for the many students on this tour’s waitlist, he hopes to do more tours in the future.

“One student said it was a real highlight of his seven years at MIT,” said Feuer, “and Adam [Hurtubise] has told me we were the best group, that people are telling him we brought our A game.”

This tour was a unique opportunity for students. As Feuer put it, “rarely do we get to see the underpinnings of public transit” and the “engineering marvels” involved.