Cambridge Street could be in for lots of changes

Can MGH expansion, Blue-Red subway connection coexist?

CAMBRIDGE STREET in Boston is starting to look a lot like a public policy war zone.

As it runs from Bowdoin Street down toward the Longfellow Bridge, Cambridge Street passes by a Whole Foods Market, medical office buildings, and the entrance to Massachusetts General Hospital. MGH announced on Tuesday that it wants to tear down a parking garage and other buildings it owns along Cambridge Street and erect two, connected, 12-story towers that would house patient rooms, a heart center, a cancer center, operating rooms, and other facilities.

The $1 billion project, targeted for completion in 2026, may be the largest expansion ever proposed by a hospital in the state. Mass General says it desperately needs the new space to accommodate patients and to upgrade facilities that are outdated. The Boston Business Journal reported that MGH may also need to expand its research facilities in the near future.

“If this region wants a world-class academic medical center like MGH, we have to renew our campus and keep it modern and terrific for our patients and competitive not only with local competition but the national competition as well,” Mass General President Peter Slavin told the Boston Globe.

Even as Mass General lays out big plans for its campus along Cambridge Street, transit advocates are calling for big changes underneath the street. They want to connect the Blue Line, which currently terminates at Bowdoin, with the Red Line at Charles/MGH, fulfilling a Big Dig commitment and providing much greater subway connectivity for the region.

The Baker administration, in a draft of its transit vision for 2040, didn’t include a subway connection between the Red and Blue Lines. Instead, it proposed an underground passenger walkway between State Street on the Blue Line and Downtown Crossing on the Red. Since then, transit advocates have been pushing to have the pedestrian link shelved and a subway connection included in the 2040 vision planning document. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for early February.

The transit advocates have made some headway. Joe Aiello, the chairman of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, has been saying some positive things. And a study recently suggested a Red-Blue subway connection could be built for far less money than previously thought.

The study indicates the best way to build the connection would be using an approach called cut and cover – digging up Cambridge Street, installing the subway tunnel, and then covering it up again and reconstructing the street.

But how will digging up Cambridge Street fly with Mass General? Will Boston’s largest employer want its front entrance to be a giant hole in the ground during construction?

David Hanitchak, the hospital’s vice president for real estate, said a Red-Blue subway connection would make it easier for employees, patients, and their families from north of the city to reach MGH. As for the mess during construction, he seemed to take it in stride.

“In the long run, it would be worth it; in the short run it would be disruptive to the hospital and the community,” he said. “We, as well as the community, would work with the city and T as they develop their construction plans to minimize the disruption as is done with all major projects in the city.”

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.

Jim Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation and a board member at TransitMatters, said on Twitter that the planned MGH expansion is another reason why a Blue-Red connection is needed.

Fred Salvucci, another former transportation secretary, rallied transit advocates in favor of a Red-Blue subway connector Tuesday night at Harvard Gardens (right across from the MGH entrance). In doing so, however, he recounted how many years ago he pushed for an underground transit connection between South Station and the Seaport District. Federal officials were willing to provide funding for the underground tunnel to D Street, but called a halt there because there was so little development in the area at the time. The officials said the tunnel could be extended later if the Seaport District caught on, Salvucci said.

Salvucci pointed out that the Seaport District is now booming and no one wants to start digging up the area to put transit – in this case, Silver Line buses – underground. Salvucci shakes his head recalling the decision, dismissing the federal officials as “idiots.” He says transit services need to be installed before development takes off, not after all the buildings are up.