Green Line extension could still be canceled

Canceling the project “must remain on the table,’’ the state’s secretary of transportation said.

The path of the Green Line extension in Somerville.
Train tracks along the proposed MBTA Green Line extension in Somerville. –Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

The future of the MBTA’s Green Line extension remains cloudy after state Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack said Wednesday that the over-budget project should not continue as currently planned.

At a joint meeting of the boards that separately oversee the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA, Pollack said canceling the rail project “must remain on the table’’ unless and until leaders develop a plan that substantially reins in its costs. The current plan is “not affordable and it’s not in the best interest of the MBTA,’’ she said.

If the state ditched the project, it would result in more than $740 million in “sunk costs’’ between the $380 million that has already been spent and further expected wind-down costs, according to a presentation Wednesday. For now, Pollack said, cancellation is just an option.

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“We are not currently recommending that the project be canceled,’’ she said. “We’re just saying, we are not in a position to take cancellation off the table at this time. And that we believe that we need to consider not just potentially saying no to this project, but also saying yes to focus on and investing in the core system with resources that would otherwise be used for this.’’

Redesigning parts of the project and rebidding the rest of its construction contract could result in savings to keep it viable, consultants told board members.

Those ideas had been laid out as far back as August, when the T revealed the extension was up to $1 billion over budget. But Wednesday’s meeting brought more details about what the changes could look like.

One consultant, Geoffrey Yarema of legal firm Nossaman LLP, suggested the T get out of its existing agreement with construction contractor White Skanska Kiewit and switch to a new contracting method that could give the T greater control over costs. The contracting process used to this point has been cited as a major cause for the extension’s problems.

Another consultant—John Karn, with engineering and design consultancy Arup—said savings could be found in cutbacks on station designs and a maintenance facility; by re-examining whether one commuter rail track currently on the extension’s path needs to be moved, as is planned; and through scheduling changes that could divert people off commuter rail services during construction, thus shortening the project’s completion timeline.

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Another option is to nix the spur of the extension that would go to Somerville’s Union Square and replace it with a commuter rail station or shuttle service, Karn said. Union Square is undergoing a major redevelopment initiative as Somerville anticipates the Green Line.

Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, which sued the state to force the Green Line extension, said he disapproved of potentially cutting the Union Square station. The station brings “significant project benefits,’’ as opposed to the other potential cuts, which “don’t affect the functionality of the Green Line extension,’’ he said.

“Eliminating the Union Square branch and replacing it with shuttle bus service or even commuter rail service is taking away such a substantial project benefit,’’ he said.

In rethinking project design, the state would want to avoid “options that would jeopardize’’ about $1 billion in federal funding allocated for the extension, according to the presentation made to the boards. The federal money would be forfeited if the project is canceled.

The savings from the different design strategies could save between 10 and 40 percent of construction costs, Karn said, based on a number of variables.

“With all due respect, that’s a bit of a range,’’ said MassDOT board member and Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan.

“You can’t assume all [the possible changes] are going to get done,’’ responded Pollack, who said the savings could amount to “hundreds of millions.’’

The two boards heard MBTA staff and consultant recommendations Wednesday, but did not make any decisions. Pollack said following the meeting that any definite decisions on how to proceed would be made in “months, not weeks.’’

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The Fiscal and Management Control Board that oversees the T did vote to take over administration of the project from MBTA staff for at least 90 days, requiring that no project-related spending happens without board approval.

Control board member Brian Lang referenced the many issues facing the T in saying he would “take seriously’’ every option for the Green Line extension’s future.

“It’s not a matter of if any one of us is for GLX,’’ he said. “It’s a matter of what is really viable. We have a responsibility to look at the T as a whole … And it’s an enormous and complex situation, and it’s greater than GLX.’’

The public portion of the meeting was followed by a closed-door executive session for what the meeting’s agenda described as “discussion of litigation strategies.’’

The Green Line extension would create six new stations between Somerville and Medford, as well as a redone Lechmere Station in Cambridge. Its budget has risen steadily since it was first planned, but officials slammed the brakes and began studying the project when an estimate from late last year—about $2 billion—launched to as high as $3 billion within months.

At the start of the meeting, the transportation boards heard from several members of the public in support of the project, including Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and Medford Mayor-elect Stephanie Muccini Burke. The Green Line has for years been seen as an economic and transit panacea for Somerville and Medford, and Curtatone urged board members to keep the faith.

“This project is too important for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts not to take a continuous, thoughtful approach to make sure it’s followed through and that it is built,’’ he said.

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