The congestion of street cars on the narrow streets leading to Scollay Square and the commercial heart of Boston presented a problem worth solving in 1895. A century later, circumstances may not be so different, but resources differ starkly.
In earlier times, Boston, as did all cities and states, grappled with its own needs and funded the solutions. The cost was theirs to bear, thus the cost-benefit equation was closely attended which produced solutions that were both successful and cost effective.
Fast forward to today, a time when accountability within our government is elusive and 'tar and feathering' has gone out of fashion. We no longer have the critical link between cost and benefit to guide those who make a pretense of leadership.
For many decades now, the cost of transit benefits for thousands of cities and towns across the United States has been heavily subsidized by the federal purse; I would argue that this produces poor choices and, as if anyone cares, a national public debt that no one comprehends anymore.
In the GLX case, 'group think' has rendered a plan to extend a 'light' rail transit line 3.44 miles, with a short branch of 0.8 miles. The right-of-way chosen is an existing rail corridor, flat and mostly straight with virtually no physical obstacles of any consequence. The estimate for buying and laying 4 miles of new tracks, having 7 places to pick up and drop off people and enough tram cars, for that purpose, has passed the $1 Billion dollar mark. Yes, all of that to lay 4.24 miles of tracks for a 'freakin' railroad, some platforms, stairs, and to purchase rolling stock. The laying of rails (over and through mountains) has been accomplished for over 200 years with not much more than hammers, shovels and picks.
The original plan was to take the service to West Medford, and the first cost estimates, in 2003, tallied to $375 million. The GLX (Green Line Extension) was at that time projected to pick up (sarcasm ahead) a whopping 3,500 new public transit riders. Even at that time, it was audaciously over priced for a 'light rail' extension of only 5.3 miles in an existing rail corridor, with no tunneling or other engineering/technical difficulties.
In Boston, the public has been well 'trained' by government bureaucrats and contractors (via the Big Dig) to ignore such big numbers. And not surprisingly, once hooked, the price tag can grow exponentially without fear of loosing their catch.
Revised numbers, and a revised plan, in 2009 placed the bill at $954 million for 4.24 miles. And while the length of the extension was cut by almost 20%, surprisingly, the MBTA's projected new ridership number somehow doubled to 7,200.
I'm quite certain that doubling the estimate of 'new' ridership while reducing the extent of service would have raised suspicions in the private sector but not in the public sector, where 'we the public' blithely believe those things will take care of themselves, thus not surprisingly, those involved, elected and appointed officials and private sector contractors, do take care of themselves.
And who is going to bet against the final tab exceeding 50% of that number? Check with MIT, I think it's some sort of law of physics that applies to all public works. So, a reality check places the estimate, as of 2010, at around $1,500,000,000; the only real question is whether it will reach $2 billion.
Alternatively, we could, but won't, save lots of disruption by investing the $1.5 billion in securities, perpetually earning enough, after inflation, to give $6,000 annually to each of those 7200 people (or perhaps $12,000 to 3,500 people) in exchange for them giving up their car commutes by using instead existing public transit. Most, if not all, would do it for half that amount. Seems far more financially sound and we'd always have the principle of $1.5 billion (adjusted for inflation).
At the rate the U.S. government is handing over billions of dollars to Massachusetts, the state would do well to put that money into an endowment fund. Pretty soon there would be enough in annual returns to allow everyone to retire, and then no one would need to commute to a job; transit problem solved.
But, back to the reality we've been dealt.
Where has the actual science of urban transit been applied in this case?
The need of improved public transit for residents of Somerville and Medford is well acknowledged, but any movement in that direction should be taken with the accumulated knowledge we now have of urban transit successes and failures. However, the sincerity of this public goal is questionable given that the initiative is being undertaken purely as a contractual obligation agreed to by the State in order to eliminate a legal obstacle to the Big Dig road project. As it stands right now, this is just another billion+ dollars thrown onto the costs of the Big Dig.
To attract sufficient ridership, public transit has to be about convenience (accessibility) and usefulness (speed efficiency). A potential rider's trip distance is an important variable in determining the effects of those two elements on their transit choice.
The density of these neighborhoods, going all the way to West Medford, and this rail corridor, ready made for heavy rail service, are 'screaming' to be part of the city's rapid rail system. The double tracks of this corridor run to within 200 feet (less than a city block) of the existing Orange Line tracks; a more fortunate infrastructure occurrence there could not be. The implied suggestion here is detailed on another page.
And yet while quite feasible, taking advantage of the Orange Line by branching it (ala the Red Line on the south side) isn't the only option for taking the Somerville line into the city's CBD as rapid rail. This option is also examined in a soon to be added page.
My critique of the GLX is not just about a choice of light rail or heavy rail for this particular application. An even greater flaw lies in its poor resource utilization and, thus, waste of public funds, regardless of which transit mode is used, but that goes beyond this particular plan to the management and planning of the whole public transit system.
The MBTA owns the right of way and the double set of tracks running its length, currently using it to run the Lowell Commuter Line. That service has its last pickup at West Medford and then runs non-stop through to North Station. Amtrak's Downeaster also uses these tracks on its trip from Portland, Me; there is as well a minor freight use. It is feasible to shift the Boston portion of the Lowell Line to other MBTA tracks, without serious impacts to its service, and to reroute other uses of these tracks. This option is explained in detail elsewhere on another page.
Thus, over $150 million that has been allocated for land, track and infrastructure expansion to add a set of tracks to this rail corridor should not be spent. A more pragmatic expenditure made to merge two commuter lines before they enter the city would not only free up this corridor out to the GLX's proposed end at College Ave., but have the gift of another 7 miles of perfectly functioning rail for expanded Orange Line (or an altogether new rapid rail line) service to West Medford and beyond [all of Boston's rail stock, commuter, heavy, and light use the same type and gauge of tracks].