Green Line Expansion Delays Sparks Frustration In Somerville, Medford

BOSTON — Pressure from Gov. Deval Patrick and the community has forced the MBTA to reconsider its timing on the expansion of the Green Line beyond Lechmere. Last month the Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced it wouldn’t finish the project until as late as 2020. It was originally supposed to be completed this month. But meetings this week on Beacon Hill have resulted in a more expedited timeline.

The Green Line is the oldest in Boston’s subway system, and the push to extend it into Somerville and Medford has been going on for decades.

“The people of Somerville are not going to let go of this, we are committed to this,” said Ellin Reisner, president of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, a community group interested in improving public transportation and improving air quality by reducing traffic.

I talked with her as we stood on an overpass above the Lowell commuter rail line, one of three commuter lines that run through Somerville without stopping.

“If you live near Davis Square or Sullivan Station you have access to the Red and Orange lines,” she said. “About 25 percent of Somerville residents lives close enough to walk to those stations. When the Green Line opens about 85 percent will have access to light rail or heavy rail. This is huge transformation.”

The Green Line extension is a court-mandated requirement as part of the settlement of a lawsuit over the environmental impact of the Big Dig.

“The Green Line project will happen. It is a legal commitment that the commonwealth has no choice but to fulfill,” said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone. “We’re not going away, but we have the law on our side and we will push it to the limit.”

Originally the extension was to be completed September 2011. Then it was pushed to 2014, later to 2015. Then last month, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation proposed revising the timeframe again, with passenger service beginning between 2018 and 2020.

That latest delay prompted disappointment and cynicism at a community meeting on Tuesday.

“I’m kind of reduced to spluttering at the absurdity of all the reverse, the delays and the failures that continue to plague the Green Line extension project,” said Medford resident Elizabeth Baile.

“What happens if we come to 2018, and 2020 and there is still inadequate progress and delays, do we roll over and extend the allowance for delays again?” asked Steve Kaiser, vice president of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods.

Others, such as Somerville resident Jonah Petry, are appealing to the Department of Environmental Protection to block the proposed delay.

“A lot of people are feeling abandoned, don’t let this chance to protect the health of our citizens slip away,” he said.

On Wednesday, Patrick held a closed door meeting at the State House. In attendance were state lawmakers from Somerville, Cambridge and Medford, and a representative of Rep. Mike Capuano. Others included Transportation Secretary Richard Davey.

“What we said was that we were going to work together with the delegation and the mayors, particularly the mayor of Somerville to find ways to accelerate the schedule, perhaps by looking at a phasing option,” said Davey. “What we’ve been thinking about is an opportunity to phase the project so we will open up stations as we go, as opposed to opening up the entire line all at once.”

Davey said they will try to begin construction next year. Small working groups — comprised of local officials and lawmakers — will meet with MassDOT and MBTA officials to find other ways to accelerate the schedule.

One member of that working group is Somerville state Rep. Denise Provost.

“I was encouraged, I’m optimistic that we can get the project moving by identifying parts of it,” Provost said.

Provost said regardless of when the extension is completed, it’s already been too long for densely populated Somerville. The city is a regional transportation corridor which gets hammered with pollution from rail lines, as well as surface traffic from I-93 and Logan Airport.

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  • Anon

    Hmm… phasing the project by a station or two at a time… yea, that won’t massively increase costs by breaking the work up into small pieces, requiring different crews to keep mobilizing and demobilizing. Not a chance.

    (By analogy, imagine if you built a house room by room…. i.e. you didn’t start the bedroom until the kitchen was completely finished.)

    • Guest J

      If they don’t built it by the deadline, then they have to provide interim offset projects capable of improving the environment as much as the green line project would have. I think the cost of interim offset projects added onto the cost of the extension itself would far exceed the cost of getting the extension done on time by any means. Even getting parts of it done on time might reduce the costs of interim offset projects enough to make it less expensive.

