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Governor Patrick plots major public transportation projects in Chelsea, Medford and south of Boston

Posted by Your Town  November 18, 2013 11:35 AM

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In his seven years, Gov. Deval Patrick has steered the state toward major public transportation expansions into Chelsea, Medford and toward the South Coast, and in 13 months responsibility for the completion of those plans will fall to his successor, to varying degrees.

Patrick, who has railed against the enduring, burdensome debt of the Big Dig project burying Interstate 93 beneath downtown Boston, campaigned in 2006 in part on his support for the Green Line Extension and the South Coast Rail. Critics have said those projects would add to the state’s indebtedness and the cost of running an MBTA system already struggling with an antiquated fleet and infrastructure.

While funding is being lined up for the Green Line trolley to Somerville and beyond and the project appears inevitable to transportation experts, other projects such as extending the Silver Line bus to Chelsea, expanding South Station and stretching the commuter rail to Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford, face challenges in funding, logistics, politics and labor relations.

“Everything we’ve announced will be on track, and we’ll have some progress against before I leave, and I think whoever the next governor is, their understanding of the value of investing of in education, innovation and infrastructure will be key to the future growth of the Commonwealth, so it would be hard for me to imagine that the next governor would turn away from these investments or the people that they benefit,” Patrick told the News Service earlier this month. He said, “The responsibility to see that the next governor is held accountable for delivering on these belongs to the voters.”

The governor’s transportation priorities, along with earmarks for scores of smaller projects around the state, could emerge for consideration in the House this week as part of a $12.1 billion transportation bond bill, although House leaders were unable to say Monday if the bill would come up for debate.

Fred Salvucci, a lecturer at MIT who was Gov. Michael Dukakis’s transportation secretary, said the South Station expansion would require moving the United States Post Office facility next door, which employs many people, and running the Silver Line to Chelsea faces logistical hurdles in the buses, which currently switch between gas and electrical power.

None of the major projects in the pipeline faces as steep a climb as the South Coast Rail, which faces some opposition from environmentalists for its routing through the Hockomock Swamp, carries a $1.8 billion price tag for construction that would be borne entirely by the state, and an additional federal requirement to electrify the trains rather than use diesel.

“If the next governor doesn’t see any priority, that’s one it’s pretty easy to not implement,” Salvucci told the News Service. He said, “It’s got the longest way to go, plus I believe some opposition, so that’s the toughest.”

Asked which projects would be past the “point of no return,” Patrick said, “My hope is that they will all be 14 months from now.”

That sentiment was troublesome to Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, who has warned of the state’s high level of indebtedness.

“One of the guiding principles of our state government has always been not binding future legislatures to future expenses, and certainly not binding future administrations to certain courses of action, and to depart from that now I think is an indication that we may be seeing some effort in building a legacy,” Tarr told the News Service. “The question is at what expense is that legacy going to come for the folks that have to follow and pay for these things and deal with their consequences.”

By sinking enough money into a project, an administration can virtually ensure its eventual completion.

Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican and longtime member of the Transportation Committee, said the state “can afford” to extend the Green Line, but had greater doubts about South Coast Rail, saying he believes the administration’s estimate of a $40 million operating subsidy once the project is completed is low.

Hedlund said past administrations have nudged projects past the “point of no return” by getting construction started, but said the Patrick and prior administrations have played a different game with the South Coast Rail, funding environmental studies and permitting as a means to push off the actual construction.

When Gov. Mitt Romney took office, he froze capital spending, and scored transportation projects on their necessity, finding the ongoing Greenbush commuter rail line into Hedlund’s South Shore district was “dead last.” Despite the finding, Romney was unable to halt the project, Hedlund said, because so much of the work had already been completed.

The advent of a new administration can bring new hopes and worries for those whose pet projects have not yet crept past the point of no return.

“It’s kind of a barbaric system in some respects,” House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, told the News Service. “When the new administration comes in it’s a fight to make sure they look at your project favorably.”

Transportation Secretary Richard Davey told the News Service that the merits of projects undertaken by the Patrick administration should power them onto the next governor’s priority list.

“I think the bottom line is, it’s less about having the ink dry on a contract by January ’15, although that will happen in many instances, but it’s choosing the right projects that anyone in their right mind will continue,” Davey said.

