GREEN LINE EXTENSION: State Needs To Make The Trains Run On Time

The state has, once again, announced a multi-year delay in completing the Green Line Extension, from 2014 to 2018 or 2020 or even later.  Somerville is already mobilizing to fight.  But they should not be fighting alone.  All of us, around this entire region, have a deep stake in the outcome.  As national transportation policy gets warped by the Tea Party’s opposition to anything besides unregulated automobiles, and national transportation funding remains hostage to the right-wing goal of dismantling government, letting the Green Line Extension get “kicked down the road” will weaken our ability to push dozens of other pending transit projects to completion, whether they be rail road, subway/trolley, bus, and even off-road shared-up paths.  It will make our entire regional economy weaker, our environment dirtier, our options fewer.

We’re all in this together.  We need to unite to demand no more delays.  In fact, given that both construction and borrowing are cheaper now than they’ve been (or probably will be) for decades, it makes sense to speed up implementation and push all the way to Route 16 near Medford Square.  Putting construction off until only makes it more expensive – even the state estimates that a half-decade postponement will increase the estimated $1billion bill by at least 20% — about $200 million!

Half Of A Train Isn’t Enough

Rumors have it that the state eventually intends to “compromise” by agreeing to finish the first sections of the Green Line (to Union Square and Washington Street) by 2114, probably with the hope that this will buy off Somerville.  But pushing the rest of the project into the future makes it increasingly less likely that it will ever get built.   And, as Wig Zamore of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP) has pointed out, getting so far out of compliance with federal air improvement requirements actually risks the loss of all federal transportation funds for the entire state – which, while extremely unlikely to happen given that both the Governor and the President are in the same political party, was actually done to the City of Atlanta for no more serious infringements.

Despite MassDOT comments about the delay being caused by planning and land acquisition complexities, we all know that this is fundamentally a financial issue – which means a political issue.  The MBTA is in a Catch-22: it simply doesn’t have enough revenue to operate or maintain its system – much less do the expansion that user demand and 21st century conditions call for.  It has already raised fares significantly, which simply hurts those who need its services the most without putting more than a small dent in its deficit.  The state won’t provide additional long-term revenue, and neither will the single-minded federal budget cutters.  So what’s left is debt.  But debt service for transportation projects can only be paid out of the Commonwealth Transportation Fund (mostly gas tax and Registry fees) rather than the General Fund – and not only is that source nearly tapped out, its future is already mortgaged to cover the soon-to-be-coming-due payments for the Accelerated Bridge Program bonds

Mitigation & Money

By the terms of the 2006 Conservation Law Foundation court victory, which is what required Massachusetts to actually fulfill the Green Line Extension promise it made as a condition of getting money for the Big Dig, the state has to mitigate the air pollution impact of postponing completion for 4 to 6 years.  The expected offer to run a couple extra buses is simply not adequate.  What about demanding that the Community Path be fully designed and completed– benefiting commuters in several communities? What about demanding that McGrath Highway be redone as a series of regular city streets with full bike/pedestrian/transit facilities and lots of trees – benefiting the public health and creating a powerful model of what can be done with over-sized old highways around the entire region?  If we ask for enough, it even might end up being cheaper to build the Green Line itself!

But at a deeper level, this is really about our state and nation’s political inability to adequately value and fund public transportation.  MBTA finances are already tottering on the edge of an abyss. The so-called deficit reduction deal forced on us by Congressional conservatives will result in catastrophic cuts not only to social services but also to transit and transportation programs.   Our own MBTA has over $8.6 billion of debt (including an inappropriately huge chunk of the Big Dig costs), and capital spending needs for safety and reliability of over $3.7 billion – but only gets to spend between $200 and $300 million a year.  The Green Line fight is all of our fight because ultimately we need to radically change the way transit is financed – probably using the ideas proposed by the Blue Ribbon Summit on Transportation Funding held last fall by CLF and the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University.

Ultimately, the fate of the Green Line depends on injecting new state revenue into the system. Everyone who supports the Green Line specifically and transit investment more generally needs to come right out and say that this is important enough to pay more taxes for.


Back Story:  Hijacking the Big Dig

It’s hard to remember, but the Big Dig didn’t start as a highway project.  It was originally conceived in order to get cars out of the way so the city’s neighborhoods could be re-knit, North and South Stations could be finally connected, and a transition could be made to mass transit and other modes of less destructive transportation.

I remember because I worked with the coalition that fought – successfully! – to stop the Inner Belt, I-695, that would have ripped through Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.  (The house I now live in would have been demolished for one of the superhighway’s entry ramps!)  The anti-highway movement made Massachusetts the first state to stop building new highways.  The Big Dig partially grew out of that victory as another way to diminish the negative regional impact of automobiles – not eliminate them, just give them their proper place.

However, the political reality of highway-obsessed America was that big transportation money was only available via the highway program.  And that meant defining the Big Dig as a congestion-relieving project.  As the cost and complexity of the tunnel project escalated, subsequent state Administrations took the federal highway focus as their own, diverting funds from the other components into the car facility.

Twisting The State’s Arm

Finally, the Conservation Law Foundation sued, and in 2006 won, on the basis of the state’s previous assertions that their use of federal Highway Funds would achieve air pollution improvements required by the Clean Air Act and other regulatory requirements.  The state agreed to complete several “mitigation” projects, including completing the Green Line Extension by 2014.

Other components of that required mitigation package were restoring Green Line service to the Arborway in Jamaica Plain, connecting the Red and Blue Lines, creating the North Point Park along the lower Charles River basin and connecting it to neighboring parklands, and opening the Silver Line tunnel under Fort Point Channel.  The Arborway restoration was replaced by improvements in the Route 39 bus route. The Silver Line Tunnel and the park were built; the connecting bridge is under construction.  But the Red-Blue connections was repeatedly delayed and then dropped.  The proposal to create a vital a rail link between North and South Stations never even made it to the final stages of the project proposal.

When Governor Patrick took office he declared his support for finishing the Green Line.  At a 2007 Somerville event he said, “I am here to affirm my 100 percent commitment to seeing that [the Green Line Extension] gets built and gets built while I’m in office… I want to be absolutely clear that my commitment to this is a personal one.”

But despite this promise, the state soon began arguing for a delay.  Earlier this year, MassDOT attempted to push back completion to 2015.  That move was checked.  But now they’re trying to push it back even further.  The official reason is that they need more time for eminent domain takings.  However, it appears that most of those properties will be used for the associated maintenance facilities and, in addition to wondering why this work hasn’t already been finished, the CLF lawyer Rafael Mares points out that it wouldn’t prevent the tracks and stations from getting built.

This is a regional fight because at risk is not just the Green Line itself, but momentum towards all the other transit and non-motorized projects now being discussed, planned, or even in the early stages of construction.  The South Coast Rail Extension.  The Fairmont (Indigo) Line (which it seems that even libertarians support). The Bruce Freeman Trail (which is being played off against the Assabet River Trail for funding).  And all of the desperately needed expansion of bus service to so many underserved parts of the state.

Somehow, while the rest of the world seems to understand that mass transit is the key to managing the challenges of fuel cost and availability uncertainties, of climate disruption and environmental pollution, of wasteful sprawl and the need to focus population growth in transportation centers – our country seems to be trying to turn back the clock to the days of Mad Men machine lust.  If don’t stop it, the regressive wind will continue to batter our lands and, like a hurricane, leave destruction in its wake.


Thanks for pre-posting feedback from Stephanie Pollack, Wig Zamore, and Mark Chase.


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