Green Line extension funding in question

Planners stalling many projects

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 21, 2009

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The Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford is getting more expensive and potentially shorter. Work on a $1.5 billion bus tunnel underneath Boston Common has been put on hold indefinitely. Seventeen highway projects valued at $870 million are probably being canceled.

New financial realities are forcing state transportation planners to reevaluate scores of projects, large and small, and substantially reduce their ambitions. Even as federal stimulus money has provided a boost in some targeted spots, and the state borrows billions to repair bridges over the next few years, money for many long-term expansion projects is in much shorter supply.

A new document completed late last week lays out Boston-area expansion plans for the next 20 years. The tentative document, called the “regional transportation plan’’ is updated every few years, but projects are not eligible for essential federal matching dollars unless they make the list. Before the next update in two years, many will get put on hold, if not eliminated altogether. The plan, put together by a regional committee led by the state, will be available for public review and revision beginning Aug. 20.

Federal officials have warned the state to limit the projects on its list to those that have an identifiable source of funding, a change from the past when many plans were included to appease political groups, even though they had scant chance of getting built. This time, the panel in charge of the list is expected to add “illustrative projects’’ that have no means of funding, but may come back to life when the economy improves.

“We need to get more - for lack of a better word - real,’’ said David Mohler, the deputy transportation secretary who oversees planning.

The Green Line expansion, estimated to cost $600 million in recent years, is now listed by the Patrick administration at $934 million, with hopes that the federal government will pay half the costs. And that money will build tracks and stations only to Union Square and Tufts University by 2014, a legal deadline set to meet clean air requirements.

The state had previously announced that by that time it would expand to Route 16, which would draw more riders and relieve more road congestion.

Mohler said the commitment remains, but the state does not have the $130 million available for the final link and will not set a timeline for finishing it. Mohler said he expects the second pot of money will be available between 2016 and 2020.

“The completion date obviously still stands like a moving target,’’ said Ken Krause, a Medford representative on the Green Line project advisory group. “Nothing gets less expensive to build.’’

Despite the setback and some concern among supporters, the Green Line expansion is one of the few public transit projects that remains a priority in the plan. Three projects included in the past - the Urban Ring, the Silver Line bus tunnel, and the Blue Line extension to Lynn - have all been excluded from the group of projects eligible for federal funding.

Mohler said the state will continue to spend money on planning for several of these projects. But they will need to be put back in the plan before they can get federal funding for design and construction, which is almost always essential to getting built.

“It’s not necessarily a setback, in terms of project development, but it is a sense from people that it’s not as firm as it once had been,’’ Mohler said.

The Urban Ring is a $2.6 billion project that would link the MBTA’s existing system of spokes, making it possible to get, for example, between places like Cambridge and Brookline without riding into downtown Boston for a subway transfer. The Blue Line expansion would add two stations past the existing Wonderland station.

The Silver Line bus tunnel, though further along in development than the other two projects, is in more danger. It would connect, via tunnel, the existing bus line on Washington Street with another existing bus tunnel that goes from South Station to Logan International Airport and the South Boston waterfront.

That project was already put in doubt when the federal government told the MBTA late last year that it would not be eligible for federal matching dollars until the debt-ridden transit agency could prove it had enough money for its share.

MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas said yesterday that he recently stopped all engineering work on the Silver Line after state transportation secretary James A. Aloisi Jr. told him the project would not be included in the long-term plan any more. Grabauskas said the T would have to spend money on engineering that may never get reimbursed by the federal government.

Aloisi, meanwhile, announced plans earlier this year to use federal stimulus money to connect the two existing Silver Lines without building a tunnel. Advocates for the project say the alternative project is not a substitute. The transit access provided by the tunnel is essential to the continued development of the South Boston waterfront, said Richard A. Dimino, president of A Better City, a business group that has been pushing for the project.

In addition to the high-profile transit projects, the plan drops roadway improvement projects around the region, including a $228 million project to widen Route 3 South between Weymouth and Duxbury and $63 million for a new I-93/Mystic Avenue interchange in Somerville.

“I’m very sorry to see the state we’re in,’’ said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and vice chair of the committee that crafted the long-term plan. “For the past 20 years, the way we’ve dealt with that is to take out the state’s credit card.’’

The state can no longer keep borrowing, Draisen said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at