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Feds approve Green Line Extension environment plan

Posted by Matt Byrne  July 13, 2012 03:45 PM

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Federal transit officials this week signed off on an environmental impact study of the Green Line Extension, clearing an incremental hurdle for the project as it plods toward fruition, state planners announced.

Without the environmental thumbs-up, the project would lose a shot at $557 million in federal New Starts grants requested by the state and currently under review by the Federal Transit Authority. In its grant application, MassDOT also previewed what it said could be likely long-term options for funding transportation costs, most of which are politically difficult and depend on legislative action before the start of the next fiscal year.

The menu of revenue options so far include suggestions of tying the gas tax to inflation, boosting parking and vehicle registration fees, dedicating some gaming revenue to transportation costs, and taxing motorists 1-cent for every mile they drive.

Last month, the FTA gave preliminary approval for the more than half-billion dollars in cash grants, a half-step toward paying for preparatory engineering and planning, while final approval for the money still pends.

"The New Starts program is one of the most competitive funding programs in the nation, and MassDOT and the MBTA have spent four years preparing application materials in support of the Green Line Extension," according to the MBTA, in a statement released by the Green Line project team. "Preliminary approval under the New Starts program is a major step forward for the Green Line Extension project."

But the federal money is by no means guaranteed, and could hinge on if -- and when -- the state acts to take control of its transportation future. Doubts still linger about how Massachusetts lawmakers will decide to pay for the state's $777 million share of the line's estimated $1.33 billion total price tag.

Of the $777 million, plans call for the state to borrow roughly $558 million through bonding, with the remaining $218 million to come from the state's general fund, revenue that must be raised and sustained, according to a letter from a top New England FTA administrator to Richard A. Davey, state Department of Transportation Secretary.

In the June 11 message announcing the preliminary funding approval to pay for design costs, Mary Beth Mello, the FTA's regional transportation administrator, called the the Green Line Extension financing scheme satisfactory, but said "... the current financial plan assumes several large new, uncommitted funding sources ..." she wrote.

The obligation to pay for a portion of the project has vexed lawmakers, who have been at odds over how to solve what critics in the state call a transportation funding crisis. The legislature will be up against a bevy of debts and obligations, including the recently adjusted $24.3 billion estimate of long-term Big-Dig costs, which hikes annual debt service owed by the state beyond $440 million.

Also a consideration will be the MBTA's $1.6 billion in debt left over from the defunct Massachusetts Turnpike Authority; and an estimated $20 billion maintenance backlog for transportation infrastructure state-wide.

The Green Line Extension was ordered built as part of a lawsuit won by environmental advocates who argued the Big Dig brought unexpected environmental and health risks to the communities that border Interstate 93 near the tunnel. If constructed to its current specifications, trolley service would extend through Somerville to Route 16/College Avenue in Medford, and would also branch through Union Square in Somerville.

The original court order called for the project to be completed by 2014, but planners last August revised their expectations, saying train service to seven new stations on the more than four miles of new track could start no sooner than 2018, with an outside projected start date of 2020.

Combined with a 23 percent hike of most MBTA fares by that took effect July 1, pressure has continued to build on Governor Deval Patrick, Davey, and the state legislature to find a permanent transportation funding source before the end of the next fiscal year on June 30, 2013.

Much of the financial reforms are also called for by the federal authorities, who have final review over the hundreds of millions in grants necessary to build the 4.3 mile light-rail line. In her letter, Mello said that the most feasible long-term funding strategies MassDOT suggested in its grant application include transferring to the state the MBTA's $1.6 billion in legacy debt, a 1-cent per mile tax on vehicle travel in Massachusetts, and, dedicating new casino gambling revenue to transportation costs. She dismissed suggestions of increasing new parking fees for commuters and commercial vehicles, and a handful of other financial tweaks deemed impractical or ineffective.

Mello deemed unworkable as revenue streams, however, further hikes to MBTA fares and fees; a scheme to charge commercial vehicles' parking fees; and a plan to tie increases in the gas tax to the rate of inflation. Davey, in previous statements, has said this year's hike in fares and cuts to service are a one-year fix to a perennial problem that the state must address before June 30, 2013.

"Considerable progress on gaining commitment of new sources of [state] funding will be necessary before FTA will contemplate approval of the project into [final design]," Mello wrote.

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