Governor Charlie Baker’s office will commit $78 million toward demolishing a crumbling underground parking garage at UMass Boston, a significant influx of aid at a time when the campus is struggling to complete myriad construction projects, solve a major budget crisis, and hire a new chancellor.
The administration will provide the money in its capital budget for fiscal year 2018, which is set to be released in the coming weeks, a Baker spokeswoman said on Monday.
The governor’s office said the new funds reflect its commitment to “ensure UMass remains a successful and competitive public university system for Massachusetts students.”
The announcement came a day after a Sunday Globe story about problems with the garage and the disagreement between the University of Massachusetts Boston campus, the central UMass system office, and the state over who should pay to remove the garage. The governor’s office on Monday said the money is not in response to the story and was already in the capital budget.
The garage demolition project is expected to cost between $150 million and $260 million, depending on different estimates from the state and UMass.
The underground structure, which includes two levels of parking, was closed to the public in 2006. Since then, chunks of concrete have periodically fallen from the ceiling and worn away from the floor. A 2015 engineering study found that it was unsafe for fire trucks to drive on the central campus plaza for fear they could fall through to the garage below.
UMass Boston is in the midst of a long-term budget crisis that prompted Chancellor J. Keith Motley to announce last month that he will depart in June, after 10 years in the job.
Over the past decade the campus has undertaken a flurry of construction but prioritized projects other than the garage. At least one, a utility relocation project, had to be done first because the utilities were located in the garage. But some university officials have argued the garage should have been demolished long ago because it is so unsafe.
The central UMass office over the past year has pressured UMass Boston to come up with a plan to pay for the garage project with its own funds, should the state not come through. Monday’s announcement signals there will be at least some state support. Campus administrators, meanwhile, have pointed to a promise in 2011 from the state that it would pay for the garage project entirely.
Meanwhile, the campus has spent $40 million over the last decade on interim stabilization measures to buy time before the garage is demolished, according to estimates provided by the campus. The current plan calls for demolition and then replacement to begin in 2019 and take between 26 and 30 months, according to UMass officials.
Baker’s $78 million, to be paid over three years, is in addition to nearly $74 million the state already contributed to UMass Boston’s capital projects in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. That money, according to the governor’s office, is from the state Department of Transportation and was used primarily for the a utility relocation project ($50 million), the new science complex ($20 million), and a study of the underground garage ($1.3 million).
“The administration will continue to work with the UMass board of trustees and campus leadership as they prioritize future projects to create stronger institutions on every campus for the thousands of students learning and researching at UMass from across the Commonwealth and beyond,” said Lizzy Guyton, the governor’s communications director, in a statement Monday.
The capital budget proposed by Baker will require approval by the Legislature.
Last week Baker said on a radio appearance that the UMass Boston campus should solve its budget problems by cutting “corporate spending” rather than making cuts that hurt students. Over the past year the campus has cut courses and part-time professors as part of a myriad of measures taken to help balance its budget. Some professors were re-hired and classes re-instated.
UMass President Martin T. Meehan called Baker’s announcement “the most significant investment made by any administration in the 40 years since construction flaws in the substructure became known” and said his office will help UMass Boston find funds to pay for the rest of the project.
“We need to fix this, UMass Boston needs to fix this problem,” Meehan said Monday in a brief phone interview.
He added, however, that it would be inappropriate to ask the other four campuses to help pay for the garage problems.
“As a practical matter you can’t take money that belongs on one campus and take money that students pay in tuition and have it go to another campus,” Meehan said.
UMass board chairman Rob Manning, in a statement, thanked the governor for the money. Barry Mills, the deputy chancellor at UMass Boston who will become interim chancellor when Motley departs, also praised the commitment.
“This is a great commitment from the Baker administration as we move forward to address a problem that UMass Boston has been forced to confront virtually from the day it opened its doors,” Mills said in a statement sent by a spokesman.