Green Line extension endangered

Officials eye killing long-planned project as costs balloon

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE COST SET set by the Green Line Extension contractor for the first three stations is more than double the amount state and federal transit officials recently estimated, calling into question the full price tag of the new trolley line and whether the state can afford to build it.

Recently estimated at about $2 billion – which doesn’t include the cost of financing – the full cost of adding seven new trolley stations in East Cambridge, Somerville and Medford could wind up as much as $1 billion over budget, MBTA Interim General Manager Frank DePaola told reporters on Monday. Officials who briefed the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday afternoon are now looking to renegotiate with the contractor and alter the plans.

An early phase of building a new Lechmere Station, a spur to Union Square, and Washington Street Station in Somerville was estimated to cost $387 million this past winter when the Federal Transit Authority approved nearly $1 billion in federal funding.

White Skanska Kiewit (WSK), the company awarded construction of the project under a unique procurement process, now estimates construction of those first three stations to cost $898 million, throwing into question the affordability of the plan to build a total of seven stations ending near Tufts University.

“Everything’s on the table, and everything includes canceling the project, but that’s not where we want to go, but we need a project we can afford to build,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters Monday.

Transportation officials are now looking at whether more modest stations – similar to elsewhere on the Green Line, in Newton – could shave costs. Other savings include scaling down or elimination of a multi-use path that is part of the plan. Additionally, state transportation officials are looking at the possibility of using other revenue sources, including federal highway funding, and potentially funding from entities that would benefit from the new transit line.

WSK has the freedom to set the price because the state used construction-manager-general-contractor, a type of procurement that DePaola said the federal government has endorsed for large projects that allows for one company to perform simultaneous design and construction of a project. The traditional model would start with the design, then have contractors bid on that and, normally, choose the lowest bidder. While additional engineering has revealed geological conditions and polluted soil that upped the $387 million price, DePaola said the dramatically higher cost may be caused by the contractor pricing in risk and the hot Boston construction market.

“I’ve actually known this since May 21,” DePaola said. He said, “We were stunned obviously.”

The Conservation Law Foundation, the advocacy group where Pollack worked years ago that sued the state to move the project forward, supported transportation officials’ plan to deliberate and gather feedback before deciding on what to do next.

“CLF is disappointed to hear about the increased cost estimate,” according to a statement from the organization. “It is important at this time to engage the public and all stakeholders in a deliberate process on how to tackle these financial challenges. The full Green Line Extension is not only a critical regional transportation project, but also a legal requirement under the federal Clean Air Act and as such we need to find good solutions to ensure completion of this project. CLF stands ready to help.”

The procurement method allows the state to cap its risk. A third option might involve the state going out to bid separately on particular aspects of the project, such as the Union Square Station. Alternatively, the state could restart the procurement – eliminating the possibility of WSK from participating.

The state’s power in renegotiating with the contractor derives from the possibility that the state could either walk away from the court-mandated project or remove White Skanska Kiewit by going back out to bid.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Pollack said dealing with the ballooning cost could require legislation and involvement by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board of Directors as well as the control board.

The state has already invested significant “sunk costs” into the project, money that has already been invested and cannot be recouped, Pollack said.