“For any person who’s elected governor, they would have to think twice about rolling back anything we put in place because we’re not choosing these projects will nilly,” Davey added. He said, “We’re still working on our final permits for South Coast Rail. South Station’s a little more complicated; there’s a lot more moving pieces to that proposal.”

GREEN LINE EXTENSION

The Green Line Extension, which is mandated by a court settlement between the state and the Conservation Law Foundation, is far along the track to completion.

On Oct. 21, MassDOT officials signed a $393 million contract extension to rebuild the current terminus Lechmere Station in East Cambridge and construct brand new stations in Somerville’s Brickbottom and Union Square neighborhoods.

Those three stations comprise the first leg of the first phase of the project, which would continue on to stops in Gilman Square, Lowell Street, Ball Square and College Avenue in Medford. CLF contends the state must bring the trolley line out to Route 16, near the Arlington border, and notes that the further extension was included in the Boston Region Transportation Improvement Program with funding programmed for fiscal year 2016.

Though Republicans have warned of the financial implications expanding the system would have on an agency that already runs deficits and features major maintenance backlogs, Hedlund said the project is worthwhile and affordable.

“I think that we can afford to do the Green Line Extension. I just think it should have come a long time ago,” the Weymouth Republican told the News Service.

The Green Line’s completion, which had been recently considered unlikely by several Somerville pols, is now nearly set in stone, according to Salvucci.

“It seems to me that a new governor would be very unlikely to stop the Green Line. It’s a good project; some people might have different priorities, but it’s a good project,” Salvucci said. “I don’t think anyone’s against it, per se, and it’s so far along it seems unlikely anyone could stop it.”

The state recently submitted an application for federal New Starts funding, which officials hope would provide nearly half the $1.3 billion cost of bringing the trolley out to College Avenue. A federal award would add to the inevitability of the project.

SILVER LINE TO CHELSEA

Having secured a bus-only route into Chelsea from East Boston, Patrick recently announced plans to extend the Silver Line into the mostly water-bound city, creating a terminus that would include a new commuter rail station near the Everett line.

The most significant remaining hurdle is the buses themselves, according to Salvucci and Chelsea Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty.

The Silver Line buses ferry passengers on overhead electric power in underground tunnels through the South Boston Seaport before shifting to gas to make the trek through tunnels to Logan International Airport.

The line is in need of new buses, the manufacturer is now out of business, and the electrified catenary wires cannot be strung through the Ted Williams Tunnel, and gas engines cannot be-used in the subways beneath the Seaport, Salvucci said.

“They’ve got to solve the equipment problem,” the former transportation chief told the News Service.

Salvucci said hybrid gas-electric vehicles might be a solution, or the route could bypass the South Boston leg driving through the tunnels directly to East Boston, where it could continue on to Chelsea.

“Chelsea really wants it,” Salvucci said. “I think the Chelsea priority is likely to have legs with any governor if they can solve the vehicle problem.”

SOUTH STATION EXPANSION

The expansion of South Station faces mightier hurdles, as the new platforms could go right where a major U.S. Postal Service station is currently located.

“The post office has a lot of jobs,” Salvucci noted. Noting some opposition from advocates of linking North and South station by rail, Salvucci said said an agreement with the Postal Service to acquire the land would head the project on a trajectory toward completion.

“South Station is quite full, and there’s lots of people who want more commuter rail service, and who want more inter-city Amtrak service,” Salvucci said. He said, “It’s got a lot further to go, and the biggest significant hurdle, I think, is working out a deal with the Post Office. If that happens it still will not be at the same status as the Green Line, but it will be in stronger shape.”

RAIL TO THE SOUTH COAST

For lawmakers in the coastal regions off Buzzards and Mount Hope bays, the announcement this fall that the state had secured approval from the Army Corps of Engineers for construction of a rail link through Taunton to Fall River and New Bedford may have triggered déjà vu.

When Patrick came into office, he inherited state permits for the long-awaited return of rail service to the South Coast from the Romney administration, though Gov. Mitt Romney had not yet secured approval of the Army Corps before passing the reins of government to Patrick.

“When Patrick-Murray came in, they said, ‘Well, in order to really make sure that it’s going to be done right, we want to do all this stuff all over again, because it’s under our jurisdiction now. We want to make sure all the T’s are crossed, all the I’s are dotted, and so on and so forth,’” said Sen. Marc Pacheo, a Taunton Democrat. “I think in part it was done for that reason; I think in part it was done because nobody had the money.”

