What Went Wrong With Boston’s Green Line Extension?

Last week, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority abruptly cut ties with four contractors working on the 4.7-mile Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, outside Boston. The announcement came shortly after reports that the cost of the light rail project had ballooned to about $3 billion, an increase of a billion dollars.

Boston's Green Line extension plans are up in the air following some major setbacks. Image: MassDOT
After major setbacks, Boston’s Green Line extension will be delayed but probably not cancelled. Image: MassDOT

State officials said the decision doesn’t mean the project will be cancelled, although transportation chief Stephanie Pollack wouldn’t rule out that possibility, reports the Boston Globe.

The Green Line extension has a lot going for it. The project will serve some of the most densely populated areas of New England, and ridership is expected to be robust — about 49,000 trips per day. It enjoys widespread political support and will run along existing rail rights-of-way, so the political controversies that can accompany land acquisition are not an issue. It has secured nearly $1 billion in federal funding and benefits from a legal mandate requiring the state to offset some of the pollution effects of the Big Dig by improving transit.

So how did the cost rise so much and what does it mean for the project?

A major factor was the way MassDOT and the MBTA chose to contract out the project, according to Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation, a regional environmental non-profit.

Officials at the MBTA and the state were hoping to speed implementation with a form of project delivery called “Construction Manager/General Contractor” (CM/GC). The advantage of this method is that it allows construction to begin before the design process is totally complete. This was a new contracting method for Massachusetts and it required the approval of the state legislature.

Somerville, Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated places in New England. Photo: Design Sponge
The extension would serve Somerville, one of the most densely populated places in New England. Photo: Design Sponge

However, there was “a long list of flaws in how it was implemented,” said Mares. The MBTA more or less admitted as much in a presentation explaining the decision to cut ties with contractors [PDF]. For one thing, the agency says, there was never a “reliable cost estimate” for the project.

The state divided the project into seven different “packages” and offered White-Skanska-Kiewit — itself a joint venture between three contractors — an automatic no-bid contract if its estimate was within 110 percent of the estimate offered by an independent firm.

Rather than reject estimates from WSK that came in too high and then open the process to competition, MBTA and the state allowed the process to devolve into a “Marco Polo pricing game,” said Mares. WSK would submit an estimate and if it was higher than 110 percent of the independent estimate, the firm would come back with a revised number, until its estimate was as close to the maximum number as possible, he said.

Once WSK had the contract in hand, costs grew without a sufficient transparency mechanism in place. “Ultimately MassDOT and MBTA are responsible because it’s their job to protect us,” Mares said. “The contractor [WSK] took advantage of this process at the same time.”

MassDOT and MBTA’s decision to end the contracts will surely delay the project. But political observers doubt that the state will cancel it altogether.

For one thing, Massachusetts still has to reduce pollution under the terms of the Big Dig legal agreement. “If they don’t do this project, they’ll have to do another project that would get them 110 percent of the air quality benefits,” said Mares. “Quite frankly, I doubt that they could conceive of a project that could do that.”

Somerville is one of the most densely populated areas in the nation, but it’s underserved by transit. Few other American transit expansion proposals can match the 49,000 additional daily trips projected for the Green Line extension. “Nobody is questioning the value of this project,” Mares said.

So what’s next?

Mares says he’s not sure the project costs will drop to the level of previous estimates (around $2.3 billion). However, he says there’s a good deal of value engineering that could be done. And just opening the remaining “packages” to an open bidding process will likely save hundreds of millions, he said.

There are other sources of potential cost savings as well, but they involve some pain for current transit riders. Tolerating longer construction-related closures at existing commuter rail stations — where the extension will run — could save a surprising amount of money, Mares said. The previous contract allowed only very limited service disruptions, mostly nights and weekends — an expensive approach.

Those temporary inconveniences, he says, “would be much better than not building the Green Line or not building certain stations.”

Ultimately, a better transit expansion opportunity than this one isn’t likely to present itself in the Boston region. “This is a light rail project in the existing right of way, and they have almost a billion in federal funding,” said Mares. “If they can’t make this project happen, I don’t know what they could make happen.”

