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State to proceed with scaled-down Green Line extension

Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File

As part of the Green Line extension, Lechmere station in East Cambridge would be relocated across the street.

By Nicole Dungca Globe Staff 

State transportation officials voted Monday to move forward with a scaled-down version of the embattled Green Line extension, but they made clear they could still cancel the project if the state runs into more trouble financing it.

The Department of Transportation’s board and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s fiscal control board agreed to submit a $2.3 billion plan for the project to the federal government, which must review the redesigned proposal.

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“We’ve got a way forward, and let’s take that path forward,” said Robert Moylan Jr., a member of the MassDOT board. “We are not going to be the board that will deny the project. The project will be denied on its own weight if it doesn’t come in on its own budget.”

The move represents a big step forward for the project, stalled for nearly a year. But it must still clear several significant hurdles in coming months, including finding at least $73 million more in funding, getting another green light from the Federal Transit Administration, and hiring and training dozens of MBTA officials in a new contracting method.

Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, expressed some caution about the future of the project.

“Just because there’s a risk doesn’t mean that you don’t move ahead,” she said. “But the risks that are still out there are that we don’t have enough revenue to pay for the entire project, that we don’t have the management capacity, and . . . the risk of diverting the attention of the MBTA from its first priority.”

The federal government still has to sign off on the scaled-back cost estimates and on the less-elaborate design that was recommended Monday.

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Jack Wright, a consultant hired by the MBTA, said the authority would save about $288 million by constructing simpler stations and $122 million by building a shorter walking and cycling path, with fewer walls and bridges attached to it.

For instance, the cost of seven new stations was previously estimated at nearly $410 million. Under the new plan, which includes open-air stops instead of more elaborate buildings, the stations would cost an estimated $121 million.

Wright’s team also eliminated fare gates and escalators at every station and eliminated elevators at three of the stations.

In addition, the consultants redesigned a maintenance building to store only 44 Green Line trolleys, instead of double that, and cut a proposed community path by 3,000 feet to 7,000 feet (1.3 miles).

Some of the cuts have brought criticism from supporters, who say the MBTA should be dedicated to creating a bicycle path that would encourage more people to take advantage of it.

On Monday, longtime supporters of the project packed into the state transportation building at 10 Park Plaza in Boston to urge the boards to continue the long-promised expansion. Many reacted with cautious optimism, but said they considered the vote to be a victory.

“It’s a big, positive decision today, and we’re grateful for it,” said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, whose city plans to take the unprecedented step of chipping in local funds for the regional transportation project. “We have more work to do, but that’s part of the process, anyhow.”

A spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker issued a statement saying he appreciated the “diligence in examining new proposals” for the extension, and noted that “as the process continues, the administration and leadership at MassDOT and the MBTA will remain focused on improving the core system’’ of the transit authority.

The long-awaited Green Line extension, first agreed to by the state in 1990, would include seven new stations in Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford and about 4.7 miles of track. Under current projections, it would take at least five years to be completed.

Officials have been wrestling with whether and how to proceed with the extension since it was revealed last summer that the original $2 billion cost estimate could be off by as much as $1 billion.

The costs had ballooned over many months, in part because the station designs grew more complicated and in part because officials were using an unfamiliar contracting method. And as state officials rushed to finish the project, they relied for months on flawed cost projections.

Even if the T gets the go-ahead from the federal government, it would not be able to start construction for at least 18 months — and delays would add about $1.6 million a month in “escalation costs,” according to Wright. He estimated that construction would take three to four years.

So far, the state is slated to contribute about $996 million to the project, and the federal government pledged the same amount to the original project.

Last week, transportation officials announced that they had also rounded up $75 million from the cities of Cambridge and Somerville, plus $152 million from the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization from money that was initially supposed to go toward an additional Green Line station.

But the MBTA would still have to fill a gap of at least $73 million, according to T officials. And that number could grow, they warned, if federal officials decide the current budget isn’t sufficient, the project is delayed, or the T adds more features to its designs.

On Monday, consultants also recommended using another contracting method that would be mostly new to the MBTA, called “design-build,” in which a consortium of designers and a construction company would work together on one contract throughout the process.

The MBTA has experience with the method on only a few projects, including the Greenbush commuter rail extension to Scituate.

Because cost overruns of the original Green Line plan were partly the result of the T’s inexperience with a new contracting method, Pollack said she wants to make sure that the authority does not overestimate its abilities.

“People were being unrealistic about what it would take to do the Green Line extension,” she said. “Shame on us if we make the same mistake twice.”

Jim McConnell, executive vice president ar another consulting firm, Ascent Program Management, told the boards they should hire a leadership team comprised of a program manager, a director of construction, and five deputy program managers.

Another 40 to 50 staff members, including state transportation and MBTA staff and consultants, should also be working on the project, he said.

McConnell said the MBTA would have to invest in hiring top-tier workers to guide the project to completion, and that may include paying more than the regular salary range of the MBTA.

Earlier in the day, Pollack said she does not believe the T currently has someone with the capacity to lead such a massive project.

“Investing in the right talent and leadership for the Program Management Team would cause dislocations and anxiety within the MBTA, and possibly public criticism, but would have to be done,” read one note in the consultants’ report to the board.

As the project moves forward, officials will have to frequently check back with the boards to update them on the financials. For example, the MBTA must now work on drafting a new finance plan for the project and brief the board on recruitment and hiring strategies for a new Green Line team.

Board members expressed a range of opinions on the project. Like Pollack, MassDOT board member Betsy Taylor was cautious about moving forward without a go-ahead from the federal government. Right now, the $1 billion is essentially “frozen,” Pollack said.

“Until we know we have those federal dollars and know we have enough dollars and have a real discussion and what we would do with unpleasant surprises, I would be reluctant to give the Green Line to staff . . . and hope it will show up in four years,” Taylor said.

But others said that delaying a project further over a funding gap such as $73 million would be a mistake. In particular, MassDOT board member Russell Gittlen and control board member Brian Lang felt strongly about pushing the project toward a vote.

“We’re $73 million short,” said Gittlen, president of one of the T’s maintenance workers unions. “That’s not that much in the big picture. Let’s push it. Let’s get it done.”

Globe Staff/File

The 4.7-mile Green Line extension would include six new stations, as well as a relocated Lechmere stop.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.