The Green Line extension is moving forward, but the saga is far from over

"The boards' clear preference is to proceed with the project if there's a way to pay for it," Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.

A decision is expected this spring on the future of the Green Line extension.
–The Boston Globe

Two state transportation boards voted Monday to keep the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford alive. The decision gave a project that had been beset by a bleak financial picture new hope, but officials also cautioned that it will need to satisfy a number of internal and external standards in order to ever send a trolley to Union Square or Tufts University.

The boards that oversee the MBTA and the state’s Department of Transportation each voted to send a revised version of the project to the federal government for review, start developing a new financing plan, and draft a strategy for how to internally manage the light rail expansion in the short-term.

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Effectively, the decision is less a green light for the legally required project than a decision not to cancel it.

Still, given the year the extension has had, that was good enough to draw applause from a packed-house crowd of supporters.

“The patient has a pulse,” said State Rep. Denise Provost of Somerville.

The votes came at a Monday afternoon meeting, after more than 90 minutes of public comment almost unanimously supportive of the project, and after an hours-long presentation from consultants that recommended a stripped-down design with a $2.3 billion budget and a new 40- to 50-person internal MBTA team to oversee and lead it.

The vote means the state will submit the proposal to the Federal Transit Administration to vet the its new budget.

The FTA agreed in 2014 to fund the then-$2 billion project in its prior form at $1 billion, while the state was set to fund the other half. Whether the state would complete the project fell into doubt last August, when the T revealed the budget had jumped to as high as $3 billion. Since, officials have been working to bring the costs down through a review of the project, including simplified stations, a shorter cycling and walking path, and other adjustments.

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The $300 million difference between the prior $2 billion budget and the new $2.3 billion figure would be filled in part by $152 million in federal funds that had been allocated for a later phase of the project, which would have brought further expansion to Medford, and $75 million combined from the cities of Somerville and Cambridge.

That still leaves a budget gap of $73 million with no source so far. Under the terms of a rule set by the two boards late last year, that additional funding can’t come from the state.

Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack, who once worked as a project advocate with the Conservation Law Foundation, said during the meeting that the gap could wind up larger than that depending on the federal review.

“The way I would characterize that gap is that it is at least $73 million,” she said.

In its new form, the project would still bring five new stations to Somerville and one to Tufts in Medford, as well as a redone Lechmere Station in Cambridge.

Instead of fully built out stations, they have been simplified significantly, though some amenities — shelter from the weather and elevators at two stations that are not at street-level — have been added to the plans after public pushback to prior presentations that excluded them.

A reworked bike and walking path will end at Washington Street in Somerville, rather than heading all the way to Lechmere Station as previous plans would have done, sending cyclists to McGrath Highway. Prior to the meeting, several residents called on the path to be fully built, but an interim project management team the T hired to correct course earlier this year did not budge on that one.

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A vehicle maintenance facility has also been trimmed down significantly, accounting for $115 million in savings.

The T would use a different contracting method for the project which would give it more control, after poor oversight allowed consultants to take advantage of the previous process, resulting in the budget crisis.

But for the extension to ever see passengers, it will still need to clear a number of hurdles.

The FTA review could contradict the state’s new budget estimate, and as a result freshly jeopardize the project. Even if the state is right, it will need to find a way to fill the eight-figure gap.

“On paper, we have a plan for preparing and delivering it, but there are still some money problems that need to be resolved before the boards are ready to sign on the dotted lines,” Pollack told reporters following the meeting. “The boards’ clear preference is to proceed with the project if there’s a way to pay for it.”

And to get the extension right, the project management team said Monday, the T will need to hire a specialized team of dozens to tightly oversee it, including a “program manager” who should be highly skilled and adequately compensated.

In the meeting, Pollack and other board members also said the project should not distract from the T’s focus on improving its existing system, which faces a multi-billion-dollar repair backlog.

“For me the question at the end of the day comes down to, can you deliver this project and simultaneously improve the day-to-day experience of our million current rides?” Pollack said. “If we can do both, we should do both. But if we cant, we need to be really honest with ourselves.”

Pollack’s comment echoed that of her boss, Gov. Charlie Baker, earlier Monday.

“My primary focus is making sure that we do everything we need to do that hasn’t been done for the better part of the last decade for the million people that ride the core system every day. That’s my primary focus,” he told State House News Service ahead of Monday’s votes, while declining to comment on the Green Line extension revision.

But board members were cautiously eager to give the project new life, with all members present voting in favor of Monday’s proposals.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said that alone was reason for celebration.

“I’ve been around a while advocating the Green Line with many, many other people,” he said. “There’s plenty of optimism to be had here and we’re going to keep it going. I feel really good about it. And there will be a ribbon cutting.”

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