Big Dig mandates are bringing transit to the inner-ring suburbs.
By Helene Ragovin
Public transit in the Boston area owes a giant debt to the Big Dig, the multibillion-dollar project that essentially buried the Central Artery expressway and in the process created a new roadway network. It’s the new highways, tunnels, and a high-style bridge that catch the public’s attention. But for planners and environmentalists the bigger news is the number of transit projects that will result from the mammoth public works project — chief among them, an extension of the Green Line.
New transit lines were required as part of the bargaining that led to the federal and state environmental approvals for the Big Dig, but it took a legal challenge to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to get the larger scale urban projects started. In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is under a federal mandate to comply with federal Clean Air Act air pollution standards by taking traffic off the roads. That deal is part of the State Implementation Plan required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is specifically aimed at offsetting the additional air pollution created by highway projects related to burying the Central Artery.
As one of its Big Dig commitments, MassDOT is adding service along the Fairmount commuter line to several Boston neighborhoods. The Fairmount line now runs from Readville Station, near the border of Boston and the inner suburbs of Milton and Dedham, to South Station. The new service will add station stops to the existing route, which will be renamed the Fairmount/Indigo line. (Rail lines within the city are identified by color-coded names.) The new stations will bring rail transit for the first time to some of the lower income sections of Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Roxbury (some other sections of these neighborhoods are served by existing T lines).
MassDOT is also designing a connector between the Red and Blue lines of the subway system and adding 1,000 park-and-ride spaces for commuter rail passengers — all part of the attempt to diminish the effects of automobile traffic.
Separately from the Big Dig mandates, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is now completing a series of legally required improvements that will make the transit system more accessible. The MBTA is the agency within MassDOT that runs the subway, buses, trolleys, and commuter rail in Boston and almost 200 surrounding towns. The improvements, to be made at some of the stations along every subway and trolley line, include new or longer platforms for wheelchair access, new elevators and escalators, and new lighting and communication systems. The MTBA is also buying low-floor rail cars and buses for some of its lines.
During the past decade as well, the agency has been following the national trend of promoting transit-oriented development. Now it is working with private developers, municipalities, and community groups to create multiuse projects on property adjacent to stations. Some 16 projects are now under way, about half of them in Boston. The agency sees TOD as a way to increase ridership while at the same time promoting the principles of smart growth.
The biggest project
The largest and most costly of the new transit lines is a four-mile addition to the eastern end of the Green Line trolley. This extension to the inner-ring suburbs of Somerville and Medford is also expected to change development patterns and, many hope, to boost the area’s economic fortunes. But “at its base, this is an air quality project,” says Katherine Fichter, MassDOT’s Green Line project manager.
The Green Line trolleys now run between downtown Boston and the Lechmere station in east Cambridge. At the downtown terminus the line splits into four branches heading south and west. The new project will extend the line east through Cambridge and Somerville to College Avenue in Medford. A spur line will branch off to the west to Somerville’s Union Square.
Green Line plans received state environmental approval last July and preliminary engineering is well under way. Massachusetts is applying for federal New Starts transportation funding to help with the cost of the $953.7 million project. MassDOT has already announced that it won’t be able to meet the original December 31, 2014, completion deadline, which means that it will have to provide environmental offsets to compensate for the delay in improved air quality. Similar provisions — running additional buses, for instance — are in place for completion of the Fairmount Line.
For those living along the proposed Green Line route, the issue of air quality is tangible. The extension will run on an existing MBTA right-of-way that now carries diesel-powered commuter trains between downtown Boston and Lowell. In addition, both Medford and Somerville are crisscrossed by several major highways. The commonwealth has designated sections of both cities as “environmental justice communities.”
“These communities have shouldered the burden of the downside of transit,” says Rafael Mares, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, the Boston-based regional advocacy group that forced the commonwealth to fulfill its Big Dig transit obligations. Since 1990, CLF and other stakeholders have pursued a series of legal actions in both state and federal courts to ensure that the promised urban public transit commitments are fulfilled. A 2006 renewal of those commitments included, among other projects, the Union Square spur of the Green Line.
From a transit planning standpoint, the existence of the right-of-way solves a multitude of problems, chief among them the issue of property takings. “Because we own the right-of-way, we’re not taking homes,” Fichter says, although the project requires the commonwealth to acquire a number of commercial properties and vacant land for tracks, stations, and a maintenance facility.
Because the extension is designed to serve local residents of Medford and Somerville, there will be no provisions for commuter parking. “These will primarily be stations that people walk and bike to,” Fichter says. “This is an extremely low-impact project.”
