Pollack’s dilemma: Be careful what you wish for

When Gov. Charlie Baker tapped Stephanie Pollack as transportation secretary, it was a choice that surprised many on both sides. How would one of the state’s most passionate advocates for public transportation carry out the vision of a fiscally conservative boss perceived to be more bottom-line oriented?

For nearly a year, it’s worked out pretty well, but now Pollack is being confronted with a choice that was actually of her own doing: Move forward with the long-promised Green Line extension that was part of the Big Dig mitigation or abandon the ambitious plan and lose $742 million, plus another billion in federal funds.

The irony is Pollack was part of the Conservation Law Foundation when it forced the state into the agreement to build the extension. The CLF has been pushing for the extension since 1990, when Massachusetts was cited for not being in compliance with the Clean Air Act, and urged the Dukakis administration to build the extension.

The Patrick administration finally committed to the full 4.7-mile project in 2007 and, after some predictable starts and stops, the design and search for a contractor started in earnest after the Legislature authorized it in 2011.

But Pollack is discovering, as one observer said, the “difference between suing and doing.” Despite her all-in efforts as part of CLF and as a researcher at the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University, Pollack has had to hit the brakes on the project because of a nearly $1 billion overrun that brought the extension cost from nearly $2 billion to $3 billion and the highest cost-per-mile of any transit project in the country. For the state that brought you the Big Dig, that’s saying something.

Among the choices Pollack has laid on the table, and the one she emphatically cites, is killing the entire project. It’s hard to know if Pollack is doing the administration’s bidding or if it’s the realism of an advocate who has entered into the inner circle and found things aren’t always as they appear.

Pollack and her staff are exploring all options, such as scaling back the design, eliminating some stations, using bus service, tearing up the contract and putting the entire plan out to bid again, or negotiating with the current contractor to see if it can move forward without a restart.

There are 1.7 billion reasons for Pollack to find a solution short of killing the project and they all have dollar signs in front of them. The MBTA has already committed $742 million in “sunk costs” between contracts for new trains and the start of construction in the first phase. Abandoning the plan would also cost the state $1 billion in federal funds, something officials certainly don’t want to disappear if they hope to make this dream a reality.

But as Pollack takes the commuter rail or Green Line back to her Newton home each day, she certainly has to be thinking how much easier it was to advocate for a cause rather than be the one to find the path to bring the plan to fruition. In her case, however, she’s both and you have to wonder which Pollack she’s cursing – the old or the new.




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Massachusetts Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni pens a Globe op-ed denouncing charter schools.


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The Fall River Redevelopment Authority has given approval for a medical marijuana company to buy 12 acres in the city-owned biopark to build a cultivation facility if the firm can get a state license. (Herald News)

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