The station that private capital built

Assembly Square is basking in investment

IN SOMERVILLE, corporate interests are practically tripping over each other to pay for improvements to transit connections.

Encore Boston Harbor is willing to pay $25 million for a footbridge over the Mystic River linking the Everett casino to Somerville’s Assembly Station, reports Jon Chesto of the Boston Globe. That’s at least according to Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria, who would also be willing to finance improvements at the Orange Line station to make the connection seamless.

Construction of the station itself received significant funding from Federal Realty Investment Trust, the developer of Assembly Square, an old area that was razed and rebuilt into a neighborhood starting about 10 years ago.

Assembly Square is a special case. It is now home to the state’s largest private employer – Partners HealthCare – and the $2.6 billion casino across the water holds claim as the largest single-phase construction project in Massachusetts. The price tag on the bridge is about half the $52 million in gross gaming revenue that Encore hauled in during August alone.

Betting that it would be making a bundle, Encore’s parent Wynn Resorts years ago agreed to underwrite enhanced Orange Line service, and paid for new configurations at Sullivan Square that make the rotary seem a little safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. A few miles away at Boston Landing, the shoemaker New Balance financed and built a $20 million stop on the commuter rail next to its $500 million Brighton development.

That’s all well and good for places where investors are raking it in. Asking developers to pony up in other parts of the state would be a harder sell.

To bring commuter rail service to one of the more transit-starved areas of Massachusetts – the South Coast cities of New Bedford and Fall River – Gov. Charlie Baker is borrowing $1 billion rather than relying on private investors for financing. That is likely a reflection of the reality that wrangling that kind of money from investors along the South Coast Rail corridor would be a difficult and uncertain undertaking.

But the idea of tapping real estate developers was the most popular out of eight possible methods for funding improvements to the commuter rail, according to a recent survey commissioned by MassINC, CommonWealth’s non-profit parent.

While it might not be applicable everywhere, the cities just north of Boston are drafting a new playbook for financing transit improvements. Cambridge and Somerville chipped in a collective $75 million for the Green Line Extension that will serve their residents, and DeMaria told Chesto he would be willing to have Everett finance the $10 million to $15 million cost of linking the planned footbridge with Assembly Station, especially if Gaming Commission funds could repay the city for the investment.

Meet the Author

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.

There’s one other hitch in the plans for Assembly and the footbridge. MBTA staff has historically been “stretched too thin” and focused on other issues to pay much attention to the idea, according to the Globe, which reports that Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito told DeMaria on Wednesday that the footbridge would become a priority.

For a project that is already replete with willing investors, that type of high-level political attentiveness might be all that’s required.