More than six years after the first pass at extending the Green Line beyond its terminus at Lechmere Station "crashed and burned," the first portion of the most significant MBTA expansion project in decades is roughly one month away from welcoming riders aboard.
The Green Line Extension remains on track and under its $2.3 billion budget to launch an opening salvo of passenger trips in March, which will bring trolley service back to Science Park, open a newly constructed Lechmere Station and for the first time ever expand the Green Line's footprint into Somerville.
There's still work to be done before commuters will be able to get from Union Square all the way out to Newton in a single trip on the Green Line.
Lechmere Station and the brand-new Union Square are still on the empty side, lacking system maps and signs in that familiar green-and-white typeface. An exact opening date remains unknown beyond some time in March, while the May 2022 target to start passenger service on the second, larger Green Line Extension branch to Medford is up in the air.
But the new stations and new tracks are there nonetheless, real enough for MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and other T officials to take a few reporters and photographers along on a test ride Wednesday from North Station to Union Square and back again.
"It's really exciting to see not only a project like this that is going to be of a great benefit to our customers, but a project that was frankly dead, that essentially crashed and burned in 2015 and 2016," Poftak said before he and project manager John Dalton jumped aboard the train. "It's been brought back. People like John Dalton have been just instrumental in making sure that not only this project happens, but it happens on budget, and it's wonderful to see. It's so close."
It's easy to notice traveling along the new stretch of track that it goes where no Green Line has gone before. As it does for much of Somerville, Encore Boston Harbor stands atop the horizon from the other side of the Mystic River.
"I was at the groundbreaking, I don't know how many years ago, and I forget who it was, but someone said, 'You know, this is the fifth groundbreaking I've been to for the Green Line Extension.' Well, we're going to cut the ribbon in March and actually get it done."MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak
Construction sites are a common feature, too, including right next to the above-ground platform at Union Square. The station stands in the shadow of USQ, a massive transit-oriented development effort that project backers say will bring a combination of new housing, lab space, restaurants and retail shops.
Poftak said he believes the transit extension will be "catalytic for the area," spurring additional growth and potentially encouraging more workers who need to head to offices to take public transit rather than drive on already-clogged roadways.
The project also reinforced the Lechmere Viaduct, which carries trains toward Boston. Now, Poftak said, the vehicles will not face the same speed restriction as in the past, eliminating a "bottleneck" that slowed down the system.
Extending the Green Line has a decades-long history, but the effort nearly collapsed in 2015. After forecasting a nearly $1 billion overrun in the existing $2 billion price tag, the T canceled its existing contracts for the project and turned to Dalton.
Delays hit opening dates for both the Union Square branch and the Medford branch, in part stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, the T pushed back the start of service on the five new stops of the Medford Branch until May 2022. Poftak has hinted for months that the May target may get moved again, though a final decision has not been announced.
Financially, though, the effort is on sound footing. In the fall, MBTA officials announced they would reimburse Somerville and Cambridge for $75 million the cities collectively pledged to help float the project at a time when its fate appeared uncertain.
When the Green Line Extension begins ferrying passengers, it will mark the first time the MBTA has launched a brand-new branch since the massive project to demolish the elevated Orange Line and replace it that concluded in 1987. The last time the T opened a single stop was the Orange Line's Assembly Station in 2014.
Officials have not yet selected a specific date to open the Union Square branch.
"We're very confident with the March date, but we do not have a hard date yet. It is clear we want to come up with one shortly," Poftak said. "We want a big crowd. I was at the groundbreaking, I don't know how many years ago, and I forget who it was, but someone said, 'You know, this is the fifth groundbreaking I've been to for the Green Line Extension.' Well, we're going to cut the ribbon in March and actually get it done."