  • Ashley Elisabeth

    I get that a Green Line expansion is needed to these densely populated areas, but the MBTA a) clearly cannot manage their finances and b) get a solid grip on effectively managing the network that they do have.  I’d be surprised if this project even gets underway by 2020. A perfect example:

    “I talked with her as we stood on an overpass above the Lowell commuter rail line, one of three commuter lines that run through Somerville without stopping.”

    Why not add a stop? Wouldn’t this be more financially responsible? Wouldn’t this be easier? Wouldn’t this make everyone much happier and provide a short-term solution? You need to adjust schedules – we understand – but the MBTA does it every season as it is, and 10 minutes to pick up what could double, if not triple, it’s current Lowell Commuter Rail passenger base…

    Well, that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? Considering the MBTA likes to pay pensions out to convicted felons…

    “I’m kind of reduced to spluttering at the absurdity of all the reverse, the delays and the failures that continue to plague the Green Line extension project,” said Medford resident Elizabeth Baile.

    I don’t think this is just reduced to understanding the problems with the Green Line extension project, but in trying to figure out how absurd the MBTA is as a whole.    

    • Guest J

      The green line extension is an environmental mitigation project for all
      the pollution dumped in this area from diesel commuter rails and autos
      on I-93, which dissects these cities. Adding commuter rail stops
      wouldn’t do much to improve things environmentally since the diesel
      trains produce the most pollution when accelerating from a stop. Only an
      electric train would work.
      As for finances, most of the MBTA’s debt was caused when the Forward Funding rules were instituted. The state dumped a ton of its Big Dig debt onto the MBTA at that time. Essentially what we are seeing is public transportation being forced to subsidize auto/road transportation.  See the April 2009 report “Born Broke: How the MBTA found itself with too much debt…” by the MBTA Advisory Board.

      • junkdeck

        Your comment re: diesel fuel exhaust doesn’t seem to bother downtown Wellesley or Newton or Needham or other cities in the inner ring of 128 that are relatively dense.  Also what evidence do you have that auto pollution from I-93 is polluting Somerville.   A typical drive through Somerville is a congested mess implying plenty of both cars and trucks sitting in traffic “polluting” the city.  Much more congestion then what occurs on 93 since 93 only bottlenecks once or twice a day.  No matter auto pollution was dealt with back in the 1970′s via the catalytic converter and the advent of unleaded gas.  If you lived then you would understand the difference vs today.  That is why you spend a fortune to fix anything to do with auto exhaust systems – sensors, plaidium, platinum, etc.  Idling vehicles is a problem and I bet there are more idling vehicles in Somerville and Cambridge then on the highway on a given day.
        Your point on diesel pollution has merit but it doesn’t seem to bother other towns which are relatively dense.

        • JM

          Re population density (people/square mile), the cities you mention are even close in density: Somerville is 18668, Newton 4644, Newton 2634, Needham 2293. If you only drive through Somerville during rush hour peaks, yes it’s true that just about all of the major roads are congested. This is the main reason that bus service — the only public transit available to 80% of Somerville — is slow and unreliable. It’s faster to ride the commuter rail from Marblehead into Boston than a to take a bus from Somerville.

          The rush hour traffic doesn’t originate in Somerville. Depending the roadway and time, 80- 90% is through traffic from farther out suburbs. The point is that Somerville bears a large burden from suburban commuters in terms of traffic congestion and adverse health effects.

          Current public health research indicates that the most harmful pollution from roadways are tiny, so- ultra-fine particles. Catalytic converters do not reduce these, and in fact may increase them. These particles don’t last long, and don’t travel more than 500-1000 feet from a highway. They are believed to cause the elevated mortality seen in Somerville (and similar places) from lung cancer and heart attacks.

  • Anonymous

    No expansion until the T can cover existing service.  Adding a couple stops on an already existing commuter rail would be reasonable.

