'Little Dig' in danger
The cost of the MBTA's plan to build a 1.1-mile bus tunnel under downtown Boston has now officially grown to $2.1 billion, nearly $1 billion more than the estimate from 2006. Just a few months ago, in December, the project budget was about $1.5 billion.
The Federal Transit Administration released the newest price tag Friday, calling the funding plan "infeasible," a step that had been expected for several months, but nonetheless casts further doubt about the "Little Dig's" future.
Friday's report downgraded the project's rating, meaning the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will not qualify for a 60 percent federal match unless it can prove the state has the money to pay its share and operate the transit system without falling deeper into financial ruin. The MBTA, anticipating the report, lowered its internal spending projections for the project last month.
The controversial tunnel near Boston Common would link the existing Silver Line bus that runs between Roxbury and downtown with the line that goes from South Station to Logan International Airport, allowing a one-stop ride and creating more connections between subway lines.
Last week, the state announced it would use stimulus money on an alternate Silver Line expansion that would link Roxbury residents to the airport without digging underground.
Though signs point to the tunnel project's death, Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr. was not willing to kill it when he spoke by phone on Friday. Yet he did not sound like much of a cheerleader.
The new federal report "is just one factor in a series of factors that we're going to have to evaluate before we make any final decision," Aloisi said.
That analysis will ask whether the tunnel improves mobility, economic development, and quality of life for people in the community, he said.
"We look at how much we can afford," he said. "We've got a lot on our plate and we'll have to make the best judgment we can based on the facts that are presented to us."
The project's biggest advocate, Richard Dimino, said all expansion projects are in jeopardy as long as the state's transportation system remains underfinanced. He is hoping those problems get fixed and the Silver Line can get back on track.
The one candidate I failed to include, developer Kevin McCrea, had the most to say.
"Obviously, it's a state issue, not a city issue, but the mayor can be a big advocate," McCrea said. "The mayor staying out of it is not leadership."
McCrea said he has joined transit advocacy groups at outreach events while campaigning. He "absolutely" supports a gas tax increase to rescue the T, and asks voters he meets to lobby their legislators to prevent fare hikes and service cuts.
"The mayor should be out there every day talking about how we can't afford to have cuts to the T service," he said.
The state Legislature and Governor David A. Paterson approved on a package of payroll taxes and fees last week that would raise $1.8 billion for the beleaguered system. Instead of a 50-cent hike on the base subway price, fares will go up by 25 cents, to $2.25 and, overall, by an average of about 10 percent. Motorists coming into the city will also be spared severe toll increases, under the agreement that was signed into law.
Boston transit officials and advocates have been watching the situation closely. New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a budget about 10 times the size of the MBTA, and its deficit was also roughly 10 times as large as the T's.
But there's no guarantee the results will be the same. An MBTA rescue remains very much in doubt, given Massachusetts's crumbling finances and the lack of firm support in the Legislature.
"We hope that there's some short-term fix," said Lee Matsueda, an organizer with the T Riders Union.
But even if a short-term fix passes, Matsueda does not believe the state will find the money for a more comprehensive bailout: "We know that we will be back."
So it may come as a surprise that he made a rather bold denouncement of the project last week, during a speech unveiling the plan to expand the Silver Line enhanced bus service.
"The days of highway expansion in the urban core - epitomized by the Big Dig - are over," he said, standing by Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and other dignitaries at the Dudley Square bus station. "In their place is a new day and time for reinvestment in our public transportation system."
But it's not as much of a turnabout as it appears.
Aloisi has been consistent in his promotion of public transportation, especially as transportation secretary. And many Big Dig proponents and designers have long said the project would not work without equal investment in transit.
Still, it's hard to see Aloisi divorcing himself from the project. His book tried to make the case that an association with the Big Dig lasts forever: "The men and women of Boston who played roles large and small in the building of the Big Dig will have a prominent and permanent place in its pantheon of heroes."
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