The Green Line Extension

This is what I hope to be the first in a series of four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, to be followed by posts about free transit, operating aid, and an Urban Institute report by Yonah Freemark.

The Green Line Extension in Boston opened on Monday. Or, at least, the Union Square branch did; the main line to Tufts is expected to open in a few months. I rode it with Marco Chitti in the afternoon, a few hours after the formal opening ceremony. It was incomplete, with some access points not yet open, and the station fare barriers not yet functional (ticket receipts are checked by staff). There were many railfans on the platforms taking photos, and we accidentally let the first arriving train go because of a misunderstanding over whether it was in service; at least during the first day, it was not yet intended for a general audience.

Bostonians seem to view the extension as a great success. The media’s tone is celebratory. I no longer remember what local New York media said when Second Avenue Subway opened at the beginning of 2017, but I think it was more sober, more reflective of its high costs (I was getting a lot of followers on Twitter, but I tweeted that I was looking for work in the field around that day and got a lot of boosts over that). Within a year of SAS’s opening, Brian Rosenthal’s article appeared, detailing the mess that led to the line’s $1.7 billion/km cost. And as far as I can tell, there’s no comparable look at GLX in Boston.

This is not for lack of material. The Transit Costs Project began as a case study of how GLX got so expensive – it cost $2.2 billion not including rolling stock for a total length of 7.6 km. For a subway, it’s somewhat above global average. But it’s a light rail line with a short elevated segment and the rest in existing commuter rail trenched rights-of-way.

The line isn’t even especially good for the cost. It’s still incomplete. The fare payment is especially messy. The CharlieCard system used in Boston is a legacy mid-2000s system, which the MBTA wants to replace with something called AFC 2.0 (Charlie being AFC 1.0); it gave the contract to American transit agencies’ favorite military contractor, Cubic, which recently said it’s going to have a multi-year delay because it’s prioritizing New York’s Omny contract, and there’s nothing Massachusetts can do about it. When GLX value-engineered the stations, it was expected AFC 2.0 would be done by now, so there was no need for AFC 1.0-compatible fare barriers. It isn’t, so station staff stand in front of the platform directing passengers to tap their cards to get paper receipts. Going fareless at just this station for a short period is looked down on because it’s in a rich neighborhood and it may be discriminatory.

And as far as I can tell, nobody in Boston is asking “how can we make sure it will never happen again?”. The criticism I see in the media is about gentrification; Union Square has been gentrified for at least 10 years, but local politicians like Ayanna Pressley are using the line as an opportunity to make social criticism and impose even more political restrictions, so that future lines will be even kludgier and more expensive.

The MBTA is not always like this. Small projects do not have a large cost premium in Boston. Commuter rail infill stations, designed in-house, have a cost premium over Berlin in the 1.5x area. But the MBTA lacks in-house capacity to manage larger projects; GLX is beyond its capacity, so the original project was stuck and ballooned to $3 billion, and Governor Charlie Baker restarted it as a special-purpose vehicle, rather like Crossrail, with an externally-hired project manager in John Dalton. This mirrors the other transit megaproject in the region, South Coast Rail, currently clocking around $3.4 billion for 77 km of commuter rail in existing rights-of-way, a cost in line with German greenfield high-speed rail with considerable tunneling. No in-house hires were made, and now it seems that Dalton will be let go to take his experience elsewhere; the next MBTA megaproject will start from zero.

And as far as I can tell, nobody is pointing out this pattern. Baker and his political appointees are certain that their method works, because they are ignorant of global best practices. They are not exposed to ideas outside the US, except maybe in the most globalized parts of Britain and other high-cost English-speaking countries; a European who speaks to them like a typical European does – that is, without any pretension that Americans are better people – will just never get through.

In fact, they are failures. Not Dalton, who made the project better (but who is still unemployable anywhere with low costs; Milan Metro has its own in-house team, thank you very much). But Baker, who led the privatization of the state as budget director in the Weld era 30 years ago, must be viewed as the primary villain. His secretary of transportation for much of this period, Stephanie Pollack, must be viewed in a similar way: she does not believe it is possible to compare different projects, perhaps because the ones she is involved with are deficient. People should point at them and laugh on the street and perhaps yell at them for wasting government money with their failed ideology.

The second villain, after the state capacity destroyer that is Baker, consists of Governor Deval Patrick, who let the project balloon. He did not rebuild state capacity; he instead instructed the MBTA to accept the demands of every community that wanted something – in this case, Somerville and its demand for premium-cost bike paths (“Somerville Community Path”) and oversize stations. Pressley is an heir to this tradition; unless she changes her tune, it will be best for infrastructure if she is ignored, or better yet defeated for reelection.

