Yesterday, the Government of Massachusetts announced that it would sponsor the completion of a planning report on a northeast extension of the MBTA Blue Line. The completion of the Draft Environmental Impact Study, which is a required step on the path to building a major infrastructure project in the United States, will demand about $300,000 in consulting fees. Yet this new guarantee of planning funds in no way ensures the eventual completion of the project, which would stretch from the Blue Line’s existing terminus at Wonderland to Lynn, several miles up the North Shore. Boston’s transit agency is mired in billions of dollars of debt and has a number of projects that are being prioritized over this extension.
The Blue Line opened in 1904 to streetcar operations and was converted to rapid transit technology in 1924. It is the shortest of the MBTA’s several rail transit lines and attracts 67,000 riders a day — high for most transit systems, but not Boston, whose three other lines each carry more than 100,000 daily users.
Massachusetts has been planning for a lengthening of the line to Lynn for years, with state legislators approving a bill in 2004 that committed a 50% funding match if federal dollars to cover the rest of the project’s cost could be found. The project’s eventual construction cost will be more than $600 million. The study will determine the environmental and neighborhood impacts of the project’s route. With the DEIS completed, MBTA could theoretically begin applying for New Starts construction dollars from Washington.
Yet, the Boston region has concentrated funding on other transit priorities. A 0.4-mile Blue Line extension south from Bowdoin to the Charles/MGH Station, where it would meet the Red Line, recently received $29 million in design money from the state, though there is no guarantee the $300 million project will be built. Meanwhile, the light rail Green Line would be stretched from Lechmere into Somerville and beyond if planners on that side of the Charles River get their way — and find more than $900 million. Boston’s Silver Line busway is under constant improvement and will be stretched south along Washington Street. None of these projects are fully funded and the MBTA, which spends 30% of its operating budget to service its more than $5 billion debt, isn’t exactly ready to commit to more transit service.
The above projects were included in the Central Artery/Tunnel (Big Dig) settlement process approved by the state in 1990 as part of a deal to mitigate the impacts of expanding highway capacity through the region’s core, which means they’re prioritized, if Massachusetts is ever capable of finding the tax revenues to cover their cost. The Blue Line expansion to Lynn was not included in that deal as far as I know.
Perhaps even more problematically for the Lynn Blue Line extension, cities along the route have been ignoring MBTA’s demand to reserve right-of-way for the project. The city of Revere allowed the construction of a condominium and parking garage directly in the path of the proposed track, so the MBTA will either have to pay to buy and demolish that building, or it will have to realign the route through a marsh. Either “solution” will increase costs exponentially. It’s unclear why Revere wouldn’t be responsible for covering these new costs.
Just as importantly, a Lynn extension may not be the best investment for Boston. Lynn is already served by MBTA commuter rail, which offers 20-minute service to North Station throughout the day. Also, there are significant arguments to be made for a prioritization of the Green Line, which will serve already dense areas of the region and encourage infill and transit-oriented growth.
Image above: Blue Line extension map, from Future MBTA