By Matt Bornstein
Last December, Boston’s public transit authority began construction on an extension of the Green Line light rail system. Today, the Green Line runs from the near western suburbs, through downtown Boston, into East Cambridge. The planned expansion would add seven stations serving Somerville and Medford, Cambridge’s neighbors to the north. (See map; the extension is marked as a dashed green line.)
If you are an average HBS student, your response to this news is probably, “what is the Green Line?” For a typical Boston resident, the reaction is probably more like, “why extend the slowest, most cramped, least reliable public transit line in the country?” In Somerville, though, this project has people buzzing and emotions flowing.
Home to about 80,000 people, Somerville is the most densely populated neighborhood in Boston and among the densest areas in the country. Historically, its residents were working class and diverse (for Boston) at “only” 70% white. In the mid-1990s, however, gentrification hit. Condos, restaurants, and shopping areas began to move in. Property values quadrupled from 1991-2003. Long-time Somerville residents came into contact with new yuppie entrants and, worse, a massive wave of young hipsters. The causes? Many, including urban expansion, the repeal of rent control, and thriving businesses in nearby Cambridge and along I-95. The trigger? The Red Line subway added one stop in Somerville.
You can see, then, why seven new stations are a cause for controversy. Most residents – or at least the most vocal – support the project and have berated the state for delays. Lawmakers, including the governor and local congressman, are touting the recent groundbreaking as a major success. Long-time Somerville residents, however, are on the fence. And looking below the surface reveals the usual brewing disaster of a Boston public works project.
The Green Line extension is currently slated to be completed in 2019 at a cost of roughly $1.3Bn. Sounds reasonable for a project of this scale. But there are a few problems:
- No one knows who will pay for it. The state is seeking ~$550M in financing from the federal government, money which is by no means guaranteed. The balance (~$750M) is expected to come from state bond funds which have not yet been approved. Meanwhile, the MBTA is facing revenue shortfalls and the Mass. Department of Transportation is fighting an uphill battle for moderate increases to its operating budget. Public-private partnerships are being put to good use (e.g., real estate developments near stations in exchange for needed right-of-way) but will not meaningfully reduce the $1.3Bn figure. (More financing details here.)
- Construction started two months ago, and it’s already five years behind schedule. The state is legally obligated to complete this project by 2014, a deadline imposed by a Big Dig lawsuit. Right now, though, 2019 looks optimistic. As a result of the delay, the state must simultaneously pursue other, near-term environmental improvement projects. This has the potential to dramatically increase costs and create a vicious cycle of further delays caused by distraction and diversion of resources.
- Political cover is shaky. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has championed this project as a tangible part of his legacy. Rumors are circulating that Patrick may leave his post in 2013, though, to fill a spot in the US Senate or another federal position. If he departs, the project could face even steeper delays. At the December groundbreaking, Congressman Michael Capuano was quoted as saying, “We need to get as much of this project done and committed in an irrevocable way before [Patrick] leaves office.”
The ingredients are there for this to become an albatross around the neck of the next governor. It’s hard to argue against increased mobility and reduced pollution in Boston’s most densely populated neighborhood. But whether the project will become another public works sinkhole – and drive out the last of old Somerville – remains to be seen.
Bonus: Boston’s own “MRT vs. BRT” evaluation process ( light rail vs. BRT vs. commuter train)
Table: Tier 1 Green Line Extension Alternatives Analysis (Source: GLX project)
Table: Tier 2 Green Line Extension Alternatives Analysis (Source: GLX project)
 Wikipedia & local knowledge
 “Preliminary Engineering Approval for the Green Line Extension (GLX) Light Rail Transit Project,” 6/11/2012