THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

State to spend $29m designing a project on hold

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 23, 2009

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The state set aside $29 million last week to design a subway tunnel under downtown Boston that planners concede they cannot afford to build - either now or any time in the next two decades.

But the engineering money is slated to be spent within the next two years, even as other projects are cast aside, because the state made a promise, as part of a Solomon-like legal compromise with environmentalists to mitigate the impact of the Big Dig.

In an era when a plunging economy is prompting state officials’ promises “to get more real’’ about planning what they can truly afford, the 0.4-mile tunnel connecting the Red and Blue MBTA lines stands out like a bright orange cone on a highway.

“In this climate, it doesn’t make any sense,’’ said Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who cochairs the state’s transportation committee. “The transportation system has enough design documents sitting on shelves collecting dust.’’

State transportation managers - who have so far spent $556,708 on the $300 million project - are hardly enthusiastic about having to set aside $29 million for something that may never be built. In response to questions, transportation spokesman Colin Durrant said, “We’re fulfilling the responsibilities of the legal settlement.’’ He did not offer an endorsement of the project, which would extend the Blue Line from Government Center to the Charles/MGH Station on the Red Line.

Even many of the project’s key supporters, who lent a political boost to a settlement three years ago, have become a little less ardent, noting that the economy is forcing tough decisions.

A spokesman for Partners HealthCare, which owns Massachusetts General Hospital and once threatened to sue to have the connector built, said the project is important, but that there might be a “reason for caution,’’ given the state’s poor financial condition. Partners backs the project because it would provide patients and employees easier access to the hospital.

But the Conservation Law Foundation, which orchestrated the settlement, said the state’s commitment to design and engineer the project is a worthwhile first step.

“Obviously, we want to see this project built, but it can’t get there without design and engineering,’’ said Noah Chesnin, a foundation spokesman.

As with most transportation discussions in Massachusetts, the connector’s history is intricately woven with the tortured history of the Big Dig.

In 1990, when environmentalists raised the alarm about impact on air quality, the state responded by creating a public transit improvement list, designed to fend off a lawsuit.

Years later, when then-governor Mitt Romney backed away from some of those commitments, including the connector, the foundation sued. The sides renegotiated the list in a 2006 settlement.

At the time, state officials said they did not have the money to build the connector. And they insisted that the added Silver Line bus service from South Station to Logan International Airport made it unnecessary to build an addition to the Blue Line, which also serves the airport.

But environmental groups, joined by North Shore officials and Partners HealthCare, argued that it would provide a crucial link in the subway system, allowing East Boston and North Shore residents better access to jobs and healthcare in Boston and Cambridge.

In the end, the sides did not agree to actually build the project, only that the state would complete design and engineering by 2011. Last year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency approved the new deal, which included other transit commitments, giving it the force of law.

The advocates’ strategy is often successful in the transportation world: Keep the project moving forward, spending money along the way, so that it will be ready and there will be a sense of inevitability when more money becomes available.

But it does not always work out that way. A proposed Silver Line bus tunnel along Boylston Street, for example, was recently put on hold indefinitely, even after $46 million was spent on planning.

This year, those involved in drafting Greater Boston’s long-term transportation plan said they wanted a different approach. The federal government had warned the state it would hold up key matching dollars if planners continued to include projects the state could not afford in the 20-year plan. And given the poor economy and Big Dig debt, many involved in writing the plan said they needed to significantly pare down their wish list and begin saying no to more projects.

“I think this is an exception,’’ said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which plays a key role in helping the state with its long-term plans.

Draisen said the legal commitment, coupled with a real need to disperse congestion in key downtown subway stations, makes the Blue Line-Red Line connector a priority. Draisen argues that the financial picture could change in the next few years, if the economy improves and the state or federal government channels more money toward transit projects.

But for now, the state is not counting on new streams of money. The 20-year planning document approved preliminarily last week sets aside no money to build the tunnel through 2030.

In the meantime, Draisen suggests the state look at alternative solutions to the current plan, in which the Blue Line would meet up with the Red Line. One alternative, Draisen said, is to build a moving sidewalk between the lines that could allow commuters to transfer with less expense.

Another alternative, Baddour said, is to renegotiate the legal settlement. If that happened, some supporters may not argue as strongly as they once did.

Revere Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino, a longtime advocate whose town sits at the Blue Line’s northern end, said it’s a “nice project’’ that he continues to support.

“Do I think it’s realistic to think that of all the transportation priorities that exist right now, that it’s going to make its way to the top of the list?’’ he said. “No.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.