The Green Line Extension project is leaner, a bit shorter and significantly less expensive than it was a few months ago—but at least the much-awaited transit project is still alive.
The MBTA's Fiscal Management and Control Board voted Monday to approve, at least for now, drastic cutbacks in the scope of the trolley line extension to Medford and to move the process forward to the next step.
That next step is gaining federal approval for the new plan, settling on a final cost total estimate and figuring out how to pay for an at least $73 million deficit between readily-available funds and the price tag.
"The conditions are things we need to meet anyway," Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said after the vote. "We need to have a finance plan, it has to be approved by the [Federal Transit Administration], all these things have to be done. It's a great day for it, but we got to keep working at it."
The newest, and according to MBTA officials, the wisest, cost estimate for the Green Line Extension is $2.289 billion. The state has already sunk over $700 million into the project, and if funding gets approved in Washington, the federal government will carry another $1 billion. If the board had decided to kill the project outright, the state would have walked away from that $1 billion in federal funds.
"We don't have an answer to where all the money is coming from," Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters before the board met in the state Transportation Department Building in Boston.
The choice the board made Monday was to get the ball rolling on reviving the project, starting with gaining federal approval to restore the $1 billion that was promised under the old plan. But as time goes on, the cost of doing nothing and waiting for the feds continues to grow.
"The bigger that increment gets, the harder it is to justify spending it on this project rather than fixing system that we have," Pollack said earlier.
The new size of the project is similar to the "brutal" and stripped-down projection the interim team presented to the T's board in January. It'll be 4.5 miles long, instead of the initial 4.7 miles and will terminate at Tufts instead of deeper into Medford as was planned once upon a time.
The T Board put an interim project management team in charge of the the GLX last fall and heard their final report on how to possibly bring the project in on a budget close to the initial estimate of $1.992 billion. The T now estimates that it can save $622 million on construction costs to reign in the project.
There's a silver lining to all the cutbacks and defancification of the project: it could be built faster. Even though the project is now far off schedule from the first plan, since it's going to be less ambitious, estimates suggest it could be built in just over 3.5 years. It could actually be finished before a full-scale GLX could have been built had it started on time.
To do that, the team simplified stations and the maintenance facility, losing a number of decorative options and cutting back to a minimum of accessibility requirements. A big cost saver is that the planned replacement of three bridges along the route will be abandoned in favor of keeping the old ones, and two more bridge renovations will be cut back.
The Community Path, a bike and pedestrian walkway set to run parallel to the route, has been slashed from 10,000 feet to just 7,000 feet. Instead of running from Lowell Street to Water Street in Cambridge, the path will now terminate at Washington Street in Somerville.
Members of the public lined up by the dozens to testify before the joint meeting of the board. Many in favor of going through with the extension wore glowing neon green necklaces to demonstrate their support. Residents, mostly from Somerville, came to tell the state boards that they have been owed the GLX for decades as mitigation for the health and environmental impacts of the Big Dig.
"This project could have been built several times over by now if not for complete failure of vision, planning and management. We can do better, please prove that," Elizabeth Ball said to scattered applause from crowd.