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The Red-Blue Line Rail Connector Is Back In Planning Stages

MBTA Red Line train. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
MBTA Red Line train. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

North Shore residents, activists and elected officials filled an MBTA board meeting Monday, planning to demand the agency support a rail connection between the Red Line and Blue Line rather than the pedestrian walkway that had been floated.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack beat them to it. At the start of the meeting, before public comment even began, Pollack announced that the agency's long-term plan for projects to be completed by 2040 would include a subway extension connecting the lines, not a walking path.

A proposed Red-Blue connector would link the Bowdoin and Charles Street MBTA stations. (Courtesy MassDOT)
A proposed Red-Blue connector would link the Bowdoin and Charles Street MBTA stations. (Courtesy MassDOT)

If it's ever built, the link in question would have significant effects on the region's transportation infrastructure, allowing Blue Line commuters to access job centers in Cambridge and Somerville — and Red Line commuters to reach East Boston and Lynn — without needing to walk or use a third line to transfer.

"This is music to our ears to hear this will be included in Focus40," said Boston Transportation Commissioner Gina Fiandaca, referring to the MBTA's long-term plan. "[The Red-Blue connector] is a critical link serving East Boston, Cambridge and beyond."

In the current system, the Blue Line terminates downtown with connections to both the Orange and Green lines but not to the Red Line. Bowdoin, the final Blue Line stop, is about half a mile down Cambridge Street from the closest Red Line stop at Charles/MGH.

Approached by reporters after the meeting, new MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak declined to offer more details on the Red-Blue connector and its future.

"I hesitate to put any kind of timeline on any of these projects at this point in time," he said.

For decades, transportation leaders have discussed an extension that would link the two. In fact, a connection was agreed upon as environmental mitigation for the Big Dig construction project, but the project was never fully designed and was dropped in 2015.

The most recent proposal suggested a pedestrian walkway instead of a rail extension, but that changed with Monday's announcement of changed priorities.

"The need for this is urgent," said Frederick Salvucci, who was transportation secretary under former Gov. Michael Dukakis. "We need this, and I applaud the decision to move this into an action agenda."

Despite Pollack's announcement at the beginning of the meeting, dozens of attendees still spoke in favor of the project. Some comments were short, such as one man who said simply, "Thank you for supporting the Red-Blue connector." Others explained the benefits that would come with the change, from an economic boost to lower carbon emissions to greater rider accessibility.

Many speakers said the connector and a proposed extension to the Blue Line would be crucial for communities north of Boston, particularly as Massachusetts General Hospital plans an expansion and the Suffolk Downs project in East Boston is set to add 10,000 housing units.

"If you go to the top of the Wonderland parking garage, you can, of course, see Cambridge," said Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo. "You just can't get there. When we can, we will unlock opportunity that has been out of reach for the communities for far too long."

Other elected officials who spoke in favor of the connector included Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, Rep. Adrian Madaro of East Boston, Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, and, through a statement read into the record by Madaro, House Speaker Robert DeLeo of Winthrop.

The Fiscal and Management Control Board did not take any action on the connector Monday beyond Pollack's announcement. But board member Brian Lang said he was "absolutely convinced" it warranted prompt investment.

"It's urgent for the city and the region," he said. "I think the state should never have abandoned it."

Pollack warned that Monday's update did not guarantee success for the Red-Blue connector. The Focus40 plan, which is approaching a final draft, takes a long-term view unconstrained by finances, so funding has not yet been identified for included items. "Next Priorities," where the connector was placed, is the second of three tiers in the plan.

"Inclusion in 'Next Priorities' does not mean we have the financial wherewithal to build them all and certainly not all at the same time," Pollack said. "This is a 20-plus year plan."

The Red-Blue connector comes as officials consider wide-reaching updates to the state's rail and subway system. Work is planned to extend the Green Line from its current endpoint at Lechmere into Somerville, Cambridge and Medford, and a separate MBTA panel is weighing several significant changes to the commuter-rail network.

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