  • Vicky

    Can’t wait until this boondoogle is history. Hopefully at the meeting, the Guv comes out of nowhere and fires Pollack for gross incompetence. Will it happen, no, but a working girl can dream

  • Jac

    Stephanie Pollack failed to deliver, what a shock. Someone who’s been fired more times than I can count, failed to deliver, No S. The GLX announcement can’t come soon enough. My ears are still bleeding from this morning

  • scottb

    POLLACK BAD MATH ALERT, Again. Pollack claims the project will only cost 2.3 Billion after value-engineering. Pollack fudged the numbers yet again. She started at 3 Billion, not 3.75 Billion, the current projected cost, which gets the project down to 3.05 Billion. This is where CONFLICT OF INTEREST comes into play. It’s lunacy! Kill the project, end our misery, fire Pollack

  • N/A

    Bad Pollack Math Alert Indeed. The entire GLX presentation last night was “Bad Pollack Math” That 2.3 Billion Number doesn’t include finance charges and other misc costs seen in previous budgets. Dungca from the Boston Globe at least hinted at it. The slimmed down GLX pricetag is between 2.7 Billion and 3.2 Billion. Trying to dangle this “we only need $73 million more” carrot in front of the FTA is complete and udder BS. Its more like $400 million at the least, not $73m. This Pollack math (and arm twisting) has to stop. Pollack, you’re an unqualified transportation fangirl, get over it

  • Dan

    Its Extortion. Plain and Simple. $50 Million from Somerville, $25 Million from Cambridge. Now Pollack will try to extort the feds? MFG

  • kesse2

    “Udder”? Is that because Pollack milked Somerville and Cambridge? bada-bump. Sorry, bad joke, but all kidding aside, this project is a ticking time bomb. If you think ripping up and rebuilding commuter rail and Amtrak tracks, shutting down service from Boston to Maine for construction, and then building stations on an incredibly tight schedule will come up to just $2.3 billion, you’re kidding yourselves

  • lizzie

    The two new mass senators in Washington go haven’t got a clue on bringing federal money back to the state. Oh how I long for the days of Ted Kennedy and Tip Oneill.

  • Ryan

    Stephanie Pollack’s photo-op blunder this morning is a great metaphor for Pollack the person: people don’t buy what she sells. Pollack is a heavy-set woman, nothing wrong with that, Beverly Scott, Boston’s old MBTA GM was also heavy-set. But at least Scott didn’t put on a bike helmet and claim to be a bicyclist that commutes to and from the suburbs. Reality & Pollack don’t mix. Pollack claims she’s a transportation expert, Boston knows a different Pollack. Pollack claims she has no personal motive to build the GLX. Boston knows about her CLF contact before she was shown the door.

  • BeaBike

    That was tough to watch. There’s also a gif going around with Pollack biking on the Esplanade “on her way home”. Um…No, She’s going in the wrong direction. If you wanted to bike from MassDOT to Newton Centre, Pollack’s home, then you would take Beacon across Brookline. Even if you rode alongside the Charles until you reached Newton, you would still have to go through some tough terrain to get to Newton Centre. Did she bike to and from Newton Centre?, no. Did she stroll down the esplanade and then jump into an auto? 😉

  • Quert

    Pollack has also dangled the “sunk-in” costs as an excuse to proceed with the scaled down Green Line. Its utter BS. The Green Line vehicles that have already been purchased? They can be transferred to the existing Green Line network, Mattapan trolley line, and (if the state has the strength to take on the Big Dig interests) the Silver Line tunnel. Bridge work?, had to happen with or without the GLX. Track bypasses?. Removes the current Amtrak-CR congestion along the line, meaning less pollution and cost for everyone. The only thing sunk here is Pollack, All the Pollack family money in the world can’t erase the Stephanie screw-ups. Pollack needs to take a page from Foy and resign (or be fired)

  • Quert

    Actually, that was the problem. Capuano went for $1 Billion without thinking. The GLX will be stopped, whether by the feds or the state, it will be stopped. The costs do not justify the means, especially when compared to other projects nationwide. Even locally, the balance is way way off. Mass you could run Fairmount Indigo DMUs as far as Foxborough ($250m/25Mi – $10m per mile)… GLX? ($2300m/4.5Mi = $510m per mile!!!!!!!) And that’s the scaled down BS number!