Pacheco was one of a few Democratic lawmakers from the region who voted against the July tax bill because he believed it was insufficient to fund the project.

The transportation bond bill that passed the Transportation Committee last week fully funded the rail line at $2.2 billion, an increase from original estimates of $1.8 billion earlier this year. House Transportation Chairman William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who represents part of New Bedford, said the administration said the $12.1 billion 5-year-bond bill could be supported with the roughly $340 million in new taxes.

While skepticism has taken hold among some lawmakers in the region, several noted the efforts undertaken by the Patrick administration, which have extended beyond environmental studies and permitting to include upgrading bridges along the corridor and rehabbing of the tracks, which are in use by freight companies.

“I would encourage Gov. Patrick to undertake those projects that have independent value immediately,” said Straus, noting there is a bridge along the rail route, which would need to be upgraded for the train and also occasionally jams up trucks.

Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who describes himself as a “cautious pessimist” about the project’s completion, said tens of millions have been put into bridgework and track upgrades.

Pacheco, Straus and Montigny all said the Patrick administration has demonstrated its commitment to the project.

That “money in the ground” could inch the project toward the point of no return, but it is unlikely to reach inevitable status during Patrick’s tenure, said Salvucci.

Pacheco noted the rail had already passed through the swamp when it was in service about a half century ago.

“Electrification on commuter rail is a huge deal. I mean, in some cities commuter rail is electrified, and in Boston none of our system is electrified. It would be nice to have it be electrified, but that’s a lot of money and a lot of engineering and a lot of time,” Salvucci said.

Added to South Coast Rail’s challenges is the requirement to expand South Station to accommodate the increased rail service, and the $40 million operating subsidy to run the service once it is built.

“You’re going to get to the point where you’ve got to make a decision,” said Hedlund. “You can’t just build something and not know how you’re going to pay to run it once it’s built.”

Hedlund said administrations dating back to Gov. Paul Cellucci in the 1990s have appeased South Coast officials and business leaders by funding studies for the rail line, without actually funding the much heftier cost of construction.

“They announce they’re releasing some money for environmental work or what have you. There’s all these little milestones, but it’s all small amount of dollars that get released, and get sunk into the project. It’s nowhere near comparable to what had happened with Greenbush, where they were actually undertaking land takings and actual digging and ground work,” Hedlund said.

THE GREENBUSH EXAMPLE

While Hedlund holds up the Greenbush rail line to the South Shore as an example of a project handcuffing an incoming administration, the halting of the Inner Belt highway project in the 1970s has been held up as a triumph of one administration squashing the plans of its predecessors.

Salvucci, who was transportation advisor to former Boston Mayor Kevin White and worked to stop the highway, said it took courage for Gov. Frank Sargent to scrap the proposed highway through Somerville, Cambridge and Boston neighborhoods, but it was not as far along as it seemed and had substantial opposition from the people whose homes would be demolished to make room for the highway.

“The Inner Belt had not gone through its environmental impact statement, for instance, which was a brand new requirement. The law requiring environmental impact statements came in in 1970,” said Salvucci. He said, “It seemed imminent because everyone was talking about it. It actually had a fairly long way to go in procedural terms . . . There was federal funding available, which made it pretty courageous, very courageous, I’d say, for Sargent to stop it.”

Hedlund said Gov. Mitt Romney found the Greenbush line scored “dead last” of all the ongoing transportation projects, but it was so far along that he allowed the construction to continue.

“The problem was that the Cellucci administration had gone ahead using some nefarious language that was put in a transportation bond bill, giving the MBTA authority to do a design-build on one quote-unquote ‘pilot project’ and they chose Greenbush to do that, which was not the legislative intent. So what the Romney administration found that was there was too much money sunk in the ground already to kill the project, and they weren’t even at full-design phase. They were only at 30 percent design, but they were using that design-build language that was given to them in a bond bill,” Hedlund said. He said, “The intent was it was going to be for a minor project, not anything controversial. That way they could kind of try it out, and of course they picked extremely controversial, expensive project to do it on, so I felt that was a deliberate strategy to get money sunk in the ground before a new administration came in and had a chance to really look at that, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Pacheco said when Romney froze capital spending upon taking office it put plans for a judicial complex in Taunton on ice for the remainder of Romney’s term in office.

“He pulled it from the list, so we had to wait until Deval Patrick came into office,” Pacheco said.

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