Tale of two cities
Generally, there has been little controversy about the Green Line extension — surprising, given its size and scope. Somerville in particular has wholeheartedly embraced the project. “We have so many activists and community groups, elected officials and city officials. We may not always get along, but one thing we all agree on is that the Green Line needs to come in,” says Jennifer Lawrence, executive director of Groundwork Somerville, an environmental organization that’s part of a coalition called Community Corridor Planning.
“I don’t know anywhere else that’s so pro-rapid transit,” says Rob May, Somerville’s director of economic development. “And these are not professional policy people. These are our neighbors who are participating in the process.” Talk to anyone who’s been following the project, and you’ll hear how 300 folks turned out for a Green Line meeting at the high school on the evening of October 27, 2004 — when virtually every other soul in New England was watching the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years.
You’ll get a more mixed response in neighboring Medford. An earlier proposal had called for the Green Line to continue past College Avenue, ending a mile farther north, at Route 16. That routing would have brought the line within reach of more riders, but MassDOT, citing cost, moved construction of the station into a projected second phase. The proposed Route 16 station bothers some people; others are concerned about the routing of the line itself.
Twelve-term mayor Michael McGlynn is on record in support of the entire project. Some residents, however, are uneasy about the prospect of tracks running alongside their backyards and fearful about additional traffic on Boston Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the Medford Hillside area. Two separate community groups have formed in response to the station itself. The Medford Green Line Neighborhood Alliance is a strong advocate of the Route 16 location. Another group, the Green Line Alliance for Medford, flatly opposes continuing the line beyond College Avenue.
These attitudes illustrate not only differences in the demographics, geography, and history of the adjoining cities, but differences in how they see themselves. “Somerville has embraced its urbanity,” says Fichter. “The people in Medford understand their community as more suburban.”
Indeed, Somerville is the state’s most densely populated city, with a population of 77,000 jammed into four square miles. It has a median household income of $46,000, and its residents run the socioeconomic gamut. The public schools send home materials in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole; 22 percent of its population is African American. Its housing stock is mostly multifamily.
Medford has 55,000 residents in an area that is twice as big as Somerville — with lots of ranch houses and open space. Its median income is higher, $52,000, and the community is far less diverse, with a 12 percent minority population. “There is more of a wide range of opinions and attitudes about this project here, and about public transit in general,” says Ken Krause of MGNA, the Medford group that favors the Green Line.
It’s the prospect of higher density redevelopment that has some residents of the heavily residential Medford Hillside section especially riled up. They don’t want to see transit-related development in their community, says Lauren DiLorenzo, Medford’s director of community development. “And we’re really not looking to change the character of a nice neighborhood, filled with people who have lived there for years.” DiLorenzo notes that housing pressures caused by the proximity of Tufts University, which is adjacent to Medford Hillside, have already inflated prices in the area. The fear is that the Green Line will raise the prices even higher.
Fichter agrees that the routing of the extension is more problematic for Medford than Somerville. In part, that’s because the right-of-way is narrower in Medford than it is in Somerville, so the tracks will be closer to homes. But because of the existing MBTA right-of-way and the language of the legal mandate, she says, there is little choice. “If you look at a map of Medford and think where you’d put a rail line, it would not necessarily be where this one is,” says Fichter. “But that’s what we have to deal with.”
To some extent, the Green Line has been an easier sell in Somerville because a larger percentage of its population will benefit directly. Eighty-five percent of Somerville residents will be within walking distance of a transit station (the T) once the Green Line is completed. In Medford, the majority will not live within walking distance of a transit stop.
Somerville residents will also benefit from the fact that the transit line will lessen the traffic burden on the area’s heavily traveled highways. According to the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, local residents breathe in more commuter-generated emissions per capita than in any other Massachusetts city. From 1989 to 2003, Somerville had almost 300 more lung cancer and heart attack deaths than would be expected given statewide rates, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Economic development is another attraction. Local development officials say the Green Line will be a boon for the city’s dormant industrial sections. In October, Somerville received $1.8 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to help with planning around new stations, and plans have been floated for an improvement district around the Union Square station.
“This city was built around rail,” says Monica Lamboy, Somerville’s executive director of planning and community development. “In the years when we were most productive, there was both rail service and trolley service. With this new capital investment, we hope to be able to revive our economy.”
Both Lamboy and May, the city’s economic development director, say the city needs to plan for both residential and commercial growth. “One thing we’ve learned over time is that areas with mono-use are not very successful,” Lamboy says. “We’re clearly looking to have a mix of uses, including housing.”
