Stay the course on Green Line Ext.

But streamline the project and install new managers

THE DISCLOSURE OF A BREATHTAKING potential billion-dollar cost overrun for the proposed Green Line Extension was unwelcome news.  Not only did it take everyone by surprise, it undermined confidence in the MBTA and threatened a project that under any and all circumstances would pass the test for a prudent and necessary expansion of the system.  I do not want to re-litigate here the necessity of the Green Line extension to Tufts University – this was settled long ago.  What I would like to do is offer three observations and a few suggestions for getting past this challenging moment.

First, those in charge of the Green Line Extension project should be held accountable for their utter failure to keep the lid on costs.  I am, as you know, a big supporter of the MBTA and its employees, but there comes a time when you need to call the question on poor performance, and this is such a time. This is especially true for the private sector construction managers who appear to have blithely moved forward with an unrealistic approach to this work.  What were they thinking?  It’s as if they have been living in a hermetically sealed chamber, impervious to common sense and oblivious to the public debate about transportation funding priorities that has taken place in Massachusetts since 2009.  It’s as if they weren’t around during the winter meltdown, when public confidence in the T sank to historic lows.  If ever there was a time to demonstrate that we can expand our transit system in a fiscally responsible and intelligent way, it was now.

Those of us who care deeply about public transportation have been calling for more revenue for needed investment, and for continued expansion projects like the Green Line Extension.  We do not support profligate spending. We do support wise and targeted spending.  We have had to fend off counter arguments from those who say that we cannot afford to expand when we have so many state-of-good repair needs.


Sadly, this news feeds into the narrative that MBTA expansion projects are unwise because they are unaffordable. It also feeds into the narrative that we should stop expanding the T while we continue to have a monstrous state of good repair backlog.  Both of those narratives are misleading. Conflating the backlog of critical repair and maintenance needs – a $6 billion backlog – with the need to undertake strategic capacity expansion projects offers a false choice.

The repair and maintenance backlog must be addressed on an accelerated basis and there is a way to do this without raising anyone’s taxes, fares, or fees – by transferring a portion of T debt to the state and shifting a small percentage of highway dollars to transit. Strategic expansion in certain areas, like extending the Green Line, connecting the Red and Blue lines, and introducing high quality Bus Rapid Transit along key routes, is required in order to keep pace with our growing economy and changing demographics.  If we don’t keep pace with the times, we will simply fall further behind and never get out of the cycle of a chronically underinvested, unreliable, over-capacity system. Our mobility future depends on our ability to invest in fixing what we have, and also building strategic, targeted expansions of the system.  Both are required. Both must be done.

Now comes news of a prospective billion-dollar cost overrun, cutting the rug out from under those of us who have been carrying the torch of re-investment and expansion. I am left to conclude that the private and public sector folks who are in charge of the Green Line Extension simply do not get it.  They have jeopardized not just a critically important expansion of public transportation, they have hurt the credibility of the MBTA and they have demoralized transit advocates who have been spending personal and political capital to advocate for accelerated investment in public transportation.

Clearly the current construction procurement method – innovative for the T – has failed to keep costs in check. I would abandon it before more damage is done and move to a more traditional method that includes incentives for performance and delivery according to cost and schedule milestones.  The private sector construction managers ought to be replaced.  The public sector managers of the Green Line Extension ought to be reassigned.

Second, lets continue the project but on a more realistic, scaled-down basis. Cutting back on the proposed pedestrian and bike path would be a mistake. The way to extract meaningful savings won’t be to nickel and dime those project elements that are specifically designed to offer modal choices and modal equity.  But the question must be asked: Why do we need gold or silver-plated transit stations along a light rail corridor?  Why can’t we have very nice, functional stops similar to those along the Green Line in Newton and Brookline?  My sense is that the proposed Green Line Extension stations, as currently designed, may be a large driver of the high costs.  If so, lets move away from that quickly, and focus on moving people from origin to destination in a reliable and safe manner.  We need the best functional extension, not the best imaginable extension.

This quandary is reminiscent of something I’ve written about before: the rejection of the proposed Silver Line Phase 3 in 2009.  This is an instructive tale worth repeating.  I shelved an unrealistic proposed $2.1 billion Silver Line tunnel project, and directed the T to build instead what was basically the same service at a total cost of $1.7 million.  Today’s Silver Line 4 service is a bus system, nothing particularly elegant or special, but it is highly functional and it gets people where they need and want to go.  At a fraction of the cost of the Silver Line Phase 3 tunnel, the SL4 was – and is – an example of thinking outside the box, and focusing on what really matters, which is bringing mobility to as many people as possible.  That is how everyone ought to be approaching the Green Line Extension now.

Third, it’s time to test all prior assumptions.  Does the Green Line Extension really need its own new maintenance facility?  I was told innumerable times when I was secretary that this was a critical necessity.  The original placement of the proposed maintenance facility was close to the Brickbottom residential building and was holding up the project.  We made a decision to relocate it, and unlocked the logjam in 2009.  But I wonder whether anyone has taken a fresh look at the cost of this proposed facility and its absolute necessity and functionality? Could this maintenance work be performed at existing facilities?  Could those existing facilities be expanded to accommodate the additional equipment, at a lower cost than building a new one?  Perhaps significant savings can be achieved by a re-think of whether we need a maintenance facility, and, if so, whether we need the one that has been designed.

There ought to be no turning back from extending the Green Line to Union Square and Tufts University.  The Green Line is a state commitment following a lawsuit that successfully challenged our misguided auto-centric investments of the 20th century.  More to the point: there is no one who can credibly say that we shouldn’t connect Tufts University to transit.  Nor can we ignore the demographic changes that make this corridor a prime example of a transit-oriented district.  We need to get this done.  It’s ironic that this headache has been presented to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, whose strenuous efforts throughout her career helped ensure the kind of capacity improvement and modal equity that the Green Line Extension epitomizes. Because she understands these issues better than most, I have high confidence she will not let the false narratives displace sound judgment. We need to stay the course – just not the course of runaway costs.

I look at the state of transportation affairs in Greater Boston and its hard to square what we are doing – and not doing – with what I believe most people would like us to do.  It is also hard to square our actions –and inactions – with what we clearly ought to be doing.  A casino with no credible transportation plan is sailing through, even though we know that it will likely add to increasingly chronic daytime congestion on Interstate 93.  Access to Logan Airport from the south is a nightmare any time after 3 p.m. each day, as the access ramps from the Southeast Expressway move at a snail’s pace. Our innovation districts are becoming tangled in chronic congestion. We are paving the way to another era of highway gridlock and underperforming public transportation.  We are letting this happen now, right under our very eyes.

The Green Line Extension isn’t a perfect antidote to auto-centric policies that are doomed to fail, but stopping it in its tracks will squander an opportunity to influence our mobility future for the better.  Support for the Green Line Extension is support for a 21st century mobility platform, for cleaner air, for a more robust regional economy.  Those of us who support it need to join together to support completion of this project – but not completion at any cost.  Completion must come after hitting the restart button, re-assessing the wisdom of the current approach to building the project, and putting in place public and private sector project managers who will get the job done in a fiscally responsible way.

Meet the Author

We don’t need the best outcome; we need the best functional outcome. Getting this right will pay huge dividends, not just for the people who will use the Green Line Extension, but also for everyone whose mobility future depends upon maintaining public confidence in our public transportation system.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.