How Boston Will Cut Transit Construction Costs Without Diluting Transit

Reducing the size and changing the structure of stations helped Boston's MBTA reduce the budget for the Green Line. Images: MBTA
About $300 million can be shaved off the cost of Boston’s Green Line Extension by eliminating “extras” in the station designs. Images: MBTA

Boston’s 4.7-mile Green Line extension is supposed to bring light rail service to some of the nation’s most densely populated neighborhoods, but skyrocketing construction costs have threatened to sink the project. After the price tag ballooned to $3 billion last year, about a 50 percent increase, the project was in danger of being cancelled altogether.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority came out with a slimmed down budget [PDF] that brings the cost down to $2.3 billion. Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic says the revised plan should help just as many people get around as the previous plan, because the MBTA identified the right things to cut:

Rather than cutting the quality of service provided to riders in terms of transit service, they focus on aesthetic elements that, even if they improve the general atmosphere of the system, likely do little to actually get people onto trains. The essentials, like the frequency of trains, their speed, and their capacity, are maintained.

What the team does recommend is vastly simplifying proposed station designs. As the below chart from the report indicates, the stations would be slimmed down. 15 elevators would be replaced by six (while maintaining wheelchair accessibility throughout); escalators and fare gates would be eliminated entirely; and full-length station canopies would be cut down to shelters. In total, these changes would slash almost $300 million from the project budget, with virtually no impact on ridership experience.

The changes will make the MBTA’s built footprint less visible; there will be no Calatrava extravagances here. As the [above] images show, Ball Square station in Medford was initially designed to feature a plaza, a headhouse (a multi-story building featuring elevators and escalators), a concourse, and a fully covered platform. What would be built in its place is an open-air and very simple train stop, with more room for future transit-oriented development.

Customers may suffer through the cold for a few more minutes, but trains will come frequently enough that shouldn’t be a major concern. Meanwhile, MBTA will save itself millions of dollars of future maintenance costs not upkeeping expensive and unreliable machinery and not keeping thousands of square feet of interior space clean. These savings aren’t even accounted for in the capital costs of the project but they’ll pay off in a lower operating budget for years to come.

The management team also proposes a reduction in the size of the proposed vehicle maintenance facility and affiliated transportation building, which together will save more than $100 million and not affect the MBTA’s ability to keep trains moving. An expensive parking deck will be replaced with a parking lot. Bridges that the initial plan suggested needed to be completely replaced will be simply renovated.

If the choices about what to eliminate seem obvious, consider the alternative: The Purple Line in suburban Washington, D.C. also underwent a considerable cost-cutting process earlier this year. Yet the changes there will reduce passenger quality of service by increasing headways between trains, reducing train capacity, and lengthening the walking distance between the line and a Metro station in Silver Spring. While these efficiencies aren’t dramatic enough to imperil the overall value of the line, they will hurt the passenger experience in the long term, while those on the Green Line will not.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Green Lake Blue City wonders if the future of Columbus will be more urban or suburban as the region plans for a population swelling to 3 million people. The Overhead Wire considers whether cycling data harvested from fitness apps like Strava can truly help cities plan for better bike networks. And Prince George’s Urbanist says commuter and freight rail systems in Maryland can help the DC Metro mitigate the impact of potential long-term rail line closures.