A way forward on the Green Line Extension

By Rep. Mike Capuano

Somerville Journal
December 15, 2011

Every thoughtful observer recognizes that Massachusetts is facing serious budget challenges. The state’s transportation needs are not exempt from that challenge. The Green Line Extension (GLX) is a $1 billion project, and while we hope that the federal government will fund at least half of the work, that still leaves a heavy expense for the state. Of course, the federal government is facing its own serious budget challenges.

The administration of Governor Deval Patrick has been a great advocate for the GLX and I am grateful for that support. Every secretary of transportation has echoed the governor’s commitment. However, Governor Patrick is leaving office in January of 2015. Even if the next governor continues supporting the GLX, we don’t know if he or she will prioritize it as the Patrick administration has done.

Under the current plan, the ONLY portion of the GLX that will be COMPLETE by the time Governor Patrick leaves office is reconstruction of two bridges — one over Medford Street near the Somerville Target and one over Harvard Street in Medford, near St Clements.

Under the current plan, by the time Governor Patrick leaves office, the ONLY portion in addition to those two bridges that MIGHT BE under construction is the spur to Union Square and the main GLX line to the first stop on Washington Street. There is a real chance that we won’t break ground until after the governor leaves office. The MBTA has estimated that these two stops would serve about 28,000 residents.

To date, the state has not offered a cost breakdown of the project. A reasonable guess is $300 million to construct a new Lechmere Station, and extend the line to Washington Street and Union Square. This does not include the cost of ongoing planning, vehicle purchase and work further up the line. For these items, $100 million is a reasonable estimate. That adds up to a total of $400 million. The MBTA has already set aside $476 million for the project, so these estimates cannot be too far off.

By the way, the lack of any detailed public cost estimates and future funding plans from the state should concern every supporter of GLX. The Federal government will not supply a penny to any project unless the state can prove that they can fund their portion of it.

I am convinced it is time to consider how to use that same $400 million to provide better service to as many people as possible — as quickly as possible — and still not interfere with the long term goal of a full GLX to Route 16. When the state provides verifiable funding estimates, we should adjust our plan to meet their funding capabilities.

We should continue designing the Green Line Extension ... but unlike the current plan, do the design work all the way to Route 16 and include a Community Path that goes to North Station. The cost of this minor planning shift is virtually the same as design costs under the current plan and it sets the stage for completing the full project later — rather than delaying planning to the future, as is currently the case.

We should construct a multi-modal stop at Union Square for both Commuter Rail and the GLX. Construction could start almost immediately and rail service would certainly begin before Governor Patrick leaves office. GLX service could start as soon as possible thereafter.

Another multi-modal stop should be constructed somewhere along the main GLX. Some have suggested Ball Square. Again, construction could start almost immediately and rail service would certainly begin before Governor Patrick leaves office. GLX service could start as soon as possible thereafter.

Any funds remaining from the $400 million should go toward extending the main GLX as far as possible and as quickly as possible. These funds should be sufficient to at least reach Gilman Square and maybe even Lowell Street.

The commuter rail already runs through Somerville, it just doesn’t stop. I realize that stopping a train will increase pollution a bit. But stop lights have the same incremental increase for cars and trucks and hundreds of MBTA busses. No one argues we should take out stop lights or reduce the number of bus stops in order to reduce pollution.

Furthermore, the MBTA could and should consider cleaner, quieter and cheaper ways to provide commuter rail service — such as Diesel Multiple Unit trains (DMU). This service would actually improve the environment while providing Somerville residents with better service.

As a lifelong resident, whose wife, children, brother, cousins, mother-in-law, nieces and nephews all live here, and as a lifelong sufferer of asthma, I argue strongly that Somerville is long overdue for better MBTA service and the fastest way to make sure we get it is the plan outlined here.

The MBTA has estimated that these two commuter rail stops together with the two GLX stops would serve 62,000 people and another 18,000 if we can reach Lowell Street with the available funds.

Should we focus on the possibility of rail service for only 28,000 residents combined with another unenforceable promise that the GLX might be completed under a future governor?

Or should we focus on a guarantee from a governor we know is committed to this project — a guarantee of rail service for almost 80,000 Somerville residents within three years, with the possibility of improving that service in the future? Should we ignore the fact that we have a real chance to serve 52,000 MORE people than currently proposed — and do it within three years?

I think the answer is clear — let’s focus on what we can accomplish now, let’s accept service for 80,000 people, and move this project far enough along that it will be very difficult to let it languish under a future administration.