Somerville Mayor Curtatone presents terms for contribution to Green Line Extension

Mayor Joseph Curtatone requested that the Somerville Board of Aldermen authorize a $50 million contribution to the state’s budget for the construction of the Green Line Extension (GLX) at a special meeting of the Board on Nov. 17. During the meeting, which took place at the Aldermanic Chamber in City Hall, Curtatone outlined the costs as well as the potential risks and benefits of approving the contribution, which would partly address the $150 million budget shortfall in the GLX project.

Curtatone put forward to the Board a Project Participation Agreement, along with a home rule petition, which would allow the city to borrow in order to contribute to the project. He also proposed appropriation language, which would enable Somerville to borrow and appropriate the $50 million for GLX, as well as three side letter agreements.

The Project Participation Agreement (PPA) set the terms of how the $50 million would be contributed to the city. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) would create a trust that would hold the funds contributed by Somerville, with the intention to ensure that the city’s contribution is only spent on the GLX. Over the next five years, Somerville would pay five installments of $10 million.

The PPA further outlined a project payment schedule in the case of delayed construction, as well as the consequences of late payments from the city to the state, which would result in a reduction of aid to Somerville.

The PPA also covered reimbursement options, stating that if the total cost of the GLX project were below the $2.3 billion currently projected, two thirds of the savings would go to Somerville, while Cambridge, which intends to contribute $25 million, would receive one third of said savings.

The home rule petition would enable Somerville to borrow the contribution money and set favorable borrowing terms for both residents and the city. The appropriation language itself would authorize the city to borrow and appropriate the $50 million, and which would have to be approved by the Board of Aldermen and the state.

The mayor acknowledged possible skepticism and hand-wringing among aldermen, but emphasized the state’s demand that the GLX could not move forward without municipal contributions.

“If you feel you are swimming in a pool of duress, I am swimming in those same waters with you,” Curtatone said.

Alderman Mark Niedergang told the Daily that he believed the proposal was necessary, although he preferred the city not be in its current situation.

I’m prepared to vote for this unless there’s something in it that I find surprising and objectionable. I think that this is something the city has to do,” Niedergang said.

While Niedergang was disappointed that the city didn’t feel it had more leeway in negotiating with the state, he accepted Curtatone’s position.

“There were a whole bunch of issues which we pressed [Curtatone] on, and he said ‘that’s what the stage gave us and it’s take it or leave it,’” Niedergang said. “You don’t like to get that kind of answer but I don’t think he’s lying. My understanding is that is how this went down. Of course you’re not in a position to bargain or to get a better or different deal.”

Alderman Jack Connolly agreed, citing the federal funds that have already been dedicated to the project.

“There’s a billion dollars of federal money that is waiting to be unlocked and to be used on this green line and that’s one of the reasons we’ve already spent almost a billion dollars getting ready for it,” Connolly said. “We’d be doing the citizens and the city a disservice if we didn’t make use of those moneys. We’re anxious to get it done. Nobody likes that $50 million expense, but over the next thirty years if we can capture value from the new construction and use that to pay off the debt, then that’s probably the best way of handling it.”

President of the Board William White, who presided over the hearing, told the Daily that he felt “nothing but distaste” in regard to Massachusetts governors’ handling of the Green Line Extension and the city of Somerville.

“The Baker administration is forcing a community to pay $50 million for a public works project that had been promised to a community over 25 years ago in mitigation for the pollution caused by a major superhighway project,” White said in reference to what he described as the state’s agreement to build the GLX in 1990 to offset pollution and traffic congestion in Somerville caused by the construction of the Big Dig. “This financial punishment to an innocent community has never been done before, and I hope I never see it again.”

However, White noted that Curtatone has had little bargaining power against MassDOT over the sum that Somerville would contribute.

“The mayor has had no room to negotiate as we are at the mercy of the state,” White said. “When it was clear that the state expected a contribution of $50 million, the mayor informed the Board of Aldermen. Since then, he has been negotiating with the state on an agreement, which has been presented to the Board on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.”

The city also hoped to collect $25 million from developers who would benefit from constructing the GLX, such as US2, who is responsible for redevelopment in Union Square, according to the Boston Globe. According to Curtatone, those negotiations would be concluded before the Board of Aldermen’s vote on Dec. 8.

In discussing the GLX’s potential benefits for the city, Curtatone’s team projected that the extension could contribute $140 million in cumulative property tax revenue potential, $24 million in additional new growth and $78 million in additional commercial property taxes over the next decade.

In terms of taxes, Curtatone claimed that, with interest, the GLX would cost the city $103 million over 35 years, translating to five dollars of the tax bill paid by an average two-family household in fiscal year 2019, $35 in fiscal year 2023 and $141 in fiscal year 2027.

Joe Ruvido of the Somerville Times believed that Somerville residents would generally approve of putting their taxes toward the contribution.

I think Somervillians appreciate the trade-off between tax payments and services,” Ruvido said. “It’s why they approved Question 5 in the recent election to fund the new Somerville high school and why I think they’d be fine with allocating some of the budget to the GLX debt.”

Niedergang agreed with Ruvido’s belief about Somerville’s reaction.

“I think that, kind of similar to the high school, which is a big chunk of change, people are not happy about the cost and their taxes increasing, but they feel like it’s important for the city to do and they’re willing to go along,” Niedergang said.

There were, however, concerns on the part of residents as to the unprecedented nature of MassDOT’s request of Somerville and Cambridge.

According to the Somerville Journal, one resident referred to the request as “legalized extortion.”

“This is an unprecedented ask from the state, so I ask the city to be bolder in negotiations with all developers,” urged resident Tori Antonio, another resident quoted by the Journal.

White noted the concerns that he has heard, particularly regarding how the city will have to adjust its budget in unrelated areas.

“Everyone that I have spoken with is upset with the state and believe that we have not been treated fairly,” White said. “Many folks are concerned with the amount that we will have to bond to fund this along with the new high school, so city government will certainly have to trim expenses in other areas.”

The Board of Aldermen is set to deliberate over the next week, meeting on Dec. 1 and Dec. 6, and will vote on the proposal by Dec. 8. 

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