Costs balloon on Green Line Extension, a Big Dig legacy

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The Green Line Extension, one progeny of Boston’s $15 billion Big Dig, took on a starker resemblance this week to its figurative parent when its estimated cost ballooned by as much as 50 percent.

The latest update from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority shows the extension may consume about $3 billion, up from an estimated $2 billion in January. While almost $1 billion in federal money has been pledged to the project, the state may be on the hook for the rest. T officials have begun to discuss killing the long-delayed plan, listing that course of action among their cost-cutting options.

But taking the 4.5-mile extension off the table may not be a realistic alternative for Gov. Charlie Baker. The extension was among transit projects the state agreed to undertake in the 1990s to offset increased pollution from traffic zipping into Boston’s central artery tunnels. After several delays, a lawsuit, and a court-sanctioned settlement, killing the extension would likely threaten future federal transportation funds and draw more legal action.

“Baker can redesign, but can’t kill it without a major court battle,” Charles Chieppo, state administration and finance policy director under Republican Gov. Bill Weld, said in an emailed response to an inquiry by the NewBostonPost.

Moreover, as the T noted in its report, hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent on the project to bring streetcars out to Tufts University in Medford and up to Somerville’s Union Square. Canceling the plan altogether would mean that money was wasted.

“There ought to be no turning back from extending the Green Line,’’ James Aloisi, a former Transportation secretary under Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, wrote Tuesday on the CommonWealth website. “The Green Line is a state commitment following a lawsuit that successfully challenged our misguided auto-centric investments of the 20th century.”

Among cost-containment options contemplated by the T and its fiscal oversight board are eliminating, delaying, or scaling back the six new stations in the plan. But Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone told the Boston Herald that the first two, in Union Square and on Washington Street, as well as a relocated Lechmere station, are set to open in 2018.

In January, the T projected the new stations’ cost at about $195 million. In its latest project update, it estimates that downsizing, delaying, or eliminating stations could save $40 million.

Another option would eliminate a new maintenance and storage depot, which could save as much as $149 million. Eliminating a bike and pedestrian path could save $28 million.

Alternatively, the report suggested that the T might try to find additional funds by shifting $158 million in federal dollars for extending Route 16 to the Green Line project. The update also contemplates finding philanthropic or commercial funding sources.

Ultimately, the best course may be to revamp the contracting process for the project, Aloisi suggested.

“We need to stay the course — just not the course of runaway costs,” he wrote. He called for “hitting the restart button, re-assessing the wisdom” of the current contracting process, which was adopted as an experiment in 2012.

Under the current system, the state hired a contractor, White Skanska Kiewit, and an independent designer at the same time, asking them to work together with the transit agency to come up with a plan, complete with cost estimates. A third party, called the independent cost estimator, provides separate projections on each segment of the work, to be used to compare with the prices the contractor produces.

This approach has the advantage of potentially accelerating the work schedule. But it can also produce a built-in incentive for the contractor to inflate estimated costs to avoid being stuck paying for overruns, according to the T.

In the T’s update, the contractor’s price for just one part of the work was about $889 million, or 82 percent higher than the January cost estimate, including a full contingency amount of almost $100 million. The agency said it will negotiate with the contractor to reduce actual cost.

To anyone who was around Boston before and during the 15 years it took to build the central artery tunnel, the latest controversy surrounding the Green Line may have an all too-familiar ring. In 1985, the projected Big Dig cost came to about $2.6 billion.  In the end, the project cost approximately $15 billion, plus billions more in interest.

If you want to offer a suggestion to the T on what to do next, send an email by Sept. 9 to either [email protected] or [email protected].