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The fabled connection between the MBTA’s Red and Blue lines has been around, in the abstract, for decades.
“This is a project with a long history,” Erik Stoothoff, the MBTA’s chief engineer, said during a meeting Monday.
Now, infused with potential momentum by Massachusetts General Hospital’s nearby development plans, officials are actually attaching some visuals and dates to the long-awaited project, which would connect the only two MBTA subway lines that do not currently intersect.
After the MBTA committed in 2019 to completing the Red-Blue connector sometime in the next two decades, Stoothoof presented a timeline Monday that, “assuming that all the resources are available,” slates the project for completion by 2030.
It’s a somewhat loaded assumption, and under the current plan construction won’t begin for several years.
But advocates are happy to see MBTA officials moving deliberately ahead on the project.
Stoothoff says the MBTA is budgeting the next four years for continued design and permitting efforts, with construction set to begin toward the end of 2025. From there, he said the work will take “about four-and-a-half to five years.”
The plans presented Monday would extend the Blue Line by 2,500 feet — or roughly half a mile — from Bowdoin station under Cambridge Street to “a new extended Charles/MGH station” that would have escalators, elevators, and stairs descending directly from the Red Line station’s current ground-floor lobby to an underground Blue Line platform. The new station would also have a second head house at the eastern end of the Blue Line platform with escalators leading up into MGH’s future clinical building.
MBTA officials have been holding private talks with MGH about how the hospital could advance its $2 billion expansion “without compromising” the Red-Blue connector.
“We expect this coordination work to ramp up again, with all partners, as the Red-to-Blue connector moves on into the next phase of development,” Stoothoff said Monday.
Renderings obtained last month by Boston.com show some of the MBTA’s preliminary designs for the new Blue Line platform below Charles/MGH. Stoothoff’s presentation this week included additional visual perspectives from within the future station, as well as more detailed blueprints.
Stoothoff also confirmed Monday that the project will include the closure of the MBTA’s Bowdoin station (nearby Government Center also serves the Blue Line and keeping Bowdoin would mean three Blue Line stops within just over a half mile).
He also included an updated price tag for the project: $850 million, including the construction of a new tunnel and station, track work, administrative costs, and additional trains.
According to Stoothoff, the MBTA will save about $100 million on the project using the old fashioned “cut and cover” tunneling method.
Up until 2018, officials had considered using a tunnel boring machine, but Stoothoff noted that the equipment is “very expensive” and not ideal for a project so short in length.
Still, he emphasized that tunneling a half mile through an old and densely populated urban neighborhood remains incredibly complicated. Officials especially have to consider access for ambulances getting to the local hospitals on Cambridge Street, in addition to other local disruptions for MBTA commuters, businesses, and residents.
It also remains unclear how the full-scale project will be funded. During the same meeting Monday, MBTA officials again discussed the long-term financial challenges — exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — that the agency is facing. However, proponents have suggested additional sources of revenue from the state or federal government could help fund the project.
Currently, the T has committed $13 million to the project for near-term planning work.
Joseph Aiello, the chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, said Monday that “next year is going to be a pretty big year” for the project, as officials work with consultants and partners to advance the final design. But he pushed MBTA officials to pursue it “aggressively.”
As complex as the project is, its benefits are relatively straightforward.
By reducing the number of subway transfers to switch from the Red to Blue line — or vice versa — from two to one, the connection would provide quicker and more convenient access from growing and underserved residential neighborhoods along the North Shore, such East Boston and the massive Suffolk Downs redevelopment, to destinations like MGH, Mass Eye and Ear, Kendall Square, and Harvard. It also would increase public transit access to Logan Airport for residents of Cambridge and Somerville.
It could also perhaps even lighten downtown ridership on the Orange and Green lines, which riders currently have to use if they want to switch between the Red or Blue lines without exiting the system, not to mention vehicle traffic and emissions on the Boston area’s congested roads.
“It’s not an easy task, but traffic is coming back. The tunnels are filled up again,” Aiello said, noting how development on the north end of the Blue Line is only expected to accelerate.
“This project can’t come soon enough,” he said.
Earlier during the meeting, Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino, Boston City Councilor Michellu Wu, and former Massachusetts transportation secretaries Jim Aloisi and Fred Salvucci also testified in favor of the Red-Blue connector. Aloisi, a longtime advocate of the project, called it “most impactful initiative that the T engages in this decade,” even compared to the Green Line Extension or South Coast rail.
In an email Tuesday, Aloisi said he was very pleased with the overall presentation.
“They seem to have developed a strong actionable plan to get this important project done, and in a way that is appropriately timed to support MGH growth plans,” he said (MGH also plans to finish their expansion by 2030).
While he thought some of the project costs — such as $30 million for new trains — might be inflated, Aloisi reiterated it was an “important step forward.” He called on the MBTA to approach it with the “same attitude and approach” it is taking with the Green Line Extension, which is on track to be completed, under budget, around the end of the year, after two decades of planning delays.
“We’ve waited for too long for the Red-Blue connector,” Aiello said Monday.
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