A green line train at St. Mary's street in the Fenway area on May, 9, 2011. John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons

Green Line Extension project under review until May, Somerville may be asked to pitch in

This article is the first of two parts. 

The MBTA’s proposed Green Line Extension project (GLX), which would string light rail from a rebuilt Lechmere station up through six new stops in Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford – terminating at Tufts, at a stop behind Dowling hall – is still being reconsidered in the wake of estimates that projected cost overruns of up to $1 billion.

Earlier this month, after a fall of cancellations and doubts about GLX’s future, MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola announced a rough schedule for the project’s redesign: on April 7, the T plans to present new designs and budget estimates; on May 11, the T will produce a new financing plan, according to a Jan. 11 Boston.com story.

No details on specific changes have been shared, though cancellation of the entire project technically remains on the table, according to a Dec. 9, 2015 Boston.com story.

The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board (FCMB), established this summer by the Baker administration, voted in early December to take over administration of the project from MBTA staff for at least 90 days, a Dec. 9, 2015 Globe story said.

After that vote was taken, the T officials announced that four contractors would be dropped from the GLX project. These included White-Skanska-Kiewit, the consortium that had been tapped to oversee multiple phases of the project using a controversial “construction manager/general contractor” procurement method that, some argue, was a factor in the ballooning of estimates, according to the Dec. 9 Boston.com story.

A few days after the contractors were dropped, the FCMB and the board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) jointly passed a resolution that opined that the GLX could proceed only subject to a few key conditions: costs must be “substantially” reduced through project redesign, a different procurement strategy must be used and the project must come under new management.

The resolution also states that funds beyond the nearly billion dollars approved by the MassDOT board – and the billion awarded to the project by the federal government – must come from other sources. Private developers, the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization or the municipalities along the GLX corridor, Cambridge, Somerville and Medford, could end up being asked to front part of the bill if project redesign can’t wrangle costs back within original estimates.

A long time coming

“Although the bulk of the [design and construction] activity that we would often think of has happened since around 2007, you can find historic documents that talk about the Green Line [extension] literally as far back as 1945,” Brad Rawson (AG ’12), director of Transportation and Infrastructure at the city of Somerville, said.

The Green Line has been in the works for decades and has been a stated commitment on the part of the state since 1990. That year, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), one of Massachusetts’ most influential environmental lobbyists, forced the Commonwealth to commit to construction by threatening a lawsuit based on the project’s contribution to federal clean air act compliance, the Jan. 11 Boston.com story reported. 

Route 93 and the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (CA/T), known unofficially as the Big Dig, both put high localized pollution burdens on Somerville due to exhaust from increased traffic within the city, according to a statement from the Conservation Law Foundation. Tufts researchers have since found evidence that these pollutants can spell health problems for residents living close to highways, according to a March 24, 2015 Daily articleTo avoid a lawsuit, the state approved the GLX in order to decrease car traffic and, thereby, pollutants.

It took yet another lawsuit by CLF, which concluded in 2004, to keep the extension moving forward.

“The T was mandated because this section of Somerville does not meet the EPA standards,” Somerville Ward 7 Alderman Katjana Ballantyne said. “[Along with Route 93], Somerville was handling the redirection of the traffic and the burden of the Big Dig.”

Rawson further explained the role of the GLX in this lawsuit as a pollution reduction measure.

“The T will essentially prevent thousands of vehicles from going in and out of town and allow people to have fewer vehicles on the road,” Rawson said. “That was basically what the lawsuit is all about.”

Pushback in Somerville

However, an MBTA report released on Friday, Jan. 15, revealed that they, along with the firm hired to oversee the construction of the GLX, ignored multiple signs that costs would eventually run much higher than earlier estimates, according to a Jan. 16 Globe story

Last November, consultants hired to discover why costs were overflowing said that proper budgeting could have shown that estimates were off as far back as 2012, a Nov. 30, 2015 Boston.com story said. Factors cited in the overruns included scope creep, use of low initial estimates and a contracting process that the MBTA didn’t fully understand. Last month, the FMCB’s first annual report called the MBTA’s internal capacity “insufficient,” and said that outside managers didn’t receive rigorous oversight, according to the State House News. Recent estimates have put GLX costs at 642 million dollars a mile, which would make the project the most costly extension per mile in recent MBTA history, a Jan. 2 Globe story said.

As DOT officials make it clear that they’re reluctant to drive more money into the project, members of both the FCMB and the MassDOT board have stated that they want local leaders from cities along the GLX corridor to contribute, a Dec. 15, 2015 WBUR story said. The FCMB report mentioned above included a recommendation that the GLX and other future expansions should have finance plans that “begin with first-dollar commitments from local and regional entities,” since they are the main beneficiaries of transit infrastructure.