  • Dard40

    Pollack has been screaming at the FTA all this week to approve her new $2.3 Billion GLX plan. The outcome? the standard FTA Friday news dump punt via the Globe – covered by Nicole Dungca. I wonder how many Pollack screams Mary Beth Mello had to take this week, poor woman. Pollack is slowly realizing you can’t scream away facts, such as…

    The GLX will directly effect any and all Downeaster Amtrak service, because Amtrak uses the same Somerville corridor for all trips north of Boston

    The GLX was a marker streak on a map created by advocates. It was approved in the waning days of the Dukakis Administration for the “next Governor to deal with”

    The GLX requires a new below grade path across Somerville in the same vein as Boston’s Orange Line Southwest Corridor. The GLX is a trolley service, the Orange Line is a heavy rail subway service

    The GLX requires building an elevated rail section in Cambridge, which will reduce light, air quality, and property values for abutters. Boston aggressively removed elevated sections of the Green and Orange Line to improve light, air quality, and property values

    The GLX is being administered by a transportation secretary with no tangible transportation or management experience (lookin’ at you Pollack)

    Hopefully the FTA takes their time, does their homework, and rejects this GLX disaster.

  • Kaquel

    I second the unqualified Stephanie Pollack note. There will always be rich kid appointments in every political office, but Pollack takes the cake. She’s a 50-year old rich kid appointment, hence the Toodler-esque screaming and tantrums.

  • Uni

    This would make for a wonderful PPT or Keynote counter against Stephanie. On that note, Pollack is Screamin’ again tonight at Northeastern at yet another forced symposium. Get ready for these gems: Its not about planning transportation, its about framing transportation; It’s not about moving people, its about moving ideas. Its not about the transit system, its about the people. Ugh, so much filler BS, so little time. Apologies to anyone being forced to attend tonight

  • Uni

    Would be great if the Mass State Troopers crashed Northeastern’s Curry Center and arrested Pollack on the spot.

  • Lin

    LMAO That would have been great. Still, the low-attendance disappointment on Pollack’s face was enough. The Barr Foundation really knows how to pick “winners”, the already dead BRT Boston junk, the Wormser junk, and now the Pollack junk. If I was on their board, I would fire the entire transport team

  • kijiana

    This is excellent. Hopefully it spreads, When Stephanie was asked what her favorite transportation project was, she said “fixing the MBTA” The eye-rolling wave hasn’t stopped since. Ya know what would help fix the MBTA Stephanie?, shifting the 1.3 Billion GLX pet project dollars towards the EXISTING SYSTEM. Your trolley project expenses, if redirected, would fund signal and vehicle improvements for the Red, Orange, Blue, Green, and Fairmount Indigo lines COMBINED

  • kijiana

    Barr also funded the horrendous Boston 2024 Olympics transportation initiatives. Still, not as costly as Pollack’s Conservation Law Foundation transportation planning. Between the Greenbush Line and the Green Line Extension, nearly 5 Billion sunk since 1991

  • Kit-Of-Parts

    That was a sad sad panel. Decent turnout, but zero take-ways. Pollack should get out of the transportation panel production business, if not transportation altogether. On the other hand, Pollack’s panel probably won’t be as sad as the Go Boston 2030 panel tonight. Mike Lydon, a new urbanism publicist alongside four little-known local officials. What happen to the old rule, if you can’t find anyone decent to sit on a panel, don’t have a panel.

