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.”

89 thoughts on What Went Wrong With Boston’s Green Line Extension?

  1. It sounds like the contractor, WSK, has been really unethical about this. The state cooperated with them doing it, but WSKs actions seem pretty shady too.

  2. “Mares says he’s he’s not sure the project costs will drop to the level of previous estimates (around $2.3 billion).”
    Hopefully they will. For $2.3 billion it would have only slightly more than average cost for a subway.

  3. Its not 49,000 additional trips expected by the green line extension, its 18,000. The 49,000 figure includes transit users now served by bus. 18,000 is the number of drivers proposed to change mode to transit from the project. Note also, that since the Big Dig, air quality went up in Boston, not down, so claims that it would hurt air quality are dubious.

  4. What went wrong? You have “transportation advocates” with zero transportation field experience running the show. Mares and Pollack, zero transportation experience or training between them. They screamed and shouted, drew a marker streak on a map denoting rail service, and patted themselves on the back. They never considered the cost of maintaining Amtrak service on the same line (cue NY East Side Access Amtrak trial and error, once 2 billion, now 10 billion) Pollack is now the transportation secretary because her rich husband had enough money to buy her the job. She’s been screwing up ever since. The only silver lining: the Mass Governor has done an excellent, and will likely cancel this poorly conceived project once and for all

  5. Alternative contract forms are not necessarily bad, but they do need to have people with knowledge (contracts, alternative finance, engineering supervision) on the side of the contractor to work out. Several other projects were botched in US, or had massive costs overrun, because selection of a promising contracting framework didn’t work out as the agency was inept to implement and supervise it.

    I also think this project is yet another example of an otherwise worthy transit project that becomes a vehicle for all sorts of bells and whistles that are tackled in, one after the other, because it is so hard to get public funds to do them alone.

    American transit agencies need to start looking to the concession model used in countries like Germany, Netherlands, UK…

  6. Amtrak doesn’t run on that corridor, Mares isn’t running anything, and Pollack is far too new to the position to blame anything on her.

  7. You’re just as incompetent as Mares and Pollack. I asked Stephanie Unqualified Pollack about the Amtrak service on the line, She screamed “It’s on the Haverhill Line, not the Lowell Line!” citing Haverhill as an Amtrak station. Turns out, she’s dead wrong. Its tricky for some to understand, so I’ll spoon feed it to you. The Downeaster Amtrak service runs within the Lowell commuter corridor – aka the proposed GLX to Tufts. I see it everyday from my office. It then stops at the Anderson Transportation Center in Woburn, Mass on the Lowell Line, and then takes the Wildcat Bypass to the Haverhill Line and stops at Haverhill before heading to New Hampshire and Maine. Did I just blow your mind?

  8. This is what happens when you back down to Stephanie Pollack’s screaming. Her husband didn’t technically buy the MassDOT sec job. It was a political favor. Pollack’s husband is a big supporter of the current Republican Mass Governor. Pollack instead is a democratic. Giving Pollack a job shows diversity and bi-partisanship. But more importantly, it shifts the screaming from Newton to Boston. Northeastern knows this very well after Pollack’s CLF days. Newton has mini-parties whenever Pollack is out of town or on a convention junket. She just screams and screams and screams until you comply or back down. However, she can scream all she wants at the Green Line Extension facts, it won’t change the project. She can’t scream away the Amtrak:GLX conflicts

  9. You do understand that there’s plenty of room for two commuter rail tracks and two Green Line tracks? No, you don’t? Well, you should.

    The only major problem with this project, which should have been completed *thirty years ago*, is contractor scamming. A minor problem is NIMBY craziness which prevented the yard from being put where it belongs.

  10. It would hurt air quality, a lot. Specifically, Somerville and Cambridge in particular have really bad air quality (worse than other parts of the metro area) due to diesel and gasoline fumes. Replacing those buses with electric trains will help a lot. It’ll also be a lot cheaper to operate than the buses.

    The improvements in air quality in the Boston Area are due to other things; the Big Dig did hurt air quality significantly, but it was outweighed by some other changes made.

  11. WSK appears to have been extremely unethical; that was the conclusion of the consultant. So they’re being fired. Good.

