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Silver Line Project to Offset Big Dig Effects

Originally published in The Berkley Beacon

October 23, 2008
Maria Chutchian (Reporter, The Berkley Beacon)

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has claimed a green motive for its plan to dig up Boylston Street and build a bus tunnel beneath Emerson’s campus. It’s a make-up project designed to mitigate the environmental damage caused by the Big Dig project, said MBTA spokewoman Lydia Rivera.

The T is legally bound by the state to provide a more environmentally friendly public transit route to counterbalance the Dig, which promotes car-use and created considerable waste and pollution, while ensnarling Boston during its 17-year construction saga. The Silver Line is the next step in the process of offsetting those effects, she said.

"Without the third leg, [the Silver Line] is not complete," Rivera said. "It doesn’t make sense. A piece of the puzzle is missing."

Several studies of the plan’s potential environmental footprint, however, indicate a new Silver Line tunnel will do relatively little to take cars off the road. And the T’s explanation hasn’t calmed criticism from Emerson Vice President of Public Affairs David Rosen, and other concerned parties, including T-rider advocacy groups.

"It’s clear from reading the Brattle Group’s report that the MBTA is in a dire financial situation," he said. "It’s citizens and the people who use the system that will be funding this tunnel to nowhere."

The Silver Line expansion would add 15,000 daily riders to a service that already transports 1.3 million every day, according to a cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Brattle Group, an economic and environmental management firm hired by Emerson to conduct the independent study.

Due to the MBTA’s $8 billion debt, the analysis also found the agency does not have enough cash at hand to pay back wages to its employees. The study determined that the construction cost would outweigh any transportation benefit for riders.

"The MBTA would be well-advised to explore a no-build solution to completing the Silver Line and use its limited resources to upgrade existing service, address deferred maintenance needs and keep its newly acquired riders," according to the study.

The MBTA advisory board, a public oversight group for the agency, reported sales tax revenue has not performed well since 2001. A majority of the MBTA budget, 55 percent, comes from those tax revenues, leading the Brattle report to advise against the Silver Line endeavor, which the T estimates will cost $1.2 billion.

The Brattle Group wrote in its study that if the cost does reach their estimate of $2 billion, as many expect it will, the state’s financial contribution to the expansion will increase. Currently, the federal government is expected to provide $720 million, or 60 percent, while the state will pay the remaining $480 million. Should the cost reach $2 billion, the state’s portion would increase to $45 million per year.

Another study found the plan would produce the same air quality gains as replacing 55 of the worst-polluting cars on the road with Toyota Priuses or other hybrid vehicles.

That review, preformed by David Luberoff of the Kennedy School of Government, also found the nitrogen oxides released in the air would be reduced by only 0.046 percent.

Though the environmental impact is a concern for many, the $1.2 billion cost is what upsets others, including the T Riders Union.

"The people who are paying for [the project] are low-income communities and communities of color," said John Cater, a member and community organizer for the union. "The T has to pay for it somehow, and that usually means a fare increase. We can’t afford that, but we have no other way of getting around."

Cater said the union has sent letters to the MBTA expressing its opposition, but has not received a response.

Vice President of Public Affairs David Rosen questioned the T’s finances and its effect on the public in an e-mail to the MBTA obtained by The Beacon.

"How will this be funded?" he wrote. "By fare and tax increases. It’s the ‘Little Dig.’"

Rivera said there is a chance T riders would see fares increase.

"It’s no secret that we’re in financial difficulty," she said. "But we’ve been forthright in informing the public about a possible fare increase."

A Better City, a transportation and land development organization, confirmed their support of the project and said they believe now is the best time to go through with the massive effort.

"It is so critical right now that we look to the future to address current financial challenges," wrote President and CEO Rick Dimino in an e-mail message.

"Faced with limited resources, Massachusetts must compete for scarce federal dollars," Dimino wrote. "To say ‘no thank you’ to potentially $720 million or more in federal funding is no way to remain economically well-positioned."

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