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paul mcmorrow

Red Line/Blue Line Connector is well worth the investment

Transit-oriented development runs on a grand bargain between private developers and the public sector. A robust public transportation system catalyzes growth, and withdrawing support for transit closes off opportunity. That’s why the current bid to indefinitely shelve the MBTA’s Red Line/Blue Line Connector is so short-sighted: In a bid to save a few million dollars, the state is throwing a cloud over billions in economic development.

The Red Line’s Charles/MGH station looks up the hill at the Blue Line’s Bowdoin terminus, but a half-mile stretch of Cambridge Street in Boston separates the two stations. The Red and Blue Lines are the only two MBTA subway lines that don’t intersect, and as a result, relatively short distances are difficult to bridge. According to Rafael Mares, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, commuters traveling from Harvard to Maverick Station at 10 p.m. would spend more time waiting on train platforms than they would spend driving from Cambridge to East Boston.

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The Red/Blue Connector tunnel would extend the Blue Line a half-mile under Cambridge Street, dramatically easing commutes between the North Shore and East Boston at one end, and Cambridge and the Mass. General Hospital complex on the other. The project has clear benefits for the existing transit system, but the state has long been a reluctant builder for the connector. Twice, the state entered into binding legal agreements to build the connector, and twice the state has tried to back out of the project.

Beacon Hill originally took on the Red/Blue Connector two decades ago, as Big Dig mitigation under the Clean Air Act. The highway tunnel took ages to build; the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, along with the Red/Blue connector, has taken even longer.

A 2005 Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit meant to force the state into following through on its own Big Dig commitments ended up relieving Beacon Hill of most of its Red/Blue Connector responsibilities; instead of being required to build the tunnel, the state is only obligated to design and permit the project. State officials are now balking at this low bar. They’re pushing to drop the connector tunnel altogether, saying they shouldn’t have to spend tens of millions of dollars designing a tunnel it has no money to build. This is a backdoor way of killing the tunnel for good, since most transit projects go shopping for funds only after they’ve been designed.

Much of the wrangling over the Red/Blue Connector centers on money: The state says it doesn’t have it, and the Conservation Law Foundation maintains the state’s $750 million project cost estimate is “deliberately high” by hundreds of millions of dollars. Beyond the raw dollars, though, there’s something else — a public sector that preaches transit-oriented development is maneuvering to avoid even planning for more robust transit.

Developers save the public sector money when they steer new construction to compact areas where infrastructure already exists, instead of building expensive, ever-widening circles of new sprawl. Transit-oriented development shortens commutes. It allows communities to broaden their tax bases while blunting the negative impacts of growth. Linking new development to transit is the easiest way to calm local fears about development.

This is the bargain that has fueled the rapid growth of Kendall Square in Cambridge. Neighbors have signed off on millions of square feet of new commercial development in Kendall because builders push workers to commute by rail, not by road. Kendall, in turn, has become the state economy’s most important cog. But the bargain can only hold as long as the trains can absorb new commuters.

The T is currently straining to keep up with surging ridership. A recent report by Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center found subway lines and key downtown stations approaching capacity. The Red/Blue Connector is the key to relieving this pressure, and ensuring that the state’s key research cluster continues to grow. Thanks to a recent $600 million makeover that added new cars and expanded platforms, the Blue Line is the only subway line with excess capacity. It’s capacity that could be put to good use by linking large-scale development sites in East Boston and Revere to Kendall and MGH. This isn’t just another Big Dig checkbox. It’s the price of ensuring decades of growth. And it’s surely not worth writing off to save a few million dollars.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

Correction: An earlier version of this column about a proposed connector for the MBA’s Red and Blue Lines in Boston incorrectly described the connector’s route. It would be under Cambridge Street.

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