GLX highlights American problem
By Andrew Firestone
Following an announcement from the state that the Green Line Extension would be delayed until at least 2018, the people of Somerville saw the other shoe drop, as the economy was hit with yet another massive loss. With stock markets down 15 percent in the last month, it begins to seem doubtful that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation would delay the project due to their stated reason: land-takings.
Instead, it would seem massive shifts in the economy, combined with shortfalls in commonwealth finance, have led to the Green Line Extension being once again placed on the backburner.
What is being called into question, it would seem, is whether or not the city of Somerville is worth the investment on a national level to receive their Green Line Extension, proposed in 1991 and upheld as a legally binding agreement in a court of law. There are many issues at hand regarding the Commonwealth’s balance-book, and their financial risk to the federal level. These in turn are felt from the nation by the rest of the world.
Mayor Joseph Curtatone voiced palpable frustration regarding the delay, and said that the time had come for accountability. “The glamour is in the planning, the glory is in the execution,” he said.
“I feel like we’re in a position of leverage here,” he said. “The governor, I take him as a man of his word; [he said] ‘we’re going to break ground during his tenure.’ Well maybe we ought to rewind those press clippings for him because if he’s a man of his word he’ll keep his word and that’ll happen.”
Curtatone said that at greater urgency was the need for “a predictable, accountable, transparent timeline.”
“What we need to understand is when are we breaking ground,” he said. “What are the deliverables along that timeline? When will the tracks be realigned? What stations will open when and what will be in operation at this particular date, and that’s what we need to have,” rather than an “arbitrary end date”
A possible route to more funding would be if the extension project received funds from the federal “New Starts” program, run by the Federal Transit Administration. However, the future Assembly Square Orange Line was recently denied a mere $25 million in federal dollars, signaling that an even greater grant for a similar project might also be denied. The FTA is also strongly considering cutting their funding for the T by 30 percent amounting up to $80 million a year.
The cost of the GLX is currently projected at $965 million, but at a recent meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, it was revealed the pushback would inflate the cost to $1.2 billion. The debt of the MBTA is over $8.6 billion, with repayments set at $400 million per year.
This cut into what Representative Tim Toomey (D-Cambridge) says was the real reason for MassDOTs delay. “I’d say clearly financial,” he said. “I haven’t got a clear answer from MassDOT, but I’m sure with the country and everything going on, it’s financial.”
Toomey, who sits on the Statehouse Ways and Means Committee said that while he would approve setting out to bond $1.5 billion for the project, he doubted this would happen, as MassDOT would not ask for it.
Representative Carl Sciortino (D-Medford) who sits upon the Committee of Transportation blasted the department of transportation for the vagueness and suddenness of their announcement, calling it “infuriating.” Sciortino, who said that the Governor has yet to meet with the Somerville delegation called the announcement “frustratingly unclear whether this [is] purely a delay because of engineering restraints, meaning ‘we can’t build it fast enough’ or if it’s also taking into account fiscal constraints.” Sciortino echoed many of his colleagues in expressing doubt over MassDOTs reasoning, those being issues involving eminent domain and ‘right-of-way’ track problems. “I expect more from MassDOT in terms of transparency.”
“We have been working on this for a long time with the Governor, and [with the] Cambridge and Somerville percentage in votes for the Governor in the last governors race? To be treated like this is just baffling,” said Toomey.
“Governors come and go, this project is still sitting there, and we expect that Governor Patrick’s administration, as a supporter of this project, we expect them to do everything they can to get this project finally built, and I don’t see a clear date yet, or a shovel in the ground,” said Sciortino.
“I’m not surprised,” said Congressman Mike Capuano (D-MA) of the delay. “I was hoping I was wrong but I’ve been expecting this for a while.”
“I’d be surprised if they hit the new deadline,” he added. “I’ve been saying for many years that the T has no money. The other part of it is that these projects always take longer than people realize,” he said, noting the Red Line stop in Davis Square took eight years to build.
“If we knew over the next several years what is going to happen, we could plan for economic development, new advancements in our community, also we’d have confidence that things are headed in the right direction,” said Curtatone. The 184-unit Maxwell’s Green development is but one of many projects in Somerville which rely partly upon transit access from the GLX in order to maximize their attractiveness on the market. The Mayor has sent out an online petition, currently containing around 2000 signatures from angry residents.