Somerville has had its own experience with spinoff development around a transit station. In 1985, the Red Line subway was extended to Davis Square, leading to an explosion of commercial rents and housing prices. That makes Davis both a success story and a cautionary tale, depending on whom you ask.
In the view of Jennifer Lawrence of Groundwork Somerville, “the Red Line really transformed the community, although there were some detrimental impacts, including gentrification, which pushed out some home owners and local businesses.”
Lauren DiLorenzo, Medford’s planning director, agrees that Davis Square is a vibrant place. “But at what cost?” she asks. “We’d hate to see people pushed out like that,” adds Carolyn Rosen of GLAM (the Green Line Alliance for Medford). “We wonder what economic development means for the elderly and for moderate-income people living along the line.”
The same mistakes won’t be made today, responds Somerville’s Monica Lamboy. “When the Davis Square station was being built, the city didn’t spend as much time planning for growth. We have more tools now,” she says, referring to the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance and the requirement that commercial developers must contribute to an affordable housing trust fund. The housing ordinance stipulates that 12.5 percent of the homes in any project with eight units or more must be affordable.
The other big difference between then and now is an immense uptick in community involvement, says Ellin Reisner, president of STEP, the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership. STEP is one of the four partners in the Community Corridor Planning coalition, which represents organizations devoted to transportation, the environment, public health, and affordable housing. Three workshops dealing with station design last spring drew 120 residents from Somerville, Medford, and Cambridge.
Katherine Fichter of MassDOT says that the state and regional agencies involved with the Green Line project owe a major debt of gratitude to the volunteer groups that are leading the civic engagement process.
As to the criticism from Medford residents that their side has been shortchanged, Fichter says MassDOT is doing what it can to mitigate the effects of the project. “A project like this takes a long time to evolve,” and that can cause anxiety for residents. “But we do our best to balance regional needs against the very local burdens, and to inform people along the way,” she says.
The lure of TOD
In addition to the new rail lines that will reach underserved areas, MBTA is working to bring more people to places already well-served by transit. Over the past five years, the agency has sold or leased rights for 54 transit-oriented developments. The TODs cluster housing as well as shops and offices near transit stations, sometimes on surplus MBTA property.
The current economic climate has slowed the pace of TOD construction, says Mark Boyle, AICP, the agency’s assistant general manager for development, but there are still some good examples. One is Arborpoint at the Green Line’s Woodland station in suburban Newton. Twenty-five percent of this building’s 180 rental apartments meet affordable housing guidelines. The developers’ prepayment of the $4.3 million, 85-year ground lease helped the MBTA to pay for station improvements.
The Avenir project, completed in 2009, made use of surplus MBTA land in the Bulfinch Triangle near Boston’s North Station. The property became available when a subway line replaced a portion of the elevated Green Line. The site also makes use of adjacent vacant land resulting from the Big Dig. “We did a simultaneous offering, making the site more attractive for development,” says Boyle. The Avenir has 241 rental apartments, including 17 affordable units; 30,000 square feet of retail space; and a 121-space parking garage.
Boyle, a former municipal planner, stresses that the MBTA consults with local planning agencies and nearby residents before issuing a request for proposals for a transit-oriented development. “That way developers know exactly what the local community will permit,” he adds. While the MBTA is exempt from local zoning, private developers making improvements on publicly owned property are not, Boyle says. That makes it particularly important to garner community support.
Recently, the MBTA has been working on plans for a TOD in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. The collaborators — several community urban development organizations, the city planning department, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority — all have a stake in the proposed mixed use project at Jackson Square near the Orange Line subway station. “There’s been a good one to two years of community planning efforts for that development,” says Boyle.
“From the MBTA’s perspective,” he says, “TODs fulfill several needs.” They generate additional ridership and non-fare revenue from ground leases. And they also provide much-needed housing, jobs, and local tax revenue.
As a planner, Boyle adds, he likes TODs “from an environmental and health perspective. They fulfill the principles of smart growth.”
Helene Ragovin is a freelance writer in the Boston area.
Images: Top — A Green Line public meeting in Somerville. Photo Groundwork Somerville. Middle — The light-rail car, shown here at the Park Street station, is a Type 7 LRV, manufactured for MBTA by Kinki-Sharyo. Photo Ben Schumin:http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/2.0/deed.en. Bottom — The map shows the Green Line extension as a green dashed line. The existing line is solid green. Image Ken Dumas, Central Transportation Planning Staff, Boston Region MPO.