  12. Its not a matter of having room. Its about having enough money to rip up and recreate the commuter rail tracks while maintaining commuter rail and Amtrak service within the corridor. Wouldn’t be shocked if this project hit $5 Billion

  13. Air quality predictions were for outside Boston, not in Boston itself. Which is why Somerville is getting the extension, and not Boston.

  14. This project is toast. The legal mandate is laughable. The Boston Arborway Green Line Extension was swapped out, despite being a legal mandate. The Medford Green Line Extension will be swapped out as well, because just like Arborway, its a horribly conceived multi-billion dollar trolley proposal. The CLF is an embarrassment. Foy, Mares, and Pollack should all be ashamed

  15. The worst aspect of this project: Stephanie Pollack is slashing inner city transit and increasing fees to fund her precious GLX. She lied to various members of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan; claiming that DMUs won’t work for the Fairmount Line because of platform height. The Fairmount Line has high floor platforms. Pollack mentioned low-floor DMUs that are not FRA-compliant, but not high floor DMUs that are FRA compliant, as seen in the San Francisco Bay Area. Streetsblog, hopefully you can shed some light on this subject matter to help debunk Pollack. And btw, someone pushed to build high-floor platform stations along the Fairmount Line: CLF’s own Stephanie Pollack. high floor DMUs would correct one of Pollack’s blunder.

  16. Are you referring to the Sonoma Marin SMART DMUs outside San Fran? That was the train:company optioned for the Fairmount, but Pollack and her CLF pals screamed it down. The DMUs would have taken away funding and attention from Boston’s GLX. The DMU option went to Toronto. The SMART trains are high floor.

  17. Geez. How long can Pollack scream at DMU applications? She blasted Sonoma-Marin outright, stating that the California DMUs were not suitable for an urban environment, nor work well in winter conditions. Toronto debunks both of Pollack’s myths. Canada’s rail standards are even stricter than the FRA, and both Toronto and Ottawa have added modern foreign DMUs to their networks. If Ottawa can do it, Boston surely can

  18. Heard that Pollack refused to talk about the Green Line Extension at her homecoming Northeastern lecture. She also gave her same tired Anacostia DC bus speech, and again, failed to mention the decades long civil rights struggle to bring the heavy rail Green Line subway to Anacostia. Its ok to tell stories Ms. Pollack, but tell the entire story.

  19. Pollack is despicable. That Anacostia bus story is her sorry way of getting out of providing DMUs to the Fairmount Line, claiming that Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan only need buses. What a shock, see doesn’t mention the subway line running through Anacostia. Its just like her “trained as an engineer” story, but failing to state that she never became an engineer; she couldn’t make the cut. Instead, she got a PHD in law, and is now an ex-lawyer. We have an unqualified lunatic running MassDOT

  20. Dear Ma & Linda. Pollack did talk about the Green Line Extension, albeit briefly. Pollack said during her lecture that she wouldn’t talk about the GLX, but during Q&A admitted that Somerville refuses to pay for the GLX. She also claimed that nobody wants to be the first to pay for MBTA service, which makes me and my company feel like a schmuck every time she makes that statement. All in all, I get your half-truth commentary. Pollack always tells half of the story, or just a flat out lie. Streetblogs or another outlet could take the tape of the Northeastern lecture and do a “pants on fire” political segment.

  21. I had to hear your secretary speak, Steph Pollack. Wow, what a foolish individual. She knows very little about transportation, yet nobody confronted her.

  22. The lecture was videotaped, but Pollack is blocking the release of the video. Its the Myra Kraft Open Classroom series > where three panelists speak with Q&A afterward. Pollack gobbled up the entire hour and screamed and shouted over her book-end panelists

  23. That Pollack lecture is finally online,

    I feel bad for the co-panelist’s eardrums, and minds. The moderator backs down whenever he says something honest about Pollack, troubling

    Side note:: The Feds are looking into MassDOT and the MBTA after the state failed to review if cancelling late night service would hinder Boston’s minorities. If they find that it does, er did, and those savings were diverted for the Green Line Extension, Pollack is out on her butt. Second Side note: When Pollack screams about Fairmount DMU “height issues” ask her for specific numbers. She’s bluffing. Toronto was able to seamlessly apply a DMU made for the American market (Cali) Boston can absolutely apply the same American model.

