On December 10, 2016, I was invited to give a presentation as part of a program titled “Reviving Federal Investment in Public Transit: Build Subways, not Submarines.” The program, held at MIT’s Stata Center, was expected to draw 50 -75 people; 125 from around the region attended, and an overflow room with a video screen had to be set up to accommodate those present. It’s encouraging to me that so many people care enough about transit to give up half a Saturday in December, to be informed and energized about it.
The topic that program organizers asked me to speak on was “Building the Green Line Extension (GLX) We Need.” Since Somerville folk tend to be wholly on board with transit funding, and with GLX in particular, I wasn’t surprised that not many attended the December 10 program. I do, however, want to let those who did not attend know what I had to say about the GLX, so here is my text:
“First, I want to make a disclaimer about my remarks. They represent my views only; not those of the City of Somerville, other members of Somerville’s legislative delegation, or of any organization. It is, however, a Somerville-centric view of the GLX, because that’s my patch.
Although the GLX was first recommended by the MTA (pre-MBTA) in 1962, and again by the Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR) in 1973, my personal interest in the GLX started when I read MBTA’s “Beyond Lechmere” report in 1984. I was ecstatic when the GLX became one of the “transit mitigations” approved by the federal government, as a condition for funding the Big Dig.
Now, I almost wish there were a 12-step program for those of us addicted to the dream of a functioning GLX. Instead, I’ll offer 6 simple steps towards building the GLX we need:
1) The GLX we need would be delivered on time – but it’s too late for that. The most recent “legally binding” deadline of December 31, 2014 has passed. After decades of foot-dragging, MBTA’s aggressive new schedule calls for completion in 2021.
In the meantime, the law requires that the state mitigate the GLX delay with “interim offsets,” producing air quality improvements “better than or equal to” those projected from the GLX. Last year, the MA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approved, as sufficient air quality improvements, the following “interim offsets” proposed by MassDOT/MBTA: A) more frequent (diesel) bus service in Somerville, and more trains to Lechmere station; B) the provision of additional park-and-ride spaces in Salem and Beverly; and C) the promised purchase of 142 hybrid electric vehicles for “The Ride” – shortly before MBTA contracted with Lyft and Uber to provide services to Ride customers. I strongly believe these “mitigations” to be inadequate.
2) The GLX we need would be sufficient in scope and service to meet the air quality improvement goals for the project, as well as to meet other community needs. Realizing GLX’s full potential to improve air quality will mean extending it all the way to Route 16. While this leg of the GLX is still part of the plan, funding for it has been removed. A complete GLX would also include full buildout of the Community Path, which MBTA now wants to dead-end in the congested heart of Somerville, forcing bicyclists and pedestrians on to some of the most dangerous roads in the region.
3) The GLX we need would be developed through an interactive, consultative public process, in which MBTA truly listens, and incorporates community values and input. At the GLX meeting in Somerville on Wednesday, December 7, MBTA officials tamped down expectations for a complete Community Path. They announced that they had changed the names of two of the GLX stations – the first anyone I knew had heard about it – and not a good sign.
The GLX we need would also recruit, train, and employ local people on the project. In 2014, MBTA did just that, launching the Massachusetts Workforce Initiative Now (MassWIN) program for the GLX, to “identify, assess, train, and place community members into transportation related careers.” Since Governor Baker took office, we haven’t heard a peep about MassWIN.
4) The GLX we need would be accessible, both in terms of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and for people generally to be able to safely walk or bike to GLX stations. On December 7, MBTA officials spoke of ADA access as an item on their “wish list” of design features to improve, if money could be found. ADA experts, be prepared to look carefully at station accessibility, as MBTA doesn’t have great history with ADA compliance. Accessibility also means designing the Community Path to be permeable; allowing walkers and cyclists to get on and off at major cross streets – not creating the equivalent of a limited access highway.
5) The GLX we need would address what’s on the dark underside of the beautiful promise of convenient transit and cleaner air. That down side is rampant land speculation, and the ongoing displacement of long-time residents and local businesses by steeply rising rents, and property purchases by investors and developers. Where do we find help in managing these consequences?
6) The GLX we need would be fully and fairly funded. I’ll come out and say it – the $50 million which MBTA is extracting from the people of Somerville towards the cost of this project is an injustice, on top of a history of injustices – both fiscal and physical. Elevated I-93 through Somerville was the only part of the benighted “Inner Belt” project not cancelled by former governor Frank Sergeant. Building McGrath Highway through East Somerville was practically a crime against humanity. Somerville has long hosted the diesel-fueled commuter rail lines which serve only other parts of the region, as well as massive amounts of regional automobile and truck traffic – and we have the compromised air quality and life-shortening health effects associated with that degree of air pollution exposure.
But to get back to the fiscal wrongs embedded in this extraction of payment, consider this: MBTA is the single largest landowner in Somerville, holding 68 and a half acres of real estate in a city of just about 4 square miles; land with an assessed value of $163 million. If MBTA paid property taxes, it would owe over $3 million a year to the city – but it doesn’t even pay a penny in lieu of taxes (although the state distributes $27 million a year to other communities for state-owned land.) Instead, the state makes Somerville pay a yearly assessment of over $5 million for the MBTA for the service we receives.
Yet we would not face this exaction of ransom if mass transit were funded adequately. Instead of proposing to do so, the Baker administration is talking about making the “local communities pay” approach the new model for all projects in the Commonwealth – which would be appalling transportation planning policy. As for Somerville, we have paid more than our fair share for transportation equity, and have waited far too long for the GLX that we need.