GLX: It’s not just about transportation
Green Line extension is also about economic development, quality of life
I GUESS EVERY ORGANIZATION needs a mission statement. So in 2010, the senior staff of the newly created MassDOT was taking a crack at it, one day, around the secretary’s conference table. One long-serving transportation bureaucrat suggested that the mission should be: To run the best transportation system in the country. Others at the table nodded their assent. But I asked a simple question: “Why?” Judging by their reaction, you might have thought I had just told them that God did not exist. To them, her statement was as unquestionable as the truths that Jefferson deemed to be “self-evident.” Long story short, after some further prodding, the group finally decided on a mission statement for the agency that allowed that we wanted to run the best transportation system in the country in order to promote economic development and improve the quality of life for our residents and visitors to the Commonwealth.
The importance of transportation infrastructure in promoting economic development, and supporting the existing economy of the Commonwealth, is as undeniable as the increased real estate values and business activity along any of the T’s existing transit lines. Recognizing this, then-Secretary of Transportation Jim Aloisi created the position of deputy secretary for real estate and economic development in 2009, a role in which I served but that no longer exists.
In early June of this year, Secretary Stephanie Pollack, appearing on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio program, expressed her astonishment at discovering that people at 10 Park Plaza (the state Transportation Building) “think it’s about transportation.” She elaborated, and I was compelled to tweet: “Sec. Pollack . . . says transportation is about economic development. My heart leaps with joy!”
Perhaps a little overdramatic (me, not her), but still. The hardworking people at the Transportation Building have their plates full. I’ve been a state employee, and the challenges of trying to accomplish the simplest things in a bureaucracy of that size cannot be overstated, so it is no criticism to say that most of the folks at 10 Park Plaza have enough to do with the “transportation” jobs they’ve been assigned. But that can’t be the end of the discussion.
Which brings us to the Green Line Extension, also known as GLX. When I was at the Transportation Building I encountered two real estate developments, one a small residential project and one a very large, mixed-use project, that got started along the proposed GLX. I think it’s safe to say that, in both cases, the investment decisions about both projects were undertaken on the assumption that GLX was a real project.
Years after some of these investments were made, but less than six months after my celebratory tweet, the Boston Globe reports: “State Won’t Rule Out Cancelling Green Line Extension.” Three billion dollars, the current estimated cost of the project, is a lot of money. Frankly, it’s too much money for this project. The entire Big Dig project, the largest public infrastructure undertaking of its time, cost a little over $14 billion. So no reasonable person is suggesting that taxpayers, and fare payers, simply cough up that kind of money. Of course. the whole thing needs to be reexamined, “reset,” or however you want to describe it. Maybe the stations should be scaled down, or a number of other “value engineering” ideas that have been suggested can be implemented. And throwing out the existing contracts and procurement method, as MassDOT has done, only makes sense, given the results thus far.
But let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot. The benefits, in terms of real estate investment, economic development, employment, and the taxes coming back to the state are enormous. If we did a scientific cost/benefit analysis of the project over the long term, there’d be no question of whether or not to build GLX in some form.
What’s troubling is the on-again, off-again, message. This is not the first time that GLX has been deemed at jeopardy, and it’s not helpful. For investors of private capital – from the small business owner who decides to take a loan and expand her fledgling business in Union Square, to the young couple deciding where to buy a home and raise a family, to the multinational real estate development company deciding whether to build out hundreds of thousands of square feet of biotech space near Lechmere – uncertainty about where and when the public sector is going to invest in transportation infrastructure does not reassure.
The GLX, like every other transit line, I-93, the Mass Pike, or any other transportation infrastructure, is just a way to get from point A to point B safely, conveniently, and cost effectively (on a good day). People will pay for that, they will make decisions about where to live based on whether point A or point B are located near a transit line or an interstate highway, and financial markets will cause capital to flow, or not flow, based on where its built.It is one thing to say that changes need to be made to a transportation investment (and they clearly do in the case of GLX), but it is quite another to throw the whole project into question. The former is about transportation, the latter is about far more, and has more far-reaching effects – negative effects – including on economic development, which is part of MassDOT’s mission, too.
Peter O’Connor, former deputy secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, is a Boston lawyer and development consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.