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MBTA finds that the Green Line Extension will disproportionately benefit richer, whiter riders

"I think it's fair to say the demographics of the neighborhoods encompassing GLX have changed."

Gov. Charlie Baker checks out an image of the Green Line Extension route at the under-construction Lechmere station in Cambridge. Stuart Cahill / Pool

A lot has changed since work first began on the MBTA’s Green Line Extension — including the populations it was intended to serve.

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During a meeting Monday afternoon, MBTA officials presented the results of an equity analysis finding that the forthcoming Green Line service into Somerville and Medford will disproportionately benefit higher-income, white riders.

“Everybody’s getting more service, but some individuals are getting slightly more service than others,” said Lynsey Heffernan, the T’s director of policy and strategic planning.

Since the MBTA received $1 billion in federal funds for the Green Line Extension, the agency was required to conduct an equity analysis under the Civil Rights Act to assess if the project would result have a racially discriminatory impact, or put a disproportionate burden on low-income riders.

While the analysis found that project won’t negatively affect low-income or minority riders, it did conclude that it would disproportionately benefit non-low-income and non-minority riders, which the MBTA says amounts to “a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority riders.”

Heffernan said the agency had a preliminary call with the Federal Transit Administration to make them aware of the new development.

As recently as 2010, a separate analysis found that the Green Line Extension would improve accessibility, mobility, congestion, and environmental conditions for “both environmental justice and non-environmental justice communities.” In fact, according to the analysis, environmental justice communities — which are defined as lower-income and disproportionately resident of colors — would benefit “slightly” more.

But since then, the ground around the Green Line Extension has continued to shift.

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Heffernan alluded Monday to the fact that particularly Somerville — which will see the percentage of residents within a half-mile of a transit stop increase from 20 percent to 80 percent when GLX service begins — has seen its old, blue-collar reputation transformed by an influx of young professionals and new development in the years since state officials first committed to the long-delayed project in the 1990s. (Somewhat ironically, much of that change was spurred by the Red Line’s extension to Davis Square in the 1980s.)

In a technical memo, MBTA officials cautioned against directly comparing the 2010 and 2021 analyses due to methodological differences. But the transformation is hard to ignore.

“I think it’s fair to say the demographics of the neighborhoods encompassing GLX have changed,” Heffernan said.

Still, she noted the MBTA needs to “avoid, mitigate and/or minimize any disproportionate benefit, even though it’s a benefit.”

That doesn’t mean any changes to the GLX project itself, which is finally on the verge of completion. Officials plan to begin service to Union Square in Somerville this October, followed by service on the GLX’s longer arm through Somerville to Tufts University in Medford in December. And the agency determined that there is “no practicable near-term alternatives or changes” to mitigate the disparate impact in these final stages.

Instead, the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board voted to approve a proposal to mitigate the effects through the agency’s ongoing bus network redesign, including by keeping the 80 bus, which runs parallel to the GLX’s planned Medford branch for much of its route. Officials had previously planned to get rid of the route, but its removal — forcing riders to take the higher-fare GLX — would amount to a fare increase for those riders, Heffernan said.

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Heffernan added that the MBTA is planning a “holistic” approach to its bus network redesign, which aims to improve service for underserved neighborhoods.

“Rather than proposing some reactive mitigation, given the duration for which the Green Line Extension project will be with us — forever — that a similar investment in bus network redesign is really the way to move this project forward,” she said.

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