It was an agonizing process, but the MBTA’s governing boards came to the right conclusion Monday, voting to approve a scaled-down plan for the 4.7-mile Green Line trolley extension into Somerville . The vote keeps the much-needed project alive, albeit with smaller stations and a shorter bike path alongside the route.
The agony came from the new financing to pay for the project, which will still cost an eye-popping $2.3 billion and requires a new round of federal approval. The T’s fiscal control board asked for — and got — unprecedented contributions from the cities of Cambridge and Somerville, totaling $75 million. That outraged some residents, who had believed promises over the decades that the state would fund the extension. One speaker Monday termed the state’s demand for money to make good on its own commitments “extortion.”
The theory underpinning the state’s demand, though, was a practical one. A better Green Line will help the whole region, but some of its benefits will be much more localized. Transit unleashes economic activity around stations — one reason communities like Somerville are so eager for more of it — and some of the growth can be recaptured to pay for the project. The two cities should be able to cover their $75 million pledge through new economic growth spurred by the Green Line extension.
Ideally, similar value-capture arrangements could help communities across the state pay for roads, transit, and other transportation amenities. After a state referendum repealed gas-tax indexing in 2014, the state simply doesn’t have enough revenue to meet every demand, leaving a need for new ways to finance infrastructure investments.
Value-capture could even restore some of the items dropped from the Green Line extension in the new plan. For instance, in the new, no-frills design, the bike path will no longer run all the way to Lechmere station. But it’s still preferable that the path connect to other cycling arteries. The Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker should build on the Green Line precedent and create a formal mechanism for communities to chip in toward such projects through transit districts.
The fact remains, though, that whatever the state does in the future, Somerville and Cambridge didn’t have much of a choice about financing the Green Line. The control board explicitly raised the possibility of dropping the whole long-planned project, effectively putting a gun to their heads.
Now that the control board got what it wanted from Cambridge and Somerville, it’s especially important for Baker and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack to live up to their end of the bargain. It’s time to drop the conditional: Their job is to figure out how to finish the extension, not whether. The control board, hand-picked by Baker, endorsed the pared-down plan, and the state ought to be all-in now.
The Green Line cost overruns that forced the control board to study cuts has called into question the T’s ability to handle big projects. But the silver lining of this review is that it could give birth to a new way of funding transit in Massachusetts. Has it been a messy process? Sure. But the new plan meets the region’s essential needs and those of the municipalities most affected, and it deserves the administration’s full support.