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Metro

Starts & Stops

MBTA’s Red-Blue Connector: Will it ever be built?

Pop quiz: Name the only MBTA subway lines that don’t meet. If you said the Red and the Blue, you’re right, and you may be right for decades to come.

Supporters of a “Red-Blue Connector” appeared to gain a boost Thursday when the body controlling distribution of federal transportation aid in Greater Boston programmed $49 million to design the connector. The tunnel would extend the Blue Line a half-mile beneath Cambridge Street from its Government Center/Bowdoin terminus to meet the Red Line at Charles/MGH.

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But don’t prepare for a ribbon-cutting just yet. State officials quickly described the move as a placeholder, with no plans to spend the money.

To refresh: Twenty-plus years ago, the state committed to a legally binding roster of transit projects to offset the ­impact of the Big Dig and comply with federal environmental law. (Think extending the Green Line through Somerville, constructing the waterfront ­Silver Line, restoring the Old Colony lines, and so on.)

The Cambridge Street connector was originally to be built by 2011, but the state has spent years trying to shed the project.

Unless the state succeeds in revising that list of Big Dig commitments — a multiyear process requiring approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the US Environmental Protection Agency — the Red-Blue ­design must be included on the four-year spending plan for major transportation projects.

That was the word in a Sept. 13 EPA letter that found the state short of “positive conformity” with federal air-quality rules. As a result, the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization (state and municipal officials who vote on the four-year plan for allocating US transportation aid) revised the plan to ­include $49 million from 2013 to 2015 to design and engineer the project.

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But the state Department of Transportation intends to get approval to revise the list of Big Dig commitments before that money is ever spent, spokeswoman Cyndi Roy said.

“I don’t think that anybody disputes it’s a good project, but, given the resources we have available, it’s not something we can afford to move forward on today,” Roy said. The department estimates that construction would cost $750 million.

The last time the state revised Big Dig commitments, it eliminated restoration of the Arborway trolley, delayed the Green Line extension, and changed the Red-Blue commitment from design and construction to just design, in exchange for adding Fairmount Line commuter rail stations in Dorchester and Mattapan, building more suburban park-and-ride spots, and extending the Green Line beyond Tufts University. It now wants to drop the Red-Blue ­design without substituting anything.

Rafael Mares, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, called that short-
sighted at best. Designing the connector to be “shovel-ready,” even without construction funds lined up, means it could capture money from a possible future federal stimulus program or be incorporated into negotiations over mitigation with a Suffolk Downs casino operator, he said.

Among other benefits, the connector would more than double activity at Charles/MGH while alleviating congestion at Downtown Crossing and Park Street. It would shorten the trip for people from East Boston, Revere, and beyond who are trying to reach jobs in Cambridge or around Massachusetts General Hospital, he said. “It’s a critical project with economic, environmental, and social-justice components,” Mares said.

The Conservation Law Foundation has spent two ­decades holding the state’s feet to the fire on the Big Dig commitments through negotiation, advocacy, and legal action. “My hope would be not to fight them on this, but to convince them it’s a mistake,” he said.

Arrival signs in the works­
next for the Red Line

The train arrival countdown signs that debuted at South Station in August and extended to Park Street over Labor Day weekend, in time for the 115th birthday of Boston’s first subway, reached Downtown Crossing last week.

The in-house MBTA team that developed the arrival announce­ment signs on a shoestring and has been monitoring the rollout will continue to ­observe and tinker at those three stations for the next month. Joshua Robin, project manager, called it a “burn-in” period to ensure that predictions are accurate and do not cause glitches with public-
service and safety announcements.

If all continues to go well, countdown signs will be added to other stations every few days, first on the Red Line, which should be equipped from end to end by late fall or winter, and then the Orange and Blue lines.

“Right now we’re monitoring the initial pilot stations very closely to ensure we’re ­delivering our customers the best possible experience,” said Robin, the T’s director of innovation. “As T riders ourselves, we’re as anxious as anyone to bring it to more locations. But quality is our top priority.”

Your chance to help finance public transportation

Transportation planners, policy wonks, and Beacon Hill observers have been talking for years about the state’s transportation funding crisis, a result of too much debt, too little revenue, and a long-term reluctance to raise the gas tax, tolls, or other dedicated sources to pay off the borrowing that has built Greater Boston’s transit and highway system, much less to pay for repairs or replacements.

The public debate over the MBTA’s fare increases earlier this year opened a window on the problem, and the resulting one-year solution for the T (which included fare increases and tapping a little-known ­account fed by motor vehicle inspection fees) included promises from Beacon Hill leaders that larger financial woes with the highway and transit network would be addressed with an “adult conversation” after the upcoming elections.

But legislators have already asked Governor Deval Patrick’s administration to pitch a solution by the end of this year. ­Before proposing new taxes or fees that might help close the gap, the Department of Transportation is beginning a statewide discussion tour.

The 15 public meetings are scheduled to begin Thursday in Springfield and end Nov. 29 in Boston, though more may be added. The full list can be found at www.mass.gov/
massdot/yourvisionourfuture.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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