GLX opening a major achievement for the T
Shows transit authority is capable of delivering big projects
THE MBTA on Monday opens the Green Line extension to Somerville, a milestone for the T’s riders but perhaps an even greater achievement for the T itself.
Six years ago, the MBTA was an agency teetering on the edge of irrelevancy in crisis. It was struggling to bounce back from the Snowmageddon of 2015, which brought the transit authority to its knees. The the Green Line extension project to Somerville and Medford brought the T to its knees in a different way.
The T had secured $1 billion in federal funding for the project, roughly half the cost. But then the price tag ballooned to more than $3 billion, and state officials had to decide whether to return the federal money and pull the plug yet again on a project that had been promised as part of environmental mitigation for the Big Dig.
It was a gut check for the MBTA and the Baker administration. Both ultimately decided to push ahead, paring the overall cost of the project back to $2.3 billion, enlisting the financial help of Somerville ($50 million) and Cambridge ($25 million), and convincing the federal government and its $1 billion to remain on board.
Jim McConnell, a consultant hired by the MBTA, said the cost overruns on the Green Line extension materialized 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 T hire a team of employees that would focus exclusively on the project and be responsible for it.
The T took his advice and brought in John Dalton, a Chicago-based construction official, and made him the highest-paid employee at the T. Before Dalton arrived, the T had four employees trying to oversee the Green Line extension project; Dalton’s team eventually grew to 43. In an interview late last year, Dalton said his focus was on delivering solid transportation.
“If people fell in love with the designs that were part of what I call episode 1 – that were more than what was required, more than what was necessary, certainly in terms of what was committed to by the MBTA to our funding agencies – they may feel like, hey, this isn’t quite what we wanted. I can appreciate that,” Dalton said. “But the objective of this project always was, and certainly became when I was asked to join GLX, focus on what the requirement is and anything beyond that is not what we’re delivering. Because of that we’re in the healthy financial position we’re in and we can absorb things like COVID without blowing the budget.”
The branch of the Green Line extension to Union Square in Somerville opens today. The Medford branch is currently scheduled to open later this summer. Both are arriving later than expected, but the project is enough under budget to return the $75 million pledged by Somerville and Cambridge and possibly have money left over.
Joe Aiello, who was the chair of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board during the period when the project faltered and then righted itself, said getting the Green Line extension done is a huge step forward for the transit authority. Not only is the project needed from a transportation perspective, he said, its successful completion demonstrates that the T is capable of managing such big projects.
Aiello said it would have been a devastating blow to the T’s morale if state officials had thrown in the towel and returned the $1 billion in federal money. “The T had to prove to itself that it could do big complicated endeavors,” he said.It would also have been disastrous for relations with the federal government, Aiello said. He noted the federal government’s experience with the Big Dig’s cost overruns left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Scrapping the Green Line extension and returning the federal money would have been another reminder that Massachusetts was unable to get its act together, he said.
“Can you imagine today if we had given the money back and now were trying to compete for federal grant money with that track record?” Aiello asked.