Transportation officials voted to cautiously proceed with the stalled and over-budget expansion of the Green Line to Somerville and Medford on Monday, after an outside project management team found $622 million in savings through a redesign.
The lion’s share of those savings — about $288 million — come from cutbacks to the stations, which under prior plans had been larger, with more structures and amenities. Station design had been a likely target for cost reduction since last fall, as officials stressed that “core functionality,” like carting people to and fro, was the goal.
The project management consultants’ report to the state included an example of what the difference might look like, singling out the proposed Ball Square station near the Somerville-Medford border.
Here’s the before:
And the after:
For good measure, here’s another look at the previously proposed form of the station in a video:
No fare gates, no problem?
Fare gates are among the features missing from the new, stripped-down version of Ball Square.
Nor would they now be at any other station on the extension — a curious absence at a time in which the MBTA is emphasizing fare collection on the above-ground portions of the Green Line and elsewhere in the system.
Officials say that’s because by the time the stations open, they will have moved to a new fare collection method, allowing riders to pay with CharlieCards, phones, or credit cards. On the Green Line, riders would be able to board at any door, tapping in as they enter the vehicle and rendering fare gates less necessary.
The T’s overseers have said they want the new fare system in place in under three years.
61 months, minimum
The Green Line extension, meanwhile, is still going to be a while. Consultants said that a best case scenario would require 18 months for contracting and procurement, and another 43 to 47 months for construction. So if the process started today, it could be completed in 61 months, or mid-2021.
That would actually put it on pace with the date — June 29, 2021 — by which the T said it would begin running the service in its agreement with the federal government, which is providing $1 billion to the project. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she thinks that the T could adjust any federal deadline if necessary, since the project is headed to the Federal Transit Administration for review of the new changes.
However, before the project ran off the rails last year, the state had said it was targeting a 2020 completion date. Under the previous timeline, two of the new stations — Washington Street and Union Square in Somerville — were scheduled to open before the rest, but the presentation from the consultants did not give a timeline for when the first stations might open.
Once the 18-month procurement process is complete, the construction schedule would be shorter than under the previous plans because the project’s scope would be smaller and because some weekend closures along the commuter rail would allow for expedited construction of the adjacent Green Line extension.
Rafael Mares, a transit advocate and vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, thinks the state should go even further with commuter rail closures and explore shutting them down for weeks at a time during the fall and spring. The closures would inconvenience commuter rail riders, but could save significant chunks of time on construction, he said. And the time savings could result in cost savings that might allow the T to re-implement aspects of the project which had been cut, such as the final portion of the cycling and walking path planned to run along the transit line.
The view from the inside
All of the above presumes the project opens. It still will face a number of hurdles moving forward, starting with a review from the FTA.
Though the vote was unanimous, some members of the two state boards that advanced the project Monday were more enthusiastic than others. Among the more cautious was Pollack, who repeatedly cautioned board members that even after costs have been reined in, the project is still facing a $73 million funding gap. She also said it’s not yet clear that the T will be able to properly manage the project and still maintain its focus on improving service for other riders.
Her hesitance is striking, considering her previous work as an advocate for the project at the Conservation Law Foundation, which sued the state years ago to move the legally mandated project forward. Mares, who now leads CLF’s advocacy for the Green Line extension, told CommonWealth magazine that Pollack was likely speaking on behalf of Gov. Charlie Baker, who earlier in the day declined to take a position on the Green Line extension but stressed that his focus with the T is to get its existing system running better.
“She channeled the governor in what she said,” Mares told CommonWealth. Of her time as an advocate, he said: “She had a different boss then.”
Frustration in Somerville
The $73 million gap would be larger if Somerville and Cambridge’s leaders hadn’t agreed last week to provide $75 million in municipal money to help fund the project.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has described the need for Somerville to put up $50 million as both “necessary” and “frustrating.” Several Somerville aldermen said that they were open to providing the money, but that they found the request — which officials say has never been made of a city or town for a state transportation project — unfair.
Bill White, the president of Somerville’s Board of Aldermen, expressed similar feelings ahead of Monday’s meeting, lamenting that a project meant to offset environmental impacts to Somerville from the Big Dig would require the city to pay up. “That is the world we live in now, but we are going to do it,” White said, adding that he hopes the state will help the city find creative ways to finance the contribution.
Somerville State Rep. Denise Provost had sharper words in an interview after the meeting.
She said “grudging acceptance” of the city financing is how she might describe her feelings “when I’m feeling most kindly disposed to paying extortion.” How would she describe it under normal circumstances? “Somali pirates, maybe?” she said.
Provost recounted Somerville’s transportation history, with Route 93 running through the middle of the city and the Big Dig adding capacity to the highway.
“Historically, this Commonwealth has had total disregard for the city of Somerville,” Provost said. “Everything about transit in Somerville, if you do a cost-benefit analysis, the cost is to the city, the benefit is outside the city. So now, it looks like we might be coming close to getting the justice we have been denied for the burden of the Central Artery project, and now we’re being asked to pay for it. … I think it’s an outrage. An outrage.”