Green Line Extension revisions pave way forward, create local anxiety

Artist's impression from Boston and College Ave intersection, dated June 2015. (Courtesy Massachusetts Department of Transportation)

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) officials unveiled a revised and scaled-back version of the Green Line Extension (GLX) earlier this summer, which includes a stop at College Avenue beside Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus. Updates to the plan for the long-discussed addition of seven new stations to the Green Line in Cambridge, Somerville and Medford are intended to bring costs down from a previous cost estimate of about $3 billion to within the MBTA’s original goal of $2.3 billion.

A significant portion of the estimated savings comes from cutbacks in station design. According to a May 9 article in the Boston Globe, while expenditures for the MBTA’s original station design plan were estimated at about $410 million, the redesigned stations would cost only $121 million. Among the proposed changes are the elimination of full indoor stations in favor of open-air stops with weather shelters and a significant reduction in staff amenities.

The new plan also eliminates some accessibility amenities. While none of the new stations will feature escalators and three of them won’t feature elevators, the College Avenue stop is planned to feature two elevators as well as stairs, but will no longer feature ramps or fare arrays.

According to a report to the MBTA fiscal control board detailing the changes, Tufts will be allowed to continue development plans above the station. Robert Chihade, Tufts’ director of real estate, said the university looks forward to continuing discussions with the MBTA on the project’s design and budget.

“We continue to work with the MBTA to understand proposed changes to the project and how they might affect the feasibility of an academic building above the proposed Green Line station and related improvements,” Chihade told the Daily in an email.

Medford Mayor Stephanie Muccini Burke, elected earlier this year, expressed disappointment with the MBTA’s cutbacks.

“There’s not much of a station, really, when you think about it, at any of the locations,” Burke said. “They really scaled back. What was a station and an actual facility [at each stop] is now pretty much a platform like [the stops on] the current Green Line.”

Somerville Alderman Mark Niedergang explained that he had described the original designs as “magnificent” and “unbelievable,” but had viewed them with suspicion.

“There were so many things about the previous design and the way they were running the project that I said, ‘Boy, how do they have the money to do all this? Where’s this money coming from?’” Niedergang said. “Sure enough, basically, the adults were somewhere else, and the children were running the project.” 

Burke noted that she was still grateful that the MBTA was able to work to bring costs down.

“Ultimately, [the Green Line] is a transportation facility,” Burke said. “The purpose is to get people to and from areas, so that’s the bottom line. That’s what it is all about. Everything above that is nice to have but isn’t necessary when transporting people.”

However, Burke expressed disappointment over the reallocation of funding away from a planned GLX route linking the College Avenue stop to Route 16 in Medford, which was “the larger picture” of the project in her eyes.

“There was a lot of wanting to get [the Green Line] to [the Route 16] terminus,” she said. “We haven’t given up the fight. We will continue to fight and to push for funds.”

She said that Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack will engage in an environmental study by the end of the year to investigate whether bringing the line to Route 16 will be possible in the future.

Although the Federal Transit Administration and Commonwealth of Massachusetts have jointly provided $1.992 billion for the project, gathering the approximately $300 million needed to reach the $2.3 billion price estimate has required more local contribution than expected. According to the MBTA, both Cambridge and Somerville have announced that they will commit a total of $75 million to addressing the funding gap, pitching in $25 million and $50 million, respectively.

Laurie Goldman, a lecturer in urban and social policy at Tufts, noted that Somerville’s intended commitment, which Niedergang and other city council members approved, has fomented anxiety among residents.

“The community is concerned,” Goldman said. “What is that commitment to $50 million displacing in terms of expenditure? Somerville is a city that doesn’t have a huge tax base, so residents are really concerned about how those tax revenues are being allocated. We also have a lot of needs because Somerville is a city that has a lot of people who need municipal resources.”

Goldman had misgivings about potential tax increases to help cover the cost, particularly in addition to the city’s already-rising property taxes. She also worries that while Somerville developers such as Union Square Station Associates (US2), the master developer of the Union Square station, have committed to contribute to the $50 million sum, those firms may count said allowances as their community benefit contributions, which would take the place of other community benefits that residents are eager to see. 

Niedergang acknowledged community uncertainty about how the city would amass their GLX funding, and is interested in looking at options alternative to tax hikes.

“A lot of people are concerned about that, understandably,” Niedergang said. “Personally, I want to see what the financing plan is. The mayor has said there’s been a number of ways to do it. He’s been in consultation with Governor [Charlie] Baker and state financial authorities. There might be a number of ways we can do it so we don’t just have to add to the tax rolls, which I wouldn’t be happy about doing.”

Niedergang stressed the necessity of having the GLX funded while still expressing his displeasure at Somerville’s financial obligation to the project. Somerville’s contribution was not in the original GLX budget plan, and Niedergang called the MBTA’s requests “highway robbery and extortion.”

“[The Green Line] is desperately needed in Somerville. It’s a really important community development project here,” Niedergang said. “We shouldn’t have to pay a penny and this is unprecedented and totally unfair. But it will be worth a lot more to us than $50 million to get the Green Line Extension. I’m not happy about it. I’m screaming and yelling about it, but as long as the financing plan is a reasonable plan I’m voting for it.”