  • Eric

    I was required to go to both. Pollack’s was ok, the Go Boston 2030 panel was dreadful. I guess the best way to put it is this. Food brands will sometimes have pointless competitions as marking devices Candy has Team Caramel Vs. Team Nougat, Pizza has Team Pepperoni Vs. Team Three Cheese, right? This was four “opinion leaders” battling over four fake Boston plans “Team Local” vs. “Team Tech” etc. It was perhaps the worse transportation panel concept I have seen in a decade. And to top it off, Go Boston 2030 claimed it was a “Full House”, how do half empty seats in a room two times the size of the event, and thus 75% empty, equal a “Full House” . But I think the greatest aspect of all was that one of the “opinion leaders” was the failed Green Line Extension project director. Simply amazing

  • Lars

    You’re talking about Kate Fichter, right?. After the Green Line Extension and Esplanade fallout, you would think Ms. Fichter would leave town. Nope, failure stays at MassDOT slash the T. And guess who Fichter works under, Stephanie Pollack, the biggest individual failure in Greater Boston. And people wonder why the Green Line Extension is such a mess.

  • Lars

    Oh, and both presentations were equally bad. The only difference, Pollack threatens people until they give in and do what she wants. Extortionist Pollack at work

  • Ottertian

    So True. The revised Green Line Extension is proceeding the same way a crap project is delayed until the fed gov turns over. And by the way. Go Boston 2030 is the epitome of “waste in government” Boston already has a master plan, Imagine Boston, so what gives? Go Boston 2030 is a secondary fluff plan administered by token employees, and events are held at struggling non-profits to keep them afloat, such as the Boston Society of Architects, the near-bankrupt AIA chapter of Boston

  • Torret

    Stephanie Pollack was the advocate who screamed at the Massachusetts State House, claiming that the pols had to build the Green Line Extension even if it meant bankrupting the state. Jim Braude confronted Pollack about that past statement, and again she squirmed and deflected. Now Pollack is screaming at the Feds to build her garbage project. Good God

  • Betts

    Pollack is a walking talking disaster. Notice to Pollack’s parents: If your child doesn’t have the talent, don’t throw money at everyone to “convince” them otherwise. You’re just as responsible for Stephanie’s screw-ups

  • LL-Kingston

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you WCVB OTR for calling out Stephanie Screw-Up Pollack. My favorite line, with heavier language: Well everything has turned to sh– transportation-wise, but at least you got your Green Line Extension project through. Rolling on the floor. And to make matters even better, Pollack didn’t know the state’s budget until getting some “off-screen help”, and both Pollack and “off-screen help” didn’t know the length of the Masspike. If you’re the Mass Transportation Secretary, you’re bound to hold court regarding the Masspike, especially during the snow removal months, where length is key. It just goes to show, Pollack is delegating important tasks to underlings so she can focus on her precious precious Green Line Extension

  • Kevin

    https://twitter.com/PeterSLorenz

    I’ll match your photo-op blunder with a video-op blunder. Even Mass Housing Secretary Ash, the guy next to her, knows its a bad idea to film Pollack biking. No, she isn’t being hit by gale-force winds, she just doesn’t know how to ride a bike.

  • Jules

    The MBTA needs $8 billion to achieve a full “state of good repair”, the MBTA gets only $4 billion, and $1.1 billion is going towards the Green Line Extension ($2.9 Billion instead of $8 billion). Pollack is adhering to her initial Conservation Law Foundation promise. She’ll bankrupt the state and the MBTA to make the Green Line Extension happen. By 2025, The Orange Line will be shut down after Ruggles, the Ashmont Line will be closed down, the Blue Line will be replaced with buses, but at least Somerville and Medford will have shiny new trolleys transporting 5 to 12 people per trip.

  • Sheryl

    1.5 Years Into The Job, The Green Line Extension is $1 BILLION over, and now the South Coast Rail venture is $1 BILLION over. Can someone please stop the Pollack project crap parade ASAP?. I don’t care how much money her family has, its not worth having a child-who-likes-to play-transportation operating our highways and rails!

