Project may be in doubt
Aram Boghosian for The Globe/File
The frequently delayed Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford could cost as much as $1 billion more than the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s budget estimates, raising doubts about whether the project will be completed.
MBTA officials on Monday revealed they may need between $700 million and $1 billion more — in addition to the current $1.99 billion price tag — to finish the project, which would create seven new stations and add about 4.7 miles of track to the trolley line.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the state must now consider several options to bridge the shortfall.
“Everything is on the table, and everything includes canceling the project,” said Pollack. “But that’s not where we want to go.”
Officials could cut costs by simplifying the design of the stations; finding additional state funding or money from partners such as Tufts University or private developers along the route; or choose another contractor to complete the work.
The new estimate could jeopardize nearly $1 billion in federal money that was pledged to the T in December. Frank DePaola, MBTA interim general manager, said the federal government could rescind its funding for the project if the T cannot show how it will make up for the budget gap.
Somerville is one of the most densely populated cities in the country, but has little access to rail. When — and now if — the project is done, about 70 percent of residents in the city will be within walking distance of a rail station. Supporters of the project said the expansion will spur economic development and provide direct service from as far as the Tufts Medford campus into downtown Boston.
Baker, who has vowed to whip the T into good financial shape, expressed concern about the new cost projection. The project, though worthwhile, “cannot be pursued at just any cost to taxpayers or at the expense of transportation infrastructure statewide,” Baker said in a statement.
Steve Poftak, a member of the fiscal and management control board Baker championed as a way to fix the T, was blunt in his disapproval Monday, when the news was revealed publicly at the board’s meeting.
“It feels to me like we don’t have a handle on this,” he said. “How do we have some level of assurance that we don’t have another meeting in six months with an additional ask?”
Pollack said there are several reasons T officials vastly underestimated the price of the project, which won federal funding under the administration of Governor Deval Patrick. Pollack said engineers hired by the T made their estimates based on prices of large MBTA projects completed during the depths of the recession.
DePaola also pointed to the contracting process being used for the Green Line extension, which the T has not previously used. The project has been divided into contracts for different phases, and the T must negotiate with its main contractor for the price of each portion as they proceed with the project.
Proponents of that process say it can speed up the timeline of a project, since an agency can go forward with construction of earlier phases while designing the latter phases.
The T and its contractor offered wildly different estimates for one of the largest jobs of the extension, which would create three new stations, among other things. The engineering firm the T hired estimated those costs at $487 million, but its main contractor, White-Skanska-Kiewit, projected a price of $889 million.
DePaola said he was “stunned” at the difference, and Pollack said the T “simply cannot afford” that contract. The agency and the contractor are currently negotiating the price.
Officials say they will look for additional savings, such as downsizing stations, cutting back on a planned walkway and bike path, or changing a maintenance and storage facility planned along the route. DePaola also mentioned the use of other state bond funds, but that could take away from other repair projects for the T.
The revised estimate will likely result in more delays for the long-promised project, which was meant to offset environmental impacts from the increase of traffic caused by the Big Dig. In the 1990s, the Conservation Law Foundation — where Pollack worked at the time — threatened the state with legal action, and subsequently forced the state to commit to the completion of the Green Line extension project by 2011.
But the project continued to languish, and the foundation sued the state in 2005. Rafael Mares, the foundation’s current senior attorney, implied the organization could seek additional legal action if the MBTA cancels the project, which he called “a project of significant regional importance that CLF will not abandon.”
Pollack pointed out another downside to abandoning the project: The T has spent several million dollars already, and will face additional costs even if the extension is shelved.
The project had seemed to clear a major hurdle in December, when the Federal Transit Administration pledged nearly $1 billion to the project. At the time, the estimated cost was about $2.3 billion, including debt servicing. Under the timeline released in December, the new Lechmere, Union Square, and Washington Street stations would open by 2017, followed by the four other stations in 2020.
Paul Regan, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said the new estimate will present a “big roadblock to everyone getting what they thought they were getting with this process.”
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