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With very high price tag for new T bus garage, advocates float putting housing, retail on parcels to defray cost

The site of a former Lowe’s will be home to the new MBTA Quincy bus garage.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

If the MBTA is to upgrade or rebuild its nine aging bus garages, with the first one estimated to cost an eye-popping $402 million, it’s going to have to think creatively, transit advocates and budget watchdogs said Thursday.

Their reaction comes a day after the Globe reported that the MBTA’s price tag for its new 120-bus maintenance and storage facility in Quincy, scheduled to open in 2024, exceeds the budgets of similar projects completed or underway in other US and Canadian cities. The projected cost raises questions about whether the cash-strapped agency will be able to upgrade its remaining garages to achieve its goal of switching from fossil fuel to battery-electric buses by 2040.

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“We need to make sure the funds are there to make these facilities a reality,” Rick Dimino, president of the business-backed group A Better City. “This will be a multibillion dollar effort . . . It’s going to require a very specialized project management team to get this executed right.”

Transit bus garages have long been known for their fossil fuel fumes, purposefully built in walled-off corners of cities to try to keep them hidden from public view. But as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority transforms its bus facilities from diesel to battery-electric, advocates say the agency should consider teaming up with private developers to lighten the T’s financial load.

Approaches like public-private partnerships may need to be considered if the MBTA is to get to all nine garages. In 2017, the agency estimated that modernizing its bus garages would cost $808 million. Now, it’s planning to spend around half that — $402 million — on just the Quincy one, a 360,000 square foot facility.

A significant chunk — around $44 million — of the cost is for real estate: a former Lowe’s on Thomas Burgin Parkway.

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“In this case the land that they’re choosing is very expensive, it’s not some warehouse area that’s not valuable,” said Greg Sullivan, the Pioneer Institute’s research director and a former state inspector general. “That good location, if it were used creatively, would have the possibility of saving the T money.”

By teaming up with private developers on its bus garages, the MBTA could offset some of the costs of rebuilding them, a 2019 report from A Better City found. A multi-use development could offer benefits to surrounding communities that diesel garages of the past — with their noise, emissions, and hazardous fossil fuels — made impossible.

The report imagined what a public-private partnership for the T’s Albany bus garage in the South End might look like: a residential tower on top of a battery-electric bus maintenance and storage facility with street-level retail space and a transit hub.

“It would be a totally different approach, but one that could bring some private investment and put less burden on the front end of the T’s capital exposure,” said Dimino.

It’s a strategy Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, hopes the MBTA will seriously consider for the next garage on its list: Arborway, a 200-bus facility in Jamaica Plain it plans to complete in 2027.

Mauney-Brodek sees potential beyond a bus garage for the 18-acre site located near the Forest Hills T stop. She hopes the MBTA will consider making affordable housing, supportive housing, health services, and retail space part of the design.

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“There’s a myriad of uses that our city needs,” she said. “With creativity these can be done in a thoughtful way that is beneficial to the communities, the transportation needs of the region, and the adjacent Emerald Necklace.”

Language proposed in Governor Charlie Baker’s transportation bond bill would allow the MBTA to enter into development agreements that include transportation and other public benefits without having to separately bid for those elements.

MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the MBTA is advancing a concept for the Arborway site that includes around eight acres of land along Washington Street that will be made available for development.

“The MBTA strongly supports the Baker Administration’s efforts to improve the T’s ability to participate in public-private partnerships,” he said via e-mail.

The public-private partnership approach alone won’t solve all the T’s financial problems. The agency is facing a fiscal cliff, including a gap of around $13 billion on its planned investment costs over the next 10 years, according to an analysis last year from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

“At some point we’re going to have to really lean in on solving the revenue challenges of the T,” said Dimino. “Especially if we want to try to do the things that are necessary to put in place a viable bus system and a modern electric bus fleet.”


Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.