However, Somerville Ward 5 Alderman Mark Niedergang doesn’t think Somerville should help pay for the GLX.

“I think it’s completely unfair,” Niedergang said. “Somerville’s been screwed for generations on transportation… Look at the amount of pollution that comes from, not only Route 93 and other roads that come through here, but also from the commuter rail trains that go through Somerville and don’t stop here.”

Niedergang feels the damage already done in Somerville should exempt the city from further costs. 

“We shouldn’t have to pay a cent for this; we deserve this,” he said. “It’s a legal requirement as mitigation for the Big Dig.”

Somerville Alderman-at-large Jack Connolly agrees.

“The fact that the T is finally coming around and alleviating the congestion from commuters and the carcinogens from the air around Route 93,” he said. “I can tell you that I’d be one of the many that would be vehemently opposed to any and all participation from the city point of view.”

Alderman Ballantyne points to the importance of the project not just to Somerville, but to the region and the state as a whole.

“Eastern Massachusetts is projecting a population growth over the next half century,” she said. “You’re providing another pathway for them to come in via train; you’re getting more people into their place of employment.”

Rawson also points to the project’s statewide benefits.

“We are talking about a project of statewide significance and importance,” he said. “When folks talk about the municipalities as benefiting from this transit infrastructure investment, sure that’s true, but everybody who lives in Eastern Massachusetts stands to benefit from this because we’re talking about net increases in jobs… [as well as] large accruals of state-level income tax receipts coming from new jobs created.”

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who has been working closely with the State team to ensure the GLX is built, also points to the project’s statewide benefits.

“The Green Line Extension is the most important transportation project in generations for Massachusetts,” Curtatone said in an email to the Daily via Denise Taylor, the director of Communications at Somerville Mayor’s Office. “It is expected to create 18 million square feet of potential new development, 30,000 new jobs, and $4.5 billion in private investment, as well as $4 to $6 billion in new tax revenue for the Commonwealth within 40 years—all while reducing traffic congestion in one of the most congested regions of the country. If we want our state residents to benefit from the expansion of the global economy, we need this vital growth, these new jobs, and improved transportation network, which is why the Governor and his team are working so diligently to produce a responsible and workable plan to get it built.”

Private developers?

Christine Barber, the 34th Middlesex District (Medford and Somerville) State Representative, is relatively new to the State House but has used her tenure thus far to move the GLX along.

“I’ve been working closely with Senator Patricia Jehlen, Rep. Denise Provost… [and] other representatives in Somerville and in Medford to ensure that the Baker administration builds the Green Line,” she said. “My sentiment – and I think it’s shared by many – is a lot of frustration with the former contractor, and even with the contracting method that was used… We’re hopeful that rebidding and using a different contract process will address a lot of those issues.”

Like the Aldermen, Barber is reluctant to agree with those asking for communities like Somerville to contribute. She does, however, point to Bill H.3877, currently moving through the House, which would give communities the tools to put a portion of property tax revenue from a designated area towards transportation infrastructure. She says this could allow private developers benefitting from the project to pitch in.

“This is supposed to be a legal obligation,” she said. “It’s a hard argument to make for me that you’re gonna ask [the city] to pay for this. That said, there are a lot of new developments, and there’s a lot of real estate that is becoming more expensive in Somerville and Medford because of this project, and I think there are opportunities for some private funding to help with the cost issues of this project.”

In this scenario, private funding, a Dec. 21, 2015 article from the Boston Globe said, could come from developers like Tufts. The university, Tufts Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler said, is “looking forward” to working with the new GLX team to discuss the timing and funding of the College Ave. station. As it looks to construct an academic building over the station, Tufts has already committed itself to fronting the cash for a number of College Ave. developments that don’t necessarily involve tracks or trains, according to a June 16, 2015 Tufts Now article.

“Our contributions include making Tufts land available to support construction operations of the station, construction of a pedestrian path from the adjoining neighborhood, traffic and drainage improvements, and a 99-year commitment to provide station maintenance and security,” Thurler said in an email to the Daily.

While the future of tax transfer bills like H.3877 and both boards remains unclear, Tufts and other developers’ involvement may yet change in relation to the Green Line.

This article’s second installment will discuss the fates of the Union Square and College Ave. stops, Tufts University’s relationship with the MBTA, the GLX’s future, and exactly how the light rail project got so costly.

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