Green Line Extension project faces $1 billion in excess costs

Peter Van den Bossche via Wikimedia Commons

Tufts students and Somerville/Medford residents anticipating the public transportation update promised by the Green Line Extension Project (GLX) may have even more waiting to do; Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) officials announced on Aug. 21 that the project will cost between $700 million and $1 billion more than originally planned.

The GLX project, which would extend the Green Line from its existing Lechmere station to connect Somerville and Medford, was first promised by the state in 1990 and broke ground in 2012, according to a Boston Globe article on Dec. 5, 2013. According to the proposed map, the project will connect Union Square, Washington Street, Gilman Square, Lowell Street, Ball Square and College Ave. 

In a presentation to the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB) on Aug. 24, MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola stated that costs for the next phase of the project would substantially exceed the original figure of $1.992 billion, likely reaching between $2.7 and $3 billion.

According to the presentation, the higher-than-expected cost is attributable in part to preliminary project estimates that used 2010 standard transit industry costs — when mid-recession construction was relatively cheap — as its basis. Current prices are much higher, which would not have been predicted accurately in earlier stages of the project.

Following this news, Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Secretary and Chief Executive Officer Stephanie Pollack raised concerns that the GLX project might in fact be canceled, according to a Boston Globe article on Aug. 24Pollack explained that the state is looking into all possible options for the project’s future.

“Everything is on the table, and everything includes canceling the project,” Pollack said in the article. “But that’s not where we want to go.”

The MBTA is also considering ways to cut excessive costs. The Aug. 24 presentation offers four options: “reduce project scope to reduce project cost,” “find additional sources of funds (other than state bonds),” “change procurement method” and “cancel the project.” MBTA officials also welcomed ideas from the public through Sept. 9, but have not published any of these suggestions as of press time.

Amid concerns that the City of Somerville would not be benefitting from the extended Green Line after all, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone met with the Board of Aldermen on Aug. 27, according to a Somerville Times article on Sept. 2.

Alderman-at-Large Jack Connolly, who attended this meeting, stated that Curtatone remains optimistic about the project’s completion.

“[Mayor Curtatone’s] advice to all of us — and I’ve talked to him a couple of times since — is that we fully expect the Green Line to be built,” Connolly said.

Curtatone also emphasized that cancellation is not a reasonable option at this time, given how far along the project is already.

“[Pollack] stated to the Control Board that cancellation is not realistic because we lose the economic opportunity and the environmental benefits,” Curtatone said at the meeting. “I will state to the public not to panic. I understand there is some concern — there’s never good timing for this sort of news. It’s not a question of if we do it, it’s how are we going to get this done?”

Connolly explained that some of the project’s specifics will likely be changed in an effort to cut costs.

“The plans originally called for these absolutely spectacular, beautiful spaceship-like stations that were all enclosed in glass … Well, we may get something a little more…pedestrian,” Connolly said. “Instead of something that’s futuristic in some of the design, they may be scaled back a little bit. But that’s not a major problem for any of us. The most important thing is that the community be served by the light rail vehicles.”

In an open letter on the Green Line Extension project’s official website, DePaola confirmed the likelihood that station designs will be scaled back.

“Some of the changes to the project concept that are currently being contemplated include streamlining several of the proposed stations in order to reduce their cost,” DePaola wrote.

Despite general optimism in the project’s future and confidence that Green Line stations — whatever their form — will be built, the timeline remains uncertain. The GLX project has already seen considerable delays, and a budgetary reevaluation can only set construction back further, according to a Boston.com article on July 10, 2010.

Connolly, though certain that construction will occur in some capacity, is unsure how the project’s overhaul will affect its trajectory.

“That’s the thing that’s most uncertain,” Connolly said. “If the contracts have to go and be re-bid, and then they come back a lot different…it may be put off for a little while. I can’t say whether it would be six months or a year, but we’re always concerned … We’ll be watching that stuff very, very carefully.”

At the meeting with Curtatone, Connolly raised concerns about the projected completion date of the Union Square station, an estimate which may be pushed back from 2017 to 2018. According to the Somerville Times referenced above, the mayor acknowledged this possibility, but also indicated that the delay is not necessarily attributable to the budgetary problems. The MBTA has not yet published a revised timeline at this point.

There is some good news, however, Connolly explained: much of the preparatory work for the Green Line Extension Project has already been done.

“There’s already been close to half a billion dollars spent…in getting the rail bed prepared,” Connolly said. “Where the new Tufts building is…has been completely reconstructed so that the load for two additional rail beds can be constructed on top of it, so we’ve already got that done. The same thing’s happening out by Union Square, where a railroad bridge was constructed for the same purposes.”

Connolly is enthusiastic about the benefits the prospective College Ave. station will provide to Jumbos.

“The Tufts community, absolutely, would really benefit from the station being opened right there on College Ave.,” he said. “That’ll bring the heart of public transportation right to the middle of our city.”

According to a 2014 GLX project update, construction on the College Ave. station is set to continue until 2019. A June 16 Tufts Now article reported that the Tufts academic building planned for the site is currently slated for completion in late 2020. The academic building, funded by a donation from the Cummings Foundation, relies on the completion of the station, according to a quote from University President Anthony Monaco in the Tufts Now article.

“Neither the Tufts building nor its amenities would be possible without the significant work the MBTA has already done on the College Avenue station,” he said.

However, in a Sept. 29 email announcement to the Tufts community, Monaco cited the projected GLX completion and the progress on plans for the new academic building without raising concern about the MBTA’s budgeting issues.

A Field Project report from Spring 2015, titled “Making College Square: Leveraging Public Transportation for a Safer and Greener Campus,” offered recommendations on the basis of pedestrian safety and environmental improvement. From the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) for the Offices of Sustainability and Campus Planning, the report includes many recommendations that involve improving pedestrian and bike access to the area, as well as creating a space that would encourage visitors to linger — much as they already do in Davis, Harvard and Kendall squares. According to this report, the construction of a Green Line station in this space, which the researchers suggest be named ‘College Square,’ will provide an important first step to this process.

Rayn Riel, a Tufts UEP graduate student, was one of the researchers involved in the “Making College Square” Project. In an Aug. 26 article on PlanYourCity.net, Riel announced his support for the GLX project as an active way to encourage sustainable transportation.

“The opening of the College Ave. MBTA Station on the Tufts University Medford/Somerville Campus will create a new joint development gateway on campus, and it has the potential to measurably increase sustainable transportation among members of the campus community,” Riel wrote. “Rather than decry change, we need to adapt, and we need to propose productive, practical, visionary solutions. The T and Tufts must work together to design smart extensions and expansions.”

Considering the current budgetary problems facing the GLX project, this sustainable initiative may yet be years in the making, but the MBTA and the Commonwealth agree that the time and money invested in the project thus far should not go to waste.

“So many people in the community have worked for so long to make this a reality,” Connolly said. “It’s been talked about for a long time, and…there’s so many people concerned about it. Politically, it certainly makes sense that we keep our energy level up…and make sure to stay active.”

Connolly, for his part, is optimistic about the project’s future, particularly if the community maintains its enthusiasm for it.

“We’re confident that the Green Line [Extension] will occur. Might it be exactly the way it was originally designed?” Connolly said. “Well, okay, maybe not…but we can live with a station with a little less frills.”


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