    • Guest J

      see reply to Ashley Elisabeth below

      • ER

        Everyone knows the MBTA has a huge financial burden – a result of applying Central Artery debt on the MBTA and its riders  - not the users of the Central Artery.  
        The commuter rail will only take people to North Station.  The schedule is very infrequent compared to the Green Line, which would also make it easy for people to transfer to the Orange Line, Red Line,  and Blue Line.  Also, commuter rail is diesel powered and already  contributes to the excess pollution in Somerville.  The concentration of pollution when trains stop and start up at stations increases during exceleration .  Putting one commuter rail stop, with infrequent service in place of 6 light rail stations with frequent service  is an inadequate substitute and does not meet in anyway the requirements of the Clean Air Act.     

        • JM

          Aside from increased air pollution from stopping and starting  diesel commuter trains, another problem is that it would increase the travel time for everyone now riding those trains. A commuter train is not nearly as peppy as a trolley – it takes miles to slow down and to get back up to speed — so each new stop would require several minutes.

          Planners who study commuting behavior know travel time is the single most important factor in how people choose to go to work; if their trip took 10 or 12 minutes longer, many suburban commuters  would decide to drive instead. Aside from added congestion on the highways, this would also hurt air quality since more cars would be on the road, pretty much the exact opposite of what the Green Line project is all about

  • Ashley Elisabeth

    Tolls on I-93 would also do wonders for cutting on traffic on I-93 (think of all our NH commuters) and encourage more use of public transporation. This Green Line extension will not solve those problems – it’s a stick in a mire of mud on that issue. Sure, the commuter rail trains work off diesel but inefficient electric trains don’t do much to cut electricity costs. But that’s an aside and you’ve got more to deal with than environmental concerns.
    And yeah, the MBTA has debt from the Big Dig but even without it, it’s still not even close to reaching it revenue potential because of the level of incompentency in making decisions (note: Greenbush line - under half of the projected use the service).  Look past 2009 – the projections for MBTA”s financial future are grim and they need to get their act together. It’s simply NOT sustainable.
    At the end of the day, you can scream and cry all  you want, the MBTA is notoriously slow at getting things done and if they say 2020, then it’s going to be 2025. A short term solution that does mitigate the enviornmental impact to a degree in the short term and makes residents happier and cuts down on commutes versus continuing to sit on it until it happens? If you are really, truly concerned about impact then you’ll want to be lobbying for a realistic, transitional plan.  

    • Ashley Elisabeth

      And this is @Guest J

  • JM

    Lets’s not confuse things here, building the Green Line Extension is NOT an obligation of the MBTA. It’s the state (MassDOT really) that is responsible funding this project. After all, it was a highway mega-project whose pollution required compensating transit projects.

    No one is saying that the MBTA doesn’t have huge financial challenges, but a great deal is not really their fault. When the T was switched onto “forward funding” in mid-2000, the legislature also handed them a huge debt for projects that were required by the Big Dig. Forward funding assumed continuing increases in sales tax revenue, and at the same decreased revenue from assessments of the cities and towns in the T’s service area.

    We all know what happened next: 9/11, the telecom bust and the recent recession. Sales tax revenue fell farther and farther behind what had been projected, but with everyone on Beacon Hill scrambling to find ways to hand off or conceal the massive debts from the Big Dig, the was no chance that the T would get any more money. This all occurred in an administration idelogically opposed to pay-as-you government, that relied instead on financial gimmicks and excessive borrowing to avoid unpopular tax increases.

    The T does have problems, some of its own making to be sure, but mostly beyond its control: a very old system whose routine maintenance has been deferred for 20 years or more; union agreements that make it difficult to reduce labor expenses; rapidly escalating costs of the politically-popular The Ride for the disabled; hundreds of millions of dollars mandated by a court to bring old stations up to modern accessibility standards; and most important, the huge cost of servicing debt, much passed on from the Big Dig. Unlike the state, the T cannot issue bonds to cover its debts, and it has to balance its budget every year.

    It’s not hard to find critics of the T, but in my experience most people who ride the T regularly find it pretty indispensible, and are far more realistic in their criticism than those who don’t. 

    How often do you ride the T?

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