When questioned by the Somerville News, Governor Patrick said he was still committed to seeing the project through. “It’s been put back on the schedule because we have to be realistic about what we can afford to do today, and how it ranks in the priority of things that need to be done. It’s a commitment that I have made. It’s a commitment the Commonwealth has made. It’s a commitment we will keep,” he said, acknowledging that the GLX was considered vital to the economic development of Somerville “and beyond.”
However, the GLX relies on money, only a small fraction of which have been generated through Commonwealth bonds, and the new Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey, said he would not ask the state legislature for more funds.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact, that we are dealing with a transportation system that is overburdened with Big Dig debt that has put a tremendous strain on the operations of this system,” said Patrick. “Better management alone is not going to deliver the kind of system that the people deserve,” he said, implying that the cost of the project might simply be too great.
“Let me tell you this; the Patrick Administration saved the Green Line [Extension]. I think you should recognize that,” said outgoing Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey Mullan, whose made comments last April that Federal Transportation Authority funds might not be available. “This project was nowhere in 2007 when we took up the cause, despite the legal commitment, and brought the project forward in an enormous way.”
“While we are hopeful and anticipate a significant federal contribution, at the federal level it is unclear where we are going in terms of transportation funding,” said Davey. He said he would look into possibly attracting private funding for the project as has precedent Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail company, (MCBR) that operates transit operations for some commuter rail lines.
Sciortino said he was angry that the situation had come to this. “I don’t think that continuing to push off the needs of the transportation system are good for our state’s economy or is good for our state’s legal commitment, and I do think this delay highlights once again the transportation system is not only crumbling but these finance plans for the needs of our system are failing and we absolutely have work to do to raise the revenue of our system,” said Sciortino, who has proposed legislation for just such a cause.
A possible domestic solution to the problem is also one of the most unpopular: raising a gas tax that would add levies only to the state’s transportation infrastructure needs. Patrick said that he would not push for it, despite the need. “I like it because it’s a way to raise necessary revenue for transportation that cannot then be diverted to something else. But do we have a plan to raise the gas tax? No,” said Patrick. He added that he intended to do what he could to leave a financially sustainable transportation system. Sciortino’s proposed bill would add a tax for vehicle miles travelled, which would be a similarly designed plan for state infrastructure funding.
Davey said he would work with the community to see if they could lessen the date.
However his first anticipated solution, federal funding, seems to be a bleak hope as well.
A Larger Issue
Even if the MBTA and MassDOT were able to set their financial houses in order, the federal government nearly defaulted last week after nearly failing to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. The solution was deemed inadequate by Standard and Poor’s rating agency. They subsequently downgraded the nation’s credit rating, producing a domino effect that has wreaked even further losses to the nation’s economy and threatens to throw the world back into a global recession.
The lowering of sovereign credit from AAA to AA+ was a combination of many factors. In an S&P report, they reasoned that the United States did not have adequate control over their political system to properly manage their commitments. They also noted a poor track record investing in projects of economic development, such as the GLX.
Capuano voted against the bill to raise the debt ceiling, claiming House Republicans have tapered the bill to the point where it did too little prove meaningful. “It should have been a clean debt-ceiling debate. We should have had a more thoughtful approach towards how we deal the government’s deficit. People forget that we had a surplus budget for four years from 1998 to 2002. We did it because we got there slowly and overtime and it’s only since 2002 that we’ve had this big massive deficits because we’ve insisted on having unfunded wars. We insisted on having tax cuts that didn’t necessarily help the country out.”
“I voted against the Bush tax cuts and I voted against extended them,” he said. “There are just not enough of us in the congress who are willing to do that.”
“This [problem] is self-imposed by at least seven or eight years of denial of economic reality,” said Capuano.
Capuano said that these instances of institutional dysfunction in American politics involved a fundamental value-conflict at heart in society. “That’s the country is lurching back and forth from the right to the left. As long as that happens you’re going to have these situations arise. The country is going to have to wake up at some point and make a decision for a period of time, not just at any given moment, for which direction it wants to go in.”
Capuano added that the $2.5 trillion in federal cuts under the debt-ceiling agreement would lead to more jobs being cut in the private sector than the public sector.