Metro

Green Line extension supporters urge state not to drop project

Union Square in Somerville, near the location of a proposed stop on the MBTA's Green Line extension.
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Union Square in Somerville, near the location of a proposed stop on the MBTA's Green Line extension.

Supporters of the long-anticipated project to extend the Green Line into Somerville and Medford urged the state transportation board Wednesday to seek new contractors for portions of the job to cut the cost, even if it causes more delays.

They were reacting to the announcement by MBTA officials in August that costs of the 4.7-mile Green Line extension could approach $3 billion, or about $1 billion more than the agency’s previous estimates. Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said at the time that the cost could threaten the project.

On Wednesday, nearly 30 supporters, including Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, pressed Department of Transportation board members to continue the project, saying that it is critical for local communities and the entire region.

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Curtatone said the Boston area is one of the most congested regions in the country, and that affects the local economy.

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“We want the Green Line,” he said. “The Green Line must come, and the Green Line will come.”

Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, said he believed the main contractor for the project, White-Skanska-Kiewit, has overestimated the cost. Mares’s organization successfully sued the T to force the agency to complete the Green Line extension.

Mares said he believes the T could put portions of the project out to bid again to save money, even if it means missing some of the deadlines for which the foundation pushed.

“If we cannot find a way to make this project happen,” he said, “what project can we complete in Massachusetts?”

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Mares and others said the contracting process used by the T had resulted in the high costs. Under the process, the general contractor names the maximum price for each portion of the project. While the process can speed up a project, critics say it can limit the T’s ability to negotiate a good price.

But Pollack said changing the contracting process would not necessarily decrease costs. And transportation board member Joseph Sullivan cautioned against further delay.

“A delay is time, and time is money,” he said. “So how do we make a determination that, in fact, trying to reduce the overall figure when we’re delaying the project is going to actually save us some money?”

T staff may redesign or eliminate a maintenance facility and a biking path planned for the project, or design less expensive stations. They could also seek additional money from the state or developers.

The agency will soon have to submit a new financing plan to the federal government, which pledged to pitch in nearly $1 billion for the project.

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Frank DePaola, the T’s interim general manager, said the agency is trying to get the contractor to reduce its estimate, and seeking an independent audit to understand how the costs ballooned so dramatically.

The reassessment of the project comes as T officials take on the task of improving the agency’s finances. Governor Charlie Baker successfully lobbied the Legislature for a fiscal control board to oversee the T’s finances and management .

On Wednesday, the agency also laid out its anticipated deficits in the coming years: The MBTA could have a budget shortfall of nearly $427 million through fiscal year 2020 if it continues growing at its current rate, according to the T’s newly appointed chief administrator, Brian Shortsleeve.

Part of the increases will come from the T’s decision to shift the salaries and benefits of about 530 employees funded from its capital budget to its operating budget. That will cost the agency about $52 million in operating expenses during the 2017 fiscal year.

Shortsleeve said the T must present ways to close that shortfall by December.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com.