As Green Line Extension moves forward, locals hope for expansion into Medford

The Park Street MBTA station is pictured. (Nick Pfosi / Tufts Daily Archive)

The Green Line Extension (GLX), a long-awaited plan to provide light rail service to previously unserved areas of Medford and Somerville, is on track for completion by December 2021, according to the project’s website. Progress on the GLX follows the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)’s selection of a new contractor and an infusion of federal funding.

The project will extend Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Green Line service to the corner of the Medford/Somerville campus on College Avenue and is projected to cost about $2.3 billion, split between state and federal funding. Major construction work will begin this summer, according to Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) spokesperson Lisa Battiston.

State and local officials, including Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke and State Representative Christine Barber, have expressed excitement that the GLX project — a longstanding state commitment that has seen false starts and uncertainty — is on stable footing.

“It’s a really significant step forward for transportation for people of Somerville and Medford,” Barber, who represents parts of Medford and Somerville, said. “It will take cars off the road, it will improve greenhouse gas emissions and it will improve mobility.”

A Brief History of the GLX

The MBTA issued a “notice to proceed” to the GLX contractor team last month, formally reviving the process of designing and building the extension. This announcement came on the same day that $100 million in federal funding was released, part of a $996 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

“We’re pleased to receive this good news as one more in a long list of milestones for this project,” MBTA General Manager Luis Manuel Ramírez said in a Dec. 21, 2017 press release.

The state’s legally binding commitment to extend the Green Line dates to 1990, when officials agreed to complete the GLX as environmental mitigation under the Clean Air Act for the “Big Dig” highway project, according to Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) Vice President Rafael Mares. Sixteen years later, the state once again committed to the GLX following a lawsuit from the CLF, which negotiated the 1990 mitigation.

Several years ago, the state paused the project again due to a spike in projected cost, according to the press release. After MBTA fired its contractor and redesigned the extension to make it more feasible, the federal government approved the GLX’s current $2.3 billion cost estimate last year.

The FTA says that this redesign and scale-back helped secure federal funding, which was initially approved in a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) signed in 2015. The rest of the $996 million grant will be released incrementally as the project moves forward, according to an FTA spokesperson.

The first $400 million of the MBTA‘s grant has been authorized by Congress in budgets over the past three fiscal years, and Congress is expected to appropriate the rest of the funding by fiscal year 2021, according to Battiston.

The MBTA also chose a new contractor to design and build the GLX last year. GLX Constructors, a consortium of companies, was selected after vying to complete its portion of the project for about $1.08 billion according to the press release. This figure is more than $237 million less than the MBTA’s affordability limit, according to a November 2017 presentation to the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB).

Mares believes the current GLX contract is structured to control costs more effectively than previous arrangements because the contractor is required to meet its quoted price. According to Mares, the previous contractor had the opportunity to establish its own prices for future stages of the project without a competitive bid, and the state terminated the contract when costs spiked.

“The reduced price is a combination of the scale-back of the project and the fact that there was a competitive bidding process,” Mares said.

GLX Constructors has budgeted for a community path between East Somerville and Lechmere, according to the presentation. Alderman Ben Ewen-Campen, who represents parts of East Somerville, is pleased to see that the community path extension is part of the project, explaining that it will provide Somerville with a biker-safe link to parts of Boston and Cambridge.

“It’s incredibly frustrating how close we are, but how transportationally we are cut off,” Ewen-Campen said.

The GLX’s terminus at College Avenue will directly serve the Tufts campus, making the university more accessible for students, staff and visitors, Director of Community Relations Rocco DiRico noted. According to DiRico, Tufts is transferring real estate rights to the MBTA for construction and maintenance to assist with the project at no cost, and it improved the nearby Boston Ave/College Ave intersection with a planned Green Line station in mind. Tufts will also pay for the maintenance and cleaning of the College Avenue station, according to a December 2016 document from the Somerville Chamber of Commerce.

Tufts University enthusiastically supports the Green Line Extension and we look forward to continuing to work with our host communities, elected officials, local stakeholders, and the MBTA to help make it a reality,” DiRico told the Daily in an email.

