State transportation officials are making it increasingly clear that local governments and developers will have to kick in significant money if they want the long-awaited Green Line extension to go forward.
But how much money, and what it might pay for, remains unclear, despite months of talks about such financing for the beleaguered line.
Legislation — allowing cities to create taxing districts to help finance transportation projects — is pending on Beacon Hill; if passed, it could free up some cash. And big landowners along the line say they’re open to contributing.
Without knowing what the extension will ultimately cost, however, both local officials and developers say it’s hard to know whether they can contribute enough to make it happen.
“We need to get to a budget that’s transparent and clear,” said Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, a longtime supporter of the project. “Until then, we’re not at a point where we can ask [developers] for a particular number.”
The Green Line expansion into Somerville and Medford, which would create seven stations and 4.7 miles of track out to Tufts University, has faced increased scrutiny since August, when transportation officials warned its price could balloon from about $2 billion to $3 billion.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has threatened to shut the project down if the Massachusetts Department of Transportation can’t rein in costs and raise more money. And last week, state transportation board members agreed to move forward only under certain conditions: a scaled-down project; a new management and contracting process; and outside funding.
Michael Verseckes, a spokesman with the Department of Transportation, said Pollack has started funding discussions with cities along the corridor, and state officials have talked with developers about how they could pay for portions of the stations.
“Thus far, the discussions have been positive, and the communities seem receptive to this effort,” he wrote in an e-mail.
But Brian Lang, a member of the fiscal control board for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said it’s only fair to ask developers who stand to benefit from the project to pitch in some money. And it’s hardly unprecedented.
Wynn Resorts offered $7.5 million over the next 15 years to add trains to the Orange Line that would run near his prospective casino, and New Balance is building the commuter rail station near its headquarters in Brighton, he said.
“It’s clear that there’s a lot of money to be made by investors along the line,” Lang said, “So it’s in their self-interest to invest in this project.”
It’s not an uncommon arrangement, said George McCarthy, president of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a private research foundation in Cambridge. Transit lines around the world are funded in part by private investment and financing districts designed to capture new tax revenue the lines help generate.
But it’s late in the game for that, McCarthy said. Real estate firms have already spent significant sums buying land and launching projects in Somerville, under the belief that the Green Line is funded. Asking them to help pay now is complicated, he said.
“You have to bake this into the planning and the entire process, not decide to do it two-thirds of the way in,” he said.
Big developers and institutions along the line have been meeting with the state in recent months but had little to say publicly, beyond that they continue to work on a solution.
“We remain confident that the project will move forward because the cost of not proceeding is so great,” said Greg Karczewski, president of US2, a Chicago-based group that’s redeveloping 12 acres in Union Square in Somerville.
Tufts University spokeswoman Kimberly Thurler said the university is looking forward to working with the new Green Line project team, “in order to discuss the timing and funding of the College Avenue station.”
Pending legislation, meanwhile, could open new ways of financing the project by local taxes.
State Representative William M. Straus, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, has introduced a bill that would allow cities and towns to use a portion of property tax revenue in a designated area to fund transportation projects there.
“There’s a fairness issue here, and this makes an expensive project like the Green Line project more palatable to people in other parts of the state,” said Straus, a Democrat from Mattapoisett. “It’s not just who you’re asking to pay, but who you’re asking not to pay.”
The legislation is similar to other state programs that have allowed sales and income taxes from specific geographic areas to fund big developments. Somerville used those to help fund the redevelopment of Assembly Square, and Curtatone said something similar could work for the Green Line, which he hopes will lead to 30,000 more jobs and 10,000 homes.
Richard C. Rossi, city manager of Cambridge, isn’t sold on any similar ideas quite yet, though he supports the Green Line project.
“This would be brand new for the city, and we’d want to have a lot of public discussion and debate about what it is,” he said. “We don’t really understand what the numbers are and what it means.”
The same goes for members of the Boston Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, which could shift some of its money to fund the project. The planning agency had already allocated about $190 million to pay for an additional extension for the Green Line, which would take the trolley line even farther than the current project. Recently, state transportation officials have floated the idea of having the board reallocate those federal funds to fill the budget gap for the Green Line.
Paul Regan, a voting member of the planning agency, doesn’t believe that will necessarily be easy.
“There’s reluctance to go forward with a transfer until we know what the deal is,” said Regan, who is also executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board. “I want to know what I’m buying into. Are we talking about a reduced scope that’s significantly reduced?”
The private sector will have the same questions, said Peter O’Connor, a development attorney and former state transportation real estate official. If the state wants private money for the Green Line, it needs to come up with a plan and stick to it.
“You can’t keep changing the rules,” O’Connor said. “People are taking big risks with capital here, and they want to know what the government is going to do.”