State won’t rule out canceling Green Line extension
The state transportation board has not ruled out canceling the Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford, even though the state would need to spend about $742.3 million and forgo nearly $1 billion in secured federal money if the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority axed the project, officials said on Wednesday.
Even if the MBTA proceeds with the long-awaited project, officials are considering controversial cost-saving steps, such as eliminating the Union Square station and converting it into a stop for commuter rail trains or shuttle buses to another Green Line station. Officials could also cancel contracts with the construction and project management firms currently working on the project.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and other transportation board members said at a meeting Wednesday that they need to fully examine all options, including abandoning the project altogether.
“We are just saying that we’re not in a position to take cancellation off the table at this time,” she said. “We believe we need to consider potentially saying no to this project, but also saying yes to investing into the core system.”
The project to build 4.7 miles of track and seven stations in Medford and Somerville has been under scrutiny after MBTA officials revealed the cost of the project could be nearly $1 billion over initial estimates. The federal government pledged nearly $1 billion specifically for the project last December, then estimated to cost about $2.3 billion, including debt service.
The MBTA’s fiscal and management control board, created last summer to right the troubled agency, is keeping a close eye on the project. For the next 90 days, it will need to approve any projects for the Green Line extension, the control board voted on Wednesday.
The MBTA has already spent about $380 million on the extension, including about $180 million for outside expertise, such as project managers. Even if the MBTA abandoned the rail project, officials said they would still need to follow through on a number of contracts, including the purchase of 24 new Green Line trolleys for $182.7 million.
The cancellation would deal a major blow to several communities and longtime supporters of the project. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, Medford mayor-elect Stephanie Burke, state Senator Patricia Jehlen, and state Representative Christine Barber all testified in support of the project.
“If we can’t build this, folks, it sends a bad message to our Commonwealth and our country about what we can do,” Curtatone said.
Supporters of the project have pointed out that it is a legal obligation: The Conservation Law Foundation successfully sued the MBTA to finish the project, which is meant to mitigate the environmental effects of the Big Dig highway project.
But on Wednesday, John Englander, the general counsel of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA, said there are “legal alternatives” to the Green Line extension, such as substitute projects.
On Wednesday, state transportation board members were asked to consider several options that could drive down costs, including scaling back aspects of the project or changing the contracting process or contractors that have been blamed for its ballooning costs.
John Karn, a consultant with the Arup Group, said the MBTA could save between 10 percent and 40 percent of the construction costs if they scaled back the project.
Some of the biggest savings could come from the MBTA’s plan to move two commuter rail tracks in one of the areas where the Green Line would be extended. The MBTA could save considerably on the project if it moved only one of the tracks, relocated the utility corridors, and made other changes along that area, according to Karn.
In addition, officials could save money by scaling down the new stations, which cost about double what the MBTA usually budgets for such stations, according to Karn. The changes could be drastic, including the elimination of Union Square’s Green Line station, in favor of a commuter rail stop or shuttle buses to the nearby Lechmere Station instead.
Transportation board members will also consider whether to cancel existing contracts, after consultants last week said an unusual contracting process had allowed a construction group to charge the MBTA significantly more than estimated. Wednesday, Geoffrey S. Yarema, an attorney with Nossaman LLP, recommended putting the remaining work out to bid again under another process.