  24. 10% fare increase across the MBTA system to pay for the Green Line Extension. I am speechless. The Feds need to come in and spotlight Ms. Pollack. Late Night service, Fairmount DMUs, Mattapan Trolley service are all being sidelined for Green Line service to Cambridge and Somerville. Pollack is taking a page out of the Dukakis playbook. Give us lip service, and then screw us over. Not this time. Late Night, Mattapan, and Fairmount Metro service are CIVIL RIGHTS. Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan deserve METRO RAIL SERVICE. Fire Pollack now

  25. Pollack has $2.6 BILLION for the Green Line Extension, but not $340 Million for the Fairmount DMUs. That family money runs deep! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Federal Gov to the rescue!

  26. Given Pollack’s CLF GLX past, RDM groups could file a conflict on interest complaint against her. They can also investigate whether her past CLF employment agreements include a bonus if the GLX is built, regardless of the time-frame

  27. Had to hear her speak today As a woman, I hate when other women who lack talent and experience (pollack) use the woman card. It cheapens both women and men who have worked to get where they are. Pollack is unqualified period. She’s the kardashian of Boston

  28. You’re being too kind. $2.6 Billion is the state’s portion. The Fed has offered $1.1 Billion, which also requires the bike path to be built, add in another 200 Million. Altogether, a 3.9 Billion price-tag, nearly 4 Billion, Billion with a “B” for 4.7 miles of trolley service, not subway service, not heavy rail service spanning out to New Hampshire, 4.7 miles of trolley service. Lets add in the intended station cuts, you’ll get realistically to 3.5 billion, that’s 3 billion more than the funding for the Fairmount Line (track improvements, signaling, DMUs) It becomes a Civil Rights matter that requires federal intervention. Ultimately, the project will be cut down to Phase 2 and Pollack will be dismissed (no CLF GLX bonus for Pollack) Phase 2 + bare stations will cost 500 Million, sending 1.1 Billion back to the Feds, and freeing up 1.9 Billion for future MBTA improvements. What can 1.9 Billion cover? track resiliency, ADA backlog, Logan Blue Line ped connector, River Works remediation, West Station gap, Fairmount DMUs, Neponset greenway gaps, and more. And what does the state do with the GLX vehicle purchase? They can redirect the vehicles to the Mattapan Trolley line, South Boston Silver Line Busway Tunnel (built for Green Line trains),and the existing Green Line network. Crisis solved.

  29. What a shock, PollACK budgeted over a billion for the GLX before the final project report is submitted. PollACK is a walking talking conflict of interest. Hope they put her in the cell right next to DiMasi

  30. Hopefully Massachusetts’ new Fiscal Management and Control Board, or FMCB breaks down this controversial project by Phase. As of today, Phase 2 would extend the Green Line through an abandoned rail right-of-way. Ok, sounds reasonable, if Cambridge gets on board, do it. Phase 2A would construct a massive highway-esque interchange for one trolley stop at Union Sq in the suburb of Somerville, that’s absurd. The rest of the Phases, 3 and on, would require demolishing and moving tracks used by commuter rail and Amtrak trains serving Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine: for a trolley. That is Big Dig-esque absurdity! The last thing the nation needs is another Big Dig.

  31. Yup. A stone cold reality. Capuano, the local US rep who pushed for GLX funding without thinking things through, needs to chill. At every public function, he throws in a statement about completing the GLX. Mr. Capuano should really look at the numbers, resubmit for fed funding, and find better uses for 1.1 Billion besides a trolley.

  32. Pollack is two-faced, shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. She told a crowded, and rail-deprived, MetroWest audience last week that the state’s transportation budget wouldn’t go towards new shiny things, yet simultaneously reserved over a billion dollars in funding for the Green Line Extension. She’s does the same thing with Boston’s MBTA. When the MBTA makes a bad move, all of sudden Pollack claims she has no control of the agency. When the MBTA makes a good move, all of a sudden Pollack claims to be the “Maven of the MBTA” My best advice, get use to it.

  33. Just starting to educate myself on this matter. I grew up in Somerville. Since when has it been an issue to get into Boston from Somerville?

