Boards give yellow light to Green Line Ext.

Skeptics, led by Pollack, say many hurdles remain

TWO STATE TRANSPORTATION BOARDS on Monday gave what might be called a yellow light to the Green Line Extension, essentially allowing a scaled-back version of the project to proceed on the condition that it be scrapped if costs rise, a competent management team cannot be assembled, or the MBTA’s core services are compromised.

The iffy approach was necessitated by a small funding shortfall, even after scaling back the design of the project considerably, and a host of financial and management unknowns. The votes by the boards of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board were unanimous, but one persistent voice of caution throughout the debate was state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.

Pollack, who helped lead the fight for the Green Line Extension as a transportation advocate when she worked at the Conservation Law Foundation, repeatedly emphasized that the project is a long way from completion. “I’m not personally sure whether we’re close to signing on the bottom line,” she said at one point, trying to check the enthusiasm of other board members.

“I do not think it is the most important thing for the MBTA to be doing the next three years,” she said of the Green Line Extension at another point, emphasizing that her first responsibility is to the 1 million riders the T serves each day and not the 50,000 who might ride the Green Line Extension if it ever gets built.

Rafael Mares, vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, said Pollack’s comments seemed to reflect the mindset of her current boss, Gov. Charlie Baker. “She channeled the governor in what she said,” he said. Asked how her comments on Monday squared with her support for the Green Line Extension as a transportation advocate, Mares said: “She had a different boss then.”

The Green Line Extension, which the state agreed to build to meet clean air commitments negotiated as part of the Big Dig, would extend above-ground trolley service from Lechmere Station through Cambridge into Somerville and Medford. The project calls for 4.5 miles of new track, six new stations, a revamped Lechmere Station, and a bike-pedestrian path. The $2 billion project was put on hold in December when it appeared the cost had ballooned to nearly $3 billion.

A team of consultants and T officials spent the last several months redesigning the project to eliminate $622 million in costs, ending up with a Green Line Extension with an estimated cost of $2.3 billion. That price is roughly $300 million higher than what the state and federal government had previously committed to. The team came up with another $227 million in funds by reallocating $152 million in federal dollars and picking up financial commitments of $50 million from Somerville and $25 million from Cambridge. With that additional funding, the project, at least on paper, is still short $73 million.

The meeting of the two transportation boards opened with more than 90 minutes of public comment from more than 50 people. Nearly every speaker hailed from the Green Line Extension service area and all but two of them voiced support for moving ahead with the project, promising economic, environmental, and health benefits. Many urged the T to restore some of the project elements that had been cut out.

From right to left, Scott Lang, Lisa Calise, Joseph Aiello, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollacks, Steve Poftak, and Joseph Sullivan.

From right to left, Scott Lang, Lisa Calise, Joseph Aiello, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, Steve Poftak, and Joseph Sullivan.

“It would be a real disaster for this region if the Green Line extension doesn’t happen,” said Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi.  “This project has to happen,” said Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.

Most members of the two transportation boards seemed to be caught up in the enthusiasm. Russell Gittlen, a union official who serves on the Department of Transportation board, was eager to put the project back on track. “We’re $73 million short,” he said. “That’s not that much in the big picture. Let’s get it done.”

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, suggested the transit authority could cover the $73 million shortfall by telling bidders on the construction contract that the price could not exceed $2.2 billion (the $2.3 billion estimated cost minus the $73 million shortfall estimate).

Yet Pollack and a handful of other board members continually stressed that the funding gap could increase and there is currently no source for additional funding. They said the state shouldn’t contribute more than the $1 billion already pledged because any additional funds would take away from the T’s other priorities.

Pollack said the $73 million shortfall could rise once the project is reviewed by the Federal Transit Administration.  The federal agency reviewed the T’s initial cost estimate for the project in 2014 and revised it upward $300 million. Given the T’s checkered track record on forecasting the project’s cost, Pollack said the Transit Administration is likely to scrutinize the new number very carefully.

“We can’t kid ourselves,” Pollack said. “We’re not sitting here today with all the answers.”

There was also concern about whether the T could manage such a large project, particularly given the agency’s struggle to improve service throughout the transit system. Jim McConnell, a consultant hired by the MBTA, said cost overruns previously surfaced on the Green Line Extension in part because “too much autonomy and authority was ceded to consultants who took full advantage by charging too much and delivering too little.”

McConnell recommended the MBTA should hire a team of 40 to 50 staffers and consultants to manage the Green Line Extension and keep that team as independent of the T bureaucracy as possible. He said the workers should be split 60-40 between staff and consultants and led by seven elite managers. He estimated total compensation of the Green Line Extension team would range from $9 million to $11 million, or an average of $180,000 to $275,000 on average per person, depending on the staffing and expenditure level.

Pollack said the T’s ability to oversee such a large project is the big question mark. “For me, the big question is can we manage it,” she said.

Gov. Baker wasn’t at the meeting of the two boards, but it was pretty obvious he has a keen interest in the outcome. Steven Kadish, the governor’s chief of staff, watched at least part of the debate. McConnell, the consultant, said he had personally gone over the management demands for the Green Line Extension with Baker. He said Baker estimated there were only 12 people in the country capable of filling the top jobs overseeing the Green Line Extension; McConnell said he believed there are about 100.

The two boards reached consensus that they wanted to remove the hold they had placed on the Green Line Extension in December, but acknowledged that they needed to gather input on the project’s cost from the Federal Transit Administration and hire more T staff before making a final decision. Board members went round and round on the wording of a convoluted motion before giving final approval.

Aiello said any new T staff hired as part of the process could be easily shifted to other procurement priorities at the agency if the Green Line Extension is canceled.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Robert Moylan Jr., a member of the MassDOT board, said the T, working with the Federal Transit Administration, needs to develop a firmer price for the project and locate additional revenues to cover any shortfall. “The project will be denied on its own right if it doesn’t come within that budget,” he said.

Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville, said he was pleased with the vote. “It’s on to the next steps now,” he said.