Green Line Extension progresses, massive construction effort underway

Construction on the first phase of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) Green Line Extension (GLX) ramped up this summer, the latest step forward for a public transit project in the works since 1990.

The extension, which will add a stop at the intersection of College Avenue and Boston Avenue and allow students to commute to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts campus in a single ride, has suffered multiple setbacks over the years, including canceled contracts and funding challenges. Now with federal financing and a new set of contractors, the GLX project is fully underway as officials race to meet the December 2021 completion deadline

But as progress continues in earnest, residents living in neighborhoods along the GLX construction paths are beginning to notice a stark loss of greenery, according to Somerville Ward 3 Alderman Ben Ewen-Campen.

“I’ve heard from a lot of residents who are really concerned [about the tree removal],” Ewen-Campen said. “Seeing literally hundreds, thousands of trees coming down is a shock to a lot of people who live here … especially around the GLX.”

Work teams began removing trees along the Dowling Hall section of Boston Avenue on the weekend of Aug. 19, according to a construction update posted on the GLX’s Facebook page. A representative of the GLX project told the Daily that tree removal was a necessary safety precaution.

Rachael Bonoan, a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts and a Medford resident, said she was given no advanced warning that the trees were to be removed.

“I walked home from [Tufts] on Friday afternoon and the trees were still there,” Bonoan said. “And then on Monday morning I walked up Winthrop Street towards Boston Avenue, turned the corner, and was just absolutely shocked [to see that the trees were gone].”

Bonoan, who works in the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC), said that during the construction of the SEC from 2013–17, she was informed about the GLX’s general construction plans, such as track laying and route, but had not heard many regular updates since.

Ewen-Campen said that while the construction’s effects could have been more effectively explained to the public, the project does have the support of the community.

“Despite the amount of outreach that the city’s done, I don’t think people are fully prepared for how disruptive the construction’s going to be. I don’t think there’s any way [around it],” Ewen-Campen said. “This is the price we pay for getting a new train coming through Somerville. There’s a lot of community support for [GLX] but I think it’s important that everyone is well aware ahead of time to strap in.”

In addition to these developments, there are also impending road closures that will span months according to the Somerville GLX website. These closures include the bridges on Washington Street, Medford Street and School Street, as well as the closing of the Broadway bridge for a year.

Ewen-Campen assured that these shutdowns are being closely monitored by the Somerville Aldermen.

“We [are] pushing as hard as we can to make sure these closures are as short as absolutely possible and that all the detours are as minimally disruptive as possible,” Ewen-Campen said.

The construction is also causing longer-term anxieties about area housing prices, according to Ewen-Campen. He said that a previously predicted increase in the cost of housing can already be seen in the areas surrounding the GLX route, leading to constituents calling in to express their concerns.

A 2014 report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), a regional planning agency, projected that rents near planned GLX stations could rise by as much as 67 percent in the coming years. Such a hike could displace many low- and middle-income residents, the report suggests.

Ewen-Campen said he is working with community members to develop an affordable housing plan that will keep housing costs low and stable. He pointed to community land trusts, where non-profits own the land and residents own the physical structures on it, as one potential solution.

Much of the cost of property is in the land and its proximity to key resources like educational institutions, jobs and transportation, according to Ewen-Campen. By transferring that land to a community land trust, Ewen-Campen said that significant costs can be removed from area housing.

“[Community land trusts] allow residents to own affordable housing and to be represented through a democratic board that oversees the structure, the function, the future planning of the community land trust. These have been really successful in communities around the country,” he said.

Such a plan would require upfront investment.

“Land is not cheap in Somerville, but I believe it would be a very powerful investment for the city to make, to say we’re going to take some publicly owned land or we’re going to invest in pieces of land right around these train stations and turn them into community land trusts,” Ewen-Campen said.

Mark Chase, a lecturer of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts, said that increased housing costs can be mitigated by decreased spending on cars.

“You really need to look at transportation and housing as a bundle,” Chase said. “If people can now not own a car, that saves them probably much more than they would pay in extra rent.”

Chase said that without the need for owning a personal car, prospective renters may see more appeal in Medford. This could bring in residents who might not have chosen to live in Medford before.

Chase noted that the GLX will benefit students, as well.

“Getting to Boston in general [is] going to be much easier for students,” Chase said. “From Davis Square [people will] be able to bike all the way to Boston without being in traffic … The [Medford/Somerville] campus will be more accessible and that means probably people feel more confident about not needing a car, maybe using Uber and Lyft a little less than they would ordinarily.”

Chase said that many students in his transportation planning class have expressed excitement towards to the GLX. He also explained that the new GLX stations will be spread farther apart than existing Green Line stations, allowing trains to run faster and avoid the traffic slow-downs that he said have contributed to the Green Line’s “bad reputation” among commuters.

“It’s going to be a Green Line that people haven’t really experienced before,” Chase said. “[It will] actually be a really good system of high-quality transit that this part of town hasn’t really seen … It’s going to be an exciting addition to Medford and Somerville.”

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