  • Sheryl

    The Pollack disaster would make for a great Boston Globe Spotlight piece. Call it “Stephanie Pollack, How family money destroyed a state”

  • UphamsTa

    Pollack wants to gut the MBTA for poor performance, but gave $66 million to Mass commuter rail, Keolis. for poor performance. The inner city gets hit again by garbage Pollack. Rep Holmes needs to get a backbone. He shouldn’t take Pollack’s word on anything. DMUs are needed because the Fairmount train stations are too close together for locomotives to run without breaking down. Whose idea was it to have commuter rail station every few blocks, Pollack! DMUs can run on the line as is, look at Texas and California, you need a federal waiver. DMUs will correct a Pollack screw-up, hence why Pollack claims DMUs will not work. If the project isn’t the Green Line Extension, she has no interest in the initiative, because it means less money FOR THE GREEN LINE EXTENSION. Holmes, get in there and fight

  • UphamsTa

    Stephanie “Steph” Pollack is two-faced

  • Vicki

    I saw Stephanie Pollack consume around 5000 calories in one sitting, no way she’s biking from Newton to Boston. I guess her latest blunder, the Fitchburg Line and the Fed deadline, put her over the edge. If only the Feds could intervene on behalf of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan with the Indigo Line, ie the Fairmount. The Feds should demand the following from MA: spend $350 million so Boston’s black community has the same high speed rail service as everyone else, BEFORE spending $1 BILLION on an unneeded suburban trolley line. Get the Pollack/CLF factor out of the equation, no city in their right mind would build the GLX

  • KneelandKnows

    Heard that Andrew Brennan is on the hook for the Green Line Extension. Pollack politely requested, oh I’m sorry, screamed in a rage, that if Brennan doesn’t get the FTA to approve the GLX, “bad things will happen” Heard that threat before. How long until the Gov gets the latest Pollack family call? Pollack can’t scream together a project. And by the way, how is a MBTA stalwart like Brennan at the mercy of Pollack?. The MBTA is MASSDOT, and MASSDOT is the MBTA. Hopefully the Federal Transit Administration look’s at Boston’s glaring transit inequality and says no dice. After the Pollack tantrum dies down, Shortsleeve, Brennan, and others can get to work on the existing system

  • KneelandKnows

    Holmes should get in touch with any-all fed contacts. At the FTA, Boston is weighed against Sacramento, Topeka, etc. with no time or room for a deep dive. Boston transit is currently a civil rights crisis. Just like the Amazon Prime-Roxbury catch, this transit crisis ($1 billion for a trolley line serving white communities instead of $300 million for rapid-rail service in communities of color) is outrageous

  • Bostonia

    Massachusetts Governor, Charlie Baker, slammed the MBTA for an unruly budget, stating that cuts had to be made across the board, but maintained that the Green Line Extension was an exception. Man, that Pollack money runs deep, real deep!. If the MBTA was able to cut $1.1 Billion from its budget overnight (ie cut the GLX), the MBTA would be solvent. Pollack money shouldn’t outweigh the financial health of Massachusetts

  • Jen

    Pollack’s family is horrible. Why can’t they come to terms with reality, lil’ Stephanie didn’t light the world on fire. In fact, she’s a subpar employee at best. All the money in the world can’t hide Stephie’s ineptness Are they really going to let Mass bankrupt itself? The Gov will say yes to any money, he’s literally mulling the idea of selling part of the State House grounds for condos, really!, no joke! Checks and balances begone

  • Doris

    Incredible. Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattpan struggle with 40 to 60 minute bus commutes, but $1 Billion plus is put towards a suburban trolley line for predominantly white neighborhoods instead of inner city improvements. Pollack you’re the worst.

  • cybill

    Pollack stated that the MBTA needs to get out a time warp. Great! So when is your resignation Pollack? You’re the Conservation Law Foundation Green Line Extension nut job that’s keeping the MBTA in a time warp. Let the GLX die, and put the money into the EXISTING SYSTEM. How many subway fires does it take to kill a 3-4 BILLION trolley project for 50 people!

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