Expansion into Medford

While the current phase of the GLX progresses, elected officials in Medford and Somerville say a further extension from College Ave to Mystic Valley Parkway/Route 16 would add significant value to the project and strengthen transit in underserved communities.

The Route 16 station was previously the MBTA’s preferred terminus for the Green Line, but the state split this final station from the rest of the project several years ago to contain costs. Meanwhile, the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization (MBO) reallocated $190 million in federal and local funds that it had committed for Route 16, instead offering that money to help bring the Green Line to College Ave first, according to an MPO press release. MassDOT will pay for an environmental impact study and design for the Route 16 extension, according to Barber.

Mares and Barber both said they prefer a Route 16 terminus to a College Ave one because it would connect a larger population to the Green Line.

“The Route 16 stop in particular is one the busiest stops, so it would pull more cars off the road and pull in more riders than [many] other stops of the Green Line Extension,” Barber said. “The ability to increase mobility and increase ridership by going to Route 16 would improve the entire Green Line Extension.”

The Route 16 extension is especially important because it would serve several state-defined Environmental Justice Communities, Mares and Barber said. Many of these communities are particularly susceptible to air pollution, Barber noted, and their residents are more likely to rely on mass transit, according to Mares.

“When you have a transit-dependent community, it’s really important to provide good public transportation,” Mares said. “Currently what we have is buses going in various directions that take longer than necessary and drive on roads that are congested.”

DiRico says that Tufts University also supports an extension to Route 16, both to serve nearby Tufts offices at 196 and 200 Boston Ave and to support the surrounding community.

In addition, Mares and Barber said that the Route 16 stop is required under the state’s original environmental mitigation agreement with CLF. The agreement states that the extension will serve Medford Hillside. However, according to Burke, locals agree that a College Avenue station would not serve Medford Hillside residents.

Burke strongly believes that a terminus at Route 16 will strengthen the Green Line’s ridership and has pushed for the state to fund its environmental impact report. She says the city could offer funds to assist with the Route 16 extension, but added that officials need to study the project’s benefits first.

“To the extent that we are able to increase, say, commercial development, if [the extension] opens up that avenue for us, then we’d certainly be willing to consider it with the City Council,” Burke said.

According to Barber, funding has not been allocated for a Route 16 extension. She suggested that, because GLX Contractors‘ bid is under budget, the state could redirect excess money to the Route 16 station.

Similarly, Mares believes that the state should return Somerville’s and Cambridge’s contributions to the project, which totaled $50 million and $25 million, respectively, and then give most remaining funds back to the MPO. The MPO can then elect to reallocate the funds for the Route 16 station, he said.

The state plans to return a portion of these contributions and reallocate unused funds to other MBTA projects if costs are below budget, according to the November 2017 presentation. 

According to Battiston, MassDOT will reassess the GLX budget at a future time.

“The balance between the contract price and the affordability limit will remain part of the project’s budget, at least, until years from now when all exposure to risk has been managed and mitigated,” Battiston told the Daily in an email.

Development and Housing Affordability

Officials in Medford and Somerville have emphasized that, as the Green Line Extension progresses, their cities should work to dampen the effects of a rising cost of living.

Ewen-Campen says the city should ensure that development benefits all Somerville residents, rather than just real estate developers. In particular, he supports a jobs linkage fee, which would require developers to contribute to workforce training programs. He also hopes that developers in Union Square incorporate longstanding local businesses in their mixed-use developments.

Burke said she believes Medford should work with neighboring cities to add more housing units. She says the area surrounding the proposed Route 16 stop presents opportunities for new low- and middle-income housing.

“The only way you can keep prices down is to increase the volume of availability,” Burke said. “We’ve seen everything drive up because there hasn’t been new production.”

Barber noted that ultimately, the GLX project’s benefits to all residents make it worthwhile. Likewise, Mares said she believes that mass transit is crucial for neighborhoods of all income levels and should not be denied to certain areas due to housing affordability.

“The idea that the only way you can stay put where you are is if you accept a second-rate or worse transportation system is unacceptable to me,” Mares said. “The solution is not to expand transit in only a few places but to expand transit in as many places as possible.”


COPYRIGHT 2018 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.