Right now, I do not see any political group in the Boston area that is interested in making things better. High costs to them are just “it’s our turn to hog the trough.” This has implications for federal funding: the feds should choke funding to the region if it stays like this.


  1. Matthew Hutton

    It’s not 2005 so why not just use contactless credit cards?

    And I doubt Singapore, Shanghai, Santiago, London or Hong Kong would have had issues with their smart cards rolling them out to new stations 10-15 years ago.

    • Henry Miller

      don’t credit cards have a high minimum fee? You also want to track people enough to give the right weekly/monthly riders. Last, you need each transaction to be fast, that means you have to have servers in the same city, with good connections (that is you get about 10milliseconds between the tap and the door starting to open).

      Credit cards can work, but the default will have a number of things that make it the wrong answer. Maybe VISA or MasterCard is interested in investing in fixing the issues, but right now the way they work when I’m at the store makes me think they are not acceptable for fare gates.

      I have a background in human machine interaction. Don’t allow me in your kitchen: I’ll spend an hour yelling at how bad your stove is.

      • Henry Miller

        “give the right weekly/monthly riders”

        That should be give them the right daily/weekly/monthly discounts.

        That might include no charge at all because this counts as a transfer. I’m not sure how Boston’s fares work, but all of the above are good practice. People should have confidence that if they tap in – no matter which card they have on them – they will at the end of the month see the best possible price charged for their trips.

      • Steve

        The New York OMNY system just rolled out weekly fare capping across all of its payment options – contactless credit card, OMNY Card, or smart device (phone, tablet, smartwatch). As long as you use the same contactless credit card (or device or OMNY card) each time you tap in the subway or bus, you pay a maximum fare of $33 per calendar week (same as the weekly MetroCard, which will be phased out). This means that everyone can take advantage of a weekly pass without having to pre-buy it.

        I’m not sure what “high minimum fee” you are referring to, and I have never had a problem tapping into the subway or bus with a credit card. In fact, I find it amazingly user-friendly, much more so than the MetroCard which has been the payment media for something like 25 years.

        • Tiercelet

          Different from the weekly MetroCard: OMNY is capped to a Monday-through-Sunday week, so if you have to take a lot of trips from Wednesday through the next Tuesday, you’re out of luck.

          Daily commuters won’t notice the difference (but also won’t benefit unless they take at least one additional round trip weekly), but people with more irregular schedules–gig workers, flexibly-scheduled shift workers, the economically precarious more generally–certainly will.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, and there’s also no monthly capping, I think because London doesn’t have it due to mid-2000s limitations of the technology. Not that it matters much – if you’re a regular non-work user you should just get the season passes even with the stingy discounts New York offers (a monthly is 46 rides in New York, 36 in Berlin); when I was just in New York, I rode something like 22 times with my weekly, not counting the one time I accidentally swiped my pay-per-ride since AirTrain MetroCards can only load value and not time for some reason.

          • Steve

            True that there will undoubtedly be a few people for whom the Unlimited MetroCard is better, but A) the vast majority of Unlimited MetroCard users are commuters (few people otherwise reach the break-even point), and B) this permits people who can’t do the up-front cost of an Unlimited card to benefit from it. I think that this is more fair to more people.

          • adirondacker12800

            They load value because yokels from the hinterlands made it that airport passengers fees can’t be spent outside of the perimeter of the airport. The yokels make it so puddle jumpers from West Obscuria can fly in and out during prime hours too.

          • Steve

            The notion that AirTrain riders affect the overall # of people who load value vs. time is ridiculous – in 2019 annual AirTrain JFK ridership was less than 2 days of subways ridership (8.7m annual AirTrain JFK; 5.9m daily subway). Besides, the MetroCard holds BOTH value and time – when I was commuting daily, I always had both a monthly Unlimited AND some value specifically for using the AirTrain with the same MetroCard.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Contactless credit cards have worked fine in London for 15 years. And there’s a special rapid Apple Pay (and presumably Google and Samsung pay) for public transport so even that is quick.

      • Phake Nick

        Contactless credit card as a transit payment option sometimes offer lower premium than regular transaction, and can also be made to work offline thus does not require the time consuming server communication process. But it all depends on how the transit system deal with payment handlers

      • plaws0

        So provide an alternative to bank payment cards that uses the same tech. None of this is rocket science and is at least 25 year old tech. Also, the bus driver takes *at least* 10 ms to collect your fare. Especially if the farebox is not automated and she has to count the coins.

    • Phake Nick

      When Hong Kong’s Light Rail system, being an open system with no fare gate, saw their transit card readers being destroyed en masse and cannot be reinstalled in time, the operator’s solution was to tell passengers boarding from station where card readers are not available to deboard at next station where transit fare card reader were still available, tap their card, then wait for the next train to continue their journey, and increase their on board fare inspection enforcement to make people pay.