  34. If Pollack’s Government Center station project is any indication of how she’ll deliver the Green Line Extension, she should resign today. Two weeks in, Boston’s brand-new $90 Million Government Center subway hub, the project Pollack claimed was a “model” for the city, is now leaking. I guess Pollack is no longer marketing herself as the “Maven of the MBTA”, She’s transitioning back to “I have no authority over the MBTA” Pollack. This was a $90 Million disaster, guess what a $3 Billion disaster will look like under Pollack

  35. I believe the Fairmount Line DMUs are $240 Million, not $340 Million. Are you factoring in something else? signaling? Either way, Pollack is doing an about-face. Pollack and facts don’t mix

  36. This is their own doing. They have been cutting down on car and truck lanes and causing bottlenecks everywhere. Somerville added Assembly Row, there are now more traffic signals on McGrath and they are working on the bridge near Highland ave

  37. The Boston Globe answered this question months ago, but I can add in a few more details. But first, I only wish the local politicians (Rep. Capuano, Somerville Mayor Curtatone) would be honest about this project instead of blindly pushing residents to attend meetings. In summary, this project is trying to ram a light rail path through an active Amtrak and commuter rail corridor, taking Boston’s 1987 Southwest Corridor Orange Line subway project as its cue. That’s right, they’re using a heavy rail subway model from the 80s for a light rail trolley model in 2016, and see no difference between the two. And who was the “enlightened” advocate who thought Somerville could simply copy the Southwest model easy-peasy?, that’s right, Stephanie No Quals Pollack. See the Globe for more insights. This project is DOA.

  38. Strong math. Too bad the MBTA can’t use it. Lets say the Community Path is nix, the consultants declare $100 million for the path, which is low, you declare $200m, which is more realistic. With the path; 3.5 Billion+, without the path, 3.5 Billion+. Mayor Curtatone, Representative Capuano, and the local pols have to deal with a hard truth. They were sold a terrible project by then advocate Pollack; and don’t know how to back out.

  39. Its a joy to see Baker and his administration crack jokes about the GLX and Pollack. How fitting; everyone knows this project is a joke expect Pollack and Somerville’s Mayor

  40. All of Pollack’s dirty laundry is coming out in the local press: from giving millions of taxpayer money to the controversial Boston Greenway non-prof to allocating funds for the Green Line Extension maintenance terminal as “existing system repair” AMAZING! I smell the Pollack resignation down the road

  41. The chatter around Somerville is that the GLX has already been cut. The “decision” next month is whether to bring it back, which based on the numbers post-station cuts: still well over $3 Billion, will be a no. Coincidentally, Stephanie Pollack admitted for the first time publicly that she’s in over her head. Reality is finally starting to settle in.

  42. Massachusetts is still LEGALLY OBLIGATED to build the GLX. The Conservation Law Foundation has promised to sue if they don’t.

    Have fun, Governor Baker. You’re getting sued. And you’re losing.

    Oh, Somerville and Cambridge will sue too. And some even heavier hitters have threatened to sue as well. Tufts U. might sue as well.

    At this point if I were in Massachusetts, I’d sue to force the Big Dig tunnels to be permanently closed until the GLX is completed. Since the GLX is legally required mitigation for the pollution caused by the Big Dig tunnels, *this is a valid thing to demand in court*.

  43. The legal mandate is actually stronger at this point. With the state having defaulted on essentially all the other required mitigations, the CLF and anyone else who wants to sue can make a case for *bad faith* by the state government.

    It should probably be possible to get a court ruling requiring that the money for the GLX be transferred directly to the custody of the city of Cambridge or someone else, due to the state’s bad faith behavior.

  44. Instead of threatening to shut down the metro area, how about some realistic proposals. Somerville was sold a lemon (aka the GLX in its current form) by then advocate Stephanie Pollack. Most of the CLF mitigation proposals were just as bad; done by advocates, not engineers and planners Pollack has a masters in engineering, but that doesn’t make you an engineer. Shoving a trolley line through an active train corridor is a red flag right from the start. Say the following phrase a few times: 3 billion for 5 miles of trolley service, 3 billion for 5 miles of trolley service, 3 billion for 5 miles of trolley service. Somerville can use the Big Dig mitigation mandate for better initiatives, including a realistic Green Line Extension that reaches the Inner Belt and ends in the Inner Belt. Then, Cambridge might get on board, Cambridge is not suing, they could care less, they have the Orange Line Community College stop)

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