If the Green Line extension is ever to be built, transportation officials will have to find at least an additional $73 million, money unlikely to come from the state’s coffers.
Without an obvious source for those funds, that cost is one of several critical hurdles still standing in the project’s way — among them federal approval, staffing, training, and a construction market that matches the MBTA’s cost estimates. Officials say all of those unknowns present formidable challenges to the future of the long-promised project — and that it could take more than a year to take cancellation fully off the table.
“Until someone shows up and signs a contract and starts building it, there is uncertainty,” said Steve Poftak, a member of the MBTA’s fiscal control board.
Transportation officials voted Monday to move forward with a scaled-back, $2.3 billion version of the light rail extension into Medford and Somerville, but under strict conditions. That means the project could still be axed, even though the state promised in 2006 to complete the project to settle a lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation.
Even fiscal control board member Brian Lang, who was most insistent that the board vote on Monday, said he wasn’t ready to give a definite answer on the Green Line’s future.
“Enough has been done that we feel comfortable taking the next steps,” Lang said. “But we can’t really predict what the outcome of the next steps will be.”
For one, the state still has to secure extra funds and has no immediate plan to find those dollars. The cities of Cambridge and Somerville have already pitched in about $75 million, and the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization has pledged to shift about $152 million in funds to the project — but even then, the state would still be $73 million short.
It seems unlikely that the MBTA board would ask the Legislature for additional dollars: In December, members approved a resolution that said they would not shift more state funding to the project because it had already dedicated $996 million to the extension.
Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a fiscal control board member, said she supports the extension, but not at the expense of other projects that can improve the MBTA.
“Seventy-three million dollars might not seem like a lot when you’re talking about $2 billion,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “But you can do a lot for $73 million. That’s what we can be using for the next generation of fare collection or other projects.”
Dean Mazzarella, Leominster’s mayor and a Massachusetts Department of Transportation board member, said he would also be reluctant to divert money that could be used for projects that benefit the rest of the state. In some cities, getting $2 million in state funding for a construction project is like getting $2 billion, he said.
“I understand that it’s vital to the economies of Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford,” he said. “But should it be done at the costs of someone else’s project, where the smallest amount of money can make the biggest difference?”
Mazzarella said he thinks private developers could contribute more money.
“The developers are making millions, and what I’m saying is it’s time for them to get more involved,” he said.
The developers of NorthPoint, a mixed-use parcel in East Cambridge near the Lechmere Station, are part of that city’s $25 million contribution to the project.
Beyond that, one of the most pressing questions is whether the Federal Transit Administration will approve the T’s new cost estimate. On Monday, consultants presented a revised version of the project, featuring simpler stations and buildings, a shorter and less complex walking and cycling path, and several other changes.
The federal government has already pledged about $996 million for the project, but the dollars are essentially frozen until officials take another look at the revised designs and finance plans. Federal officials say there is no definite timeline on how long it would take to approve the new project.
Pollack on Monday said she worries that the Federal Transit Administration could increase the T’s budget estimate for the project again, as it did with the former iteration of the project.
Another unknown: whether the MBTA’s limits on how much it’s willing to pay will match the bids of potential designers and builders. If bidders don’t think that the price is right, the boards seem ready to say the project isn’t worth the extra money.
In the end, however, the price may not be the biggest challenge — it could be finding enough of the right people for the T to deliver the project smoothly, according to several board members. The original project’s costs spiralled out of control in part because the agency hadn’t dedicated enough staff to the project, and hadn’t fully understood the chosen contracting method, according to an analysis prepared for the T.
Consultants hired to look at the MBTA’s management structure said the agency should hire seven executives for the project, and train 40 to 50 others in another new contracting method. The process could take about 18 months, according to the consultant’s estimates.
Those new employees will have to be some of the best in the business, the consultant said, which means they’ll likely need to be paid much more than typical T wages.
The MBTA’s design and construction staff has 184 employees on a payroll of $16 million, but Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she doesn’t believe anybody at the agency is ready to lead such a large project.
“Finding the people that are out there is hard because there aren’t that many people who work in this industry,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “We need to make sure we have competitive salaries, and if we bring in people with competitive salaries, we want to make sure [we retain people we already have],” she said.
Pollack has said she worries that devoting too much attention to the Green Line extension could take away from other key MBTA projects. But some board members are optimistic.
“Countless public agencies around the country know how to do premium construction work, and there’s no reason why the T can’t be at the same standard,” said Joseph Aiello, chairman of the MBTA fiscal control board. “The doubters can doubt — and they should doubt because of recent history — but our goal is to prove them wrong.”