Hop off the Orange Line at Assembly and look east: The newly opened Encore Boston Harbor casino and hotel looms large, so close you can almost hear the slot machines ringing.
But you can’t get there from here, at least not yet. Two immovable barriers are in the way: the Mystic River and those Orange Line tracks.
These are not insurmountable hurdles. Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria has been leading the charge to connect the MBTA’s Assembly Station in Somerville with the casino property in his city, just across the river. Sure, this connection would benefit the Wynn Resorts casino — gamblers and casino workers coming from Boston now wait to get off at the next stop, Wellington, and then hop on shuttle buses.
But it would also do something else, something more important: finally bring train access to a city on Boston’s doorstep that has long gone without it.
Usually with public projects like this, funding is the big issue. DeMaria says that hasn’t been his main problem, at least not lately. He says Wynn executives have told him the casino operator is willing to pay for the nearly $25 million to build a footbridge, extending about 800 feet across the river.
There’s a catch, though: those Orange Line tracks.
Wynn is less likely to bankroll that Mystic footbridge — a project currently in the permitting stage — if it doesn’t lead to the Orange Line station on the other side. (A Wynn spokesman says the cost distribution is not yet finalized.) For that to happen, DeMaria needs the MBTA to hop on board. Convincing the T staff to add this work to its already full slate has not been easy for the mayor, to say the least. But there has been movement in the Baker administration this week that has given him some hope.
The Assembly Station was subsidized by Federal Realty Investment Trust, the main company behind the massive — and massively successful — Assembly Row development. So the station opens inward, next to Partners HealthCare’s new tower, and not to the riverside park on the other side of the tracks.
Everett and Somerville officials are moving ahead with designs for a T head house, to enable people walking from Everett to get over the tracks and access the train platform. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has already awarded two grants, totaling $825,000, to pay for the headhouse design. DeMaria says the Gaming Commission’s staff has indicated a willingness to dip into its casino-tax-filled coffers for the construction, too. But a spokeswoman for the commission says those talks are still in early stages. One question that remains up for discussion this fall: whether the commission’s transportation funds should be used for project construction as well as design.
DeMaria would prefer that the MBTA borrow for the headhouse’s price tag of $10 million to $15 million. But he says he’s willing to have the city borrow the money, particularly if he knows the Gaming Commission will pay most of it back.
What he needs most from the T is cooperation. The Orange Line is the agency’s property, after all. In the past, he says, he has been told that the agency’s administrative staff is stretched too thin, managing more pressing items, to be of much help.
But the attitude at 10 Park Plaza might be changing. DeMaria says he heard from Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito on Wednesday, telling him that, yes, the Assembly connection would be a priority for the administration.
So where do the MBTA and the state Department of Transportation stand on this today? Spokeswoman Jacque Goddard offered only a one-sentence statement in response to questions, but it’s one that indicates the project may be moving up the priority list. Goddard said MassDOT and the T support a pedestrian bridge over the Mystic and look forward to working with everyone involved to determine how they can be helpful.
Count Amber Christoffersen of the Mystic River Watershed Association among the people who are keeping fingers crossed. From her perspective, the bridge wouldn’t just be an amenity for a casino company. The bridge would also be a crucial walking and biking connection for the region, particularly as the City of Everett moves to complete the final southern mile of the Northern Strand bike trail, a path that would wind from Lynn to the casino waterfront on the Mystic.
Community leaders dreamed of a footbridge, she says, long before Wynn showed up. The casino’s opening, however, could finally make that a reality.
DeMaria looks across the river and sees all the activity taking place at Assembly Row. He hopes it’s time for his once-overlooked city to plug into that success.
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.