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.