Short Track to Somerville Was Long in The Making
CAMBRIDGE, MASS., MARCH 21, 2022…..Just how long in the making was Monday’s opening of the Green Line Extension into Somerville? It depends on how far back you count.
Massachusetts originally put a December 2014 deadline on the expansion before a cavalcade of cost overruns and contractor problems nearly spelled its doom. Nearly a decade earlier, the Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit about the slow pace of transit improvements to make up for the environmental impacts of the Big Dig project. In 1990 — 32 years ago — responding to an earlier CLF lawsuit, the state originally committed to extending the Green Line up toward Tufts University in Medford.
But even that was not the first milestone along the way toward the moment late Monday morning when a brand-new trolley carrying a clown car’s worth of politicians rolled through a green MBTA-branded ribbon: as U.S. Sen. Ed Markey noted a few moments later, the first formal proposal to extend the T beyond Lechmere Station landed in 1926.
“I do not remember a day in my life when the people of Somerville didn’t think the Green Line was coming soon,” said former Congressman and former Somerville Mayor Mike Capuano, now 70 years old.
“A Looming Big Dig 2.0”
After decades of speedbumps, near-collapses and false starts, the first Green Line Extension train rolled out of Union Station in Somerville around 4:50 a.m. Monday, headed for a brand-new Lechmere Station in Cambridge, a reopened Science Park Station and then the remainder of the line in and beyond Boston.
The ensuing hours brought throngs of riders, transit enthusiasts and political power players to Cambridge and Somerville, many of whom lingered on station platforms to take pictures of MBTA maps emblazoned with “Union Square” and “Lechmere.”
In addition to the first station in Somerville, the extension’s opening welcomed passengers to a new Lechmere Station platform overlooking the former stop, which has been closed to trains since 2020.
For marketing professional Alexa Carr, Monday marked the first time she could commute to her job in Boston without a transfer.
“I just moved in in November with the promise of this station,” Carr said. “I would take the bus to North Station and then get on the train, so this is super easy — right from home, one train, right to work on Boylston Street, the Arlington stop.”
“It’s a very exciting day,” she added.
As recently as 2015, the Green Line Extension appeared on the brink of collapse. Cost overruns pushed the estimated price tag up by roughly $1 billion, and the T in response canceled its contracts and sought out a new project manager.
Former Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, who worked at CLF when the group sued the state over mitigation for the Central Artery/Tunnel megaproject before spending six years in Gov. Charlie Baker’s Cabinet, said the Green Line Extension at that point was “a looming Big Dig 2.0.”
“The real winner today as the Green Line Extension begins operations at long last is not just infrastructure,” Pollack, who now serves as deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, said Monday. “The winners are the people whose lives will be improved, the communities whose futures will be transformed, and perhaps some restored belief in the power we all have to build a better future together.”
Gentrification Fears Cast Shadow Over Celebration
As elected officials swarmed across the Charles River to celebrate Monday’s opening, community advocates warned that the benefits of the new rapid transit stops could be outweighed by displacement and skyrocketing real estate prices.
Several dozen activists rallied outside Lechmere Station, calling for state and local officials to act quickly to prioritize development of affordable housing and erect guardrails around investment in the area.
While she stressed that she supports the extension, Community Action Agency of Somerville Director of Community Organizing Nicole Eigbrett said the newfound transit option carries “unintended consequences” and has prompted new development and rent increases aimed at more wealthy professionals enticed by the extension.
Somerville, she said, has transformed into a “gold mine for investors.”
“Gentrification isn’t really happening in Somerville by big corporations,” Eigbrett said. “It’s been by an army of smaller predatory investors, developers and greed-driven landlords who are reaping the profits and evicting the very people this train extension was supposedly built for.”
Vanessa Vela, who has lived in Somerville for 17 years, said her landlord approached her in September asking her and her family to leave while converting other units in the building and listing them at significantly higher rents.
After talking with her mother and son, who is in high school, Vela said she decided to reject an offer from her landlord that included several months of waived rent. Instead, she decided to fight to stay in her home, and since then, the landlord has refused to negotiate over a new lease, Vela said.
“My mom has been contributing to the economy of Massachusetts for over 30 years, but that’s not enough for them,” Vela, who like her mother is an immigrant from El Salvador, said. “They find us unworthy of living in Somerville because it has become a city for wealthy people. That’s all they want.”
Eyes Already On the Next Expansion
The Union Square branch’s launch represents the first time the MBTA has opened a new stretch along its core rapid transit network since 1987, when the T finished demolishing the elevated Orange Line and replaced those stations with all-new infrastructure.
Another, larger expansion is set to follow in the coming months. The second Green Line Extension branch will bring another five Somerville and Medford stops after Lechmere, ending at College Avenue near Tufts University.
Officials have not announced an opening date for that branch, which like the Union Square segment has faced recent delays fueled in part by the pandemic. MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Monday the T plans to host another ceremony to mark the next launch “later this year.”
MBTA officials expect that once both branches on the 4.7-mile extension are open, riders will take about 45,000 more trips per day.
And while some elected officials used Monday as a chance to take a victory lap, others set their sights on the steps to follow.
Several speakers at the packed opening ceremony, including Sen. Patricia Jehlen and Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, called for the MBTA and the Baker administration to embrace further extending the Green Line out to Mystic Valley Parkway.
State officials had eyed extending the Green Line to the Mystic Valley Parkway, also known as Route 16, more than a decade ago, but that addition does not feature in any of the existing plans.
“This is an important milestone, but our work is not done,” Jehlen said. “Many people today think the Green Line will permanently end at Tufts/West Medford, but we will not stop until it reaches Route 16.”
Former Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, who was among those on the first-ever train that departed Union Square early Monday morning, voiced his support for the additional extension and for a further push into Porter Square to link the Green and Red Lines, which also intersect at Park Street in downtown Boston.
“I’m going on another train ride,” Curtatone quipped as he walked away from the podium.