The Green Line extension’s day of reckoning is coming
Eight months after transportation officials revealed the long-awaited Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford was vaulting way, way over its budget, a major project update and a likely decision on its future are slated for Monday at a joint meeting of the boards that separately oversee the MBTA and the state’s Department of Transportation.
The rail expansion project, bringing six new stations to Somerville and Medford as well as a redone Lechmere Station in Cambridge, was projected to cost $2 billion as recently as early 2015, with costs split down the middle between the state and federal government.
But when news came in late August that the project was barreling toward a budget closer to $3 billion, it fell in to jeopardy.
Since, officials have said the Green Line extension could be canceled while working to cut costs through a bare-bones redesign. Whether they’ve done enough is expected to be decided on Monday, though the two boards could wait to vote until later this month.
In the meantime, here’s a rundown of what’s happened since last August:
What went wrong?
Before the state made any decisions about the extension’s future, it looked back at where things went off the rails. Consultants brought on by the MBTA said in November that a rare contracting method, combined with poor oversight and short project staffing by the T, allowed the contractors working on the project to command higher payments throughout the early phases of the extension.
Further, the consultants said, as of last fall it was doubtful that any sort of “reliable budget has been produced to date.”
Later, an open records request found that signs of the budget issues brewed long before exploding into public view. In 2014, faced with two project consultants’ vastly different budget estimates while applying for federal funding, the MBTA went forward with the lower estimate. And another company, meant to verify cost estimates, told the MBTA not to worry about the two budgets’ discrepancies.
Getting back on track
After the consultants’ report, officials took several steps.
First, they fired the assorted contractors that had been working on the project as costs ballooned.
In January, the state brought on an interim project management team to redesign the project to bring costs back toward the $2 billion figure. The chairman of the T’s board said cutbacks “really need to be on the side of brutal.”
Officials also set the condition that if the project moves forward, the state won’t chip in more than the $1 billion it had previously committed. Anything above the prior $2 billion budget in state and federal money would need to come from an outside party — more federal money, or contributions from the developers and municipalities the extension would serve.
That message has apparently been heard. On Thursday, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi said they would ask their city councils to approve a combined $75 million to help pay for the project. State officials have also taken initial steps to shift additional federal funding– originally planned for a later, further expansion of the line to Route 16 in Medford — toward this phase of the project.
Jack Wright, a T consultant leading the project management team, has offered peeks at the new designs in a series of recent public meetings.
One certainty: If the extension goes forward, its stations — fully fleshed out with elaborate entrance structures, elevators, and other amenities — would be scaled back significantly, more akin to the minimalist above-ground stops on the Green Line’s western branches.
While extension supporters have said since last fall that they would be willing to accept simpler stations if it meant the project moved forward with all of its stops, some at public meetings have bemoaned the simplification of the stations. “I think that one thing that needs to be added to the project budget is a huge amount of antidepressants,’’ Elisabeth Bayle, a longtime project advocate from Medford, said in March.
Other cutbacks may include a hearty downsizing of a planned maintenance facility along the line and adjustments to the route of the bicycle and walking path planned to run along the track. A proposal unveiled in April would move part of the path along the highly-trafficked McGrath Highway near the Somerville-Cambridge border. It was met with some criticism.
Moving forward with the project would involve more than just design changes. A construction schedule, the contracting method (and how it would prevent the same issues from bubbling up all over again), and — perhaps most important — how much the project will cost all remain to be seen.
What if it’s not approved?
The tea leaves don’t look awful for project supporters.
In their joint statement Thursday, Curtatone and Rossi said that they expect project managers will recommend approval of the redesigned project, including all seven stations and the path. Wright has said “there’s reason for optimism.” And transportation officials have referred to dropping the extension as a worst-case scenario.
Still, those officials have refused to take cancellation off the table since August. So what if they do nix it?
Political backlash out of Somerville, Medford, and Cambridge would be certain. Elected officials in those cities have strongly pushed for the project for more than a decade, and U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano helped secure its $1 billion in federal funding.
That federal money would be forfeited. And the state would also have put more than $700 million into the project before walking away with little to show for it except some new Green Line cars that could be put to use elsewhere.
The state would not necessarily be able to wipe its hands clean and call it a day after canceling. A T attorney said last winter that if it the Green Line extension is canceled, the state may be required by law to launch a new project that offered greater air quality benefits.
That speaks to the legal ramifications of ending the project. The extension is legally mandated, the result of a lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation, which sought transit projects as environmental mitigation for the Big Dig in the 1990s. A second lawsuit from CLF kick started the stalled project last decade.
Rafael Mares, a CLF vice president who leads its transit advocacy, said it would be premature to say whether CLF would sue if the project is ended, but that it would “do everything it can” to ensure it is built. However, he doesn’t expect it to come to that, saying he “can’t imagine” the Green Line extension will be called off at this point. We’ll know soon.
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