Green Line extension cost cut to $2.3 billion in latest estimate

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BOSTON – State officials shaved about $622 million from the cost of the Green Line Extension project, putting the new price tag at about $2.3 billion and leaving an estimated $73 million funding gap, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters ahead of a critical meeting on the project Monday afternoon.

The new cost of $2.3 billion, which corresponds to the $2 billion estimate in 2014 and the high-end of $3 billion the T reached last year, has yet to be vetted by the Federal Transit Administration and does not include the financing costs – which were previously pegged at $300 million.

A joint meeting of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board plans to take up the issue on Monday afternoon. Pollack said board members had received information ahead of time in compliance with the Open Meeting Law.

Pollack, who put the brakes on the project last year after officials disclosed major cost overruns, said if the state opts to move ahead with the project, it should proceed cautiously and ensure the service expansion does not come at the expense of system maintenance.

“I do have concerns and the other board members have concerns,” said Pollack. She said the new estimate is “not a completely bottoms-up estimate.”

The new plan removes a superstructure carrying a multiuse path, though much of the path remains, and replaces full station constructions with weather shelters.

By reducing some aspects of the community path and accompanying retaining walls the state would save about $123 million, while another $288.3 million was found in station construction savings, and about $35 million in savings was identified in bridge work associated with the project.

Last week Somerville and Cambridge agreed to pay a combined $75 million for the trolley extension and Boston’s Metropolitan Planning Organization moved about $152 million in federal highway dollars into the stalled project.

“While it was meaningful it was not sufficient to fill the entire gap,” Pollack said of the cities’ commitments.

MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Paul Regan had estimated the federal money from the planning organization would include state matching funds, bringing the total to about $190 million, but Pollack said the shift would be limited to the federal contribution of $152 million.

Pollack said she is determined not to repeat the mistake of taking on too much too quickly, a practice that led to cost overruns on the project.

“People were being unrealistic about what it would take to do the Green Line Extension back in 2014,” Pollack told reporters. She said, “Shame on us if we make the same mistake twice, so this time we’re going into it with our eyes wide open.”

The roughly 4.5-mile trolley extension would reconstruct the Lechmere terminus in East Cambridge, add six new stops through Somerville and into Medford, and satisfy clean air requirements that accompanied the Big Dig, according to the state. The massive highway project begun in the 1990s to bury stretches of Interstate 93 in Boston and add a new tunnel to Logan Airport became a symbol of excessive government spending on transportation infrastructure, tallying up to $24.3 billion in a 2012 analysis.

The trolley project’s bottom line leapt from about $1 billion to as much as three times that over the span of six years, according to a recent retrospective analysis. Consultants hired by the state to look at what went wrong determined no “reliable” cost estimate had previously been produced and blamed cost overruns on the unique-to-Massachusetts contracting method that allowed construction team White-Skanska-Kiewit to negotiate higher payments for itself after winning the contract.

Pollack said her recommendation is not to “chase additional sources of revenue” until the Federal Transit Administration has come to a new agreement with the state on the cost.

“It is important for us to make sure that we’ve got it right,” said Pollack, who declined to speculate on when she believes the extension could be open for business if transportation overseers opt to move forward.

A project on the scale of the Green Line Extension would require hiring a program manager with the ability to oversee it and a total of about 40 to 50 people working on it, Pollack said.

“Schedule pressure” drove the poor implementation of the construction manager/general contractor procurement method and there was a push to complete a roughly $1 billion grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration by the end of 2014, according to the consultants’ analysis.

The Boston Globe on Sunday reported that in September 2014 former Transportation Secretary Richard Davey wrote that he didn’t “care why” paperwork associated with the project hadn’t been completed, ordering it done immediately. Two months later former MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott wrote, “We are hoping it will happen before the Governor’s term ends,” according to the paper.

Two days before departing the governorship, Gov. Deval Patrick joined U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to announce the final award of a $996 million federal grant.

A major goal of Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone and transit activists, the Green Line Extension appeared well on its way toward completion by the time Gov. Charlie Baker took office in January 2015.

“It would be hard for me to imagine that the next governor would turn away from these investments or the people that they benefit,” Patrick said more than a year before leaving office.

Written by Andy Metzger