The only question for Charlie Baker is how the state should pay for the extension of the Green Line into Somerville and Medford — not if. The MBTA reported Monday that construction costs have been underestimated, and state officials raised the possibility of scuttling the nearly $3 billion project as a result. That’s a nonstarter. Canceling the extension would mean giving up almost $1 billion in funds from the federal government, missing the chance to borrow at historically low interest rates, and abandoning a project that’s crucial for the economic development of a part of Greater Boston that’s been chronically underserved by public transit.
Long planned, the project would extend the Green Line from Lechmere station, which will be rebuilt, to near the Tufts campus. A short “spur” will run to Somerville’s Union Square. The federal government has agreed to subsidize the plan, and just the talk of the extension is already driving up property values in Somerville and encouraging growth. When completed, the project would put 70 percent of Somerville residents within walking distance of a T station.
To close the newfound funding gap, MassDOT raised the possibility of postponing some aspects of the project, simplifying the station designs, or seeking a cheaper contractor. It also mentioned that the state could “implement value-sharing mechanisms” with Somerville, Cambridge, and Medford, which is a way of saying that some of the economic growth spurred by the T should be recaptured through a new tax or fee that would be used to pay the construction bills.
Those types of arrangements have a lot of merit, and if the Green Line extension were still on the drawing board, it might make sense to incorporate them into the plans. The T fuels regional growth, yet it struggles for funding, and value-sharing mechanisms could help link the service to a fair source of money. For instance, had the T received a cut of the economic growth it generated after the Red Line extension to Davis Square in the 1980s, it would be in better financial shape. In New York City, a similar funding mechanism paid for an extension of the subway into the Hudson Yards area.
But the Green Line project is not on the drawing board. It’s already under way, with crews working to prepare the route for the projected 2017 opening of its first phase. Holding the project up to devise such a financing mechanism risks yet another delay.
If the Baker administration can’t work out a tax-increment deal quickly, and if other suggested cost-saving options don’t gel, that shouldn’t spell the end of the project. The administration will have to either borrow more or reallocate funds from elsewhere in the state transportation budget. For instance, the administration can put the increasingly expensive South Station expansion on hold and use those funds for the Green Line, which has to count as a higher priority.
Baker’s administration has been appropriately aggressive in seeking savings in T projects, and eager to prove the agency doesn’t need more money to thrive. But the administration’s no-new-spending line shouldn’t turn into an unthinking dogma. It’s in the strong interests of the Commonwealth to finish the Green Line extension; jettisoning investment in infrastructure might be politically safe in the near term, but the public ultimately pays a price. Baker’s job is to make the extension happen. The train should be as cheap as possible, but it needs to arrive.