  2. Luke

    The other end of the reduction of state capacity problem is that expectations fall accordingly. “Of course public project X is late, over-budget, and doesn’t work as intended. It’s a government-run, public project”. It would’ve been far harder to pursue the diminution of the state if people had faith in the ability of it to be a positive social force; naturally, I’m disinclined to think these two changes have coincided by accident.

    I’m not going to leap into the conspiratorial deep-end and say it was on purpose, but I don’t think that either those actively work to incapacitate American state apparati nor those working to make American state incompetence seem like an inevitability were disappointed at each other’s progress over the past several decades.

    • Eric2

      The project was a failure the moment it was called “Green Line Extension”, before the state got involved. The idea that they would spend billions on a new rail extension duplicating existing rail, rather than just building a few platforms and running more trains on the existing rail, is a bigger failure than all the failures that came after it.

      • CharlesO

        Using the commuter rail in a light rail service mode would have resulted in laughably inadequate service no matter how many trains you run, and would have degraded service for the commuter rail passengers as well.

        • Eric2

          “Laughably inadequate service” only if you don’t run more trains.

          It would have “degraded” commuter service by giving the further-out commuters access to more destinations at the expense of a slightly longer time on the train. Overall trip time might actually have been lower, because there would be ridership demand to run trains more frequently. On the balance, it would likely have been a win for those commuters. And even if not, the slight harm to their trip is not something that justifies spending billions to avoid.

      • Alex Cat3

        The short branch of the Green Line extension next to the Fitchburg Line probably should have been replaced by better commuter rail. The longer branch, however, is more justifiable. The problem with using the Lowell Line as local transit in the area is that the Lowell line leads to Lowell, a city of 111,000 22 mi away from downtown Boston, and therefore has a fair amount of long-distance demand. If Democrats ever get control of New Hampshire, it could be extended to Nashua, Manchester, and Concord, cities of 88,000, 112,000, and 43,000. Adding six stops in 4 miles, as the Green Line extension is doing next to the line, would significantly slow down the line and make it less valuable for this use. One could, of course, have wider stop spacing, but that would not provide as good local service.

        • Eric2

          The Lowell Line has miniscule ridership at present – 5000 riders per day per direction. Adding a few minutes to their trip, in return for better headways which would be justified by the ridership of intermediate stops, is probably a win for them,

          • themissinglink

            The Green Line is much a better solution, adding time to the Lowell Line’s schedule would likely dissuade people living in communities far from Boston from riding it. The Green Line allows for communities close to Boston to be served without lengthening the Lowell Line or Fitchburg Line schedules.

            The suggestion that GLX should have instead been commuter/regional rail is downright ridiculous.

          • Eric2

            If the Green Line were built for free, then sure, two rail lines rather than one is better (marginally better in this case). But to spend $2 billion so that 5000 daily commuters don’t have 6 minutes added to their daily commute? That’s what’s ridiculous.

          • Phake Nick

            I doubt more train station in nearby residential neighbors would result in more train service to further out destination – most of the trains could just turnaround after serving those nearby residential area. Then most long distance commuter trains can just skip those stations in residential neighbors?

          • adirondacker12800

            Seems like many people reading this blog have a real difficult time dealing with complicated service patterns like local and express. Commuter trains can’t go farther into Boston like the Green line does. They are drooling at that prospect?

          • CharlesO

            Have you ever ridden the Needham Line, with its ridiculously close stop spacing that desperately needs to be converted to an Orange Line extension? It takes a full 15 minutes to get from Hersey to Forest Hills, and adding the GLX stops to the Lowell Line would add at least that much, probably more since there’s more stops. And then you’re at North Station instead of all the way downtown. And meanwhile you’ve absolutely hosed the Downeaster and any potential New Hampshire service that gets bogged down behind the commuter rail trains poking along at 15mph stopping every half mile.
            I’ve been following this project closely since it was first proposed and seen all the alternatives analyses, which included just running more 80 buses, BRT instead of light rail, etc. As far as I recall, building several infill commuter rail stations wasn’t even considered at any point. That’s not because the planners were idiots who just wanted to flush $2 billion down the toilet, it’s because it’s a terrible idea. Like I said elsewhere, if you’re going to spend money to improve transit, you should spend the money to do it right, not throw up some janky half-assery like this idea.

          • adirondacker12800

            There ya go being complicated. Trains from Maine? People want to go to Maine by train? You mean if the train is full of people, from New Hampshire or Maine, when it gets to the state line, that want to go to Boston, they don’t want to stop every mile in Massachusetts? There’ are dots on the route map, in Massachusetts, don’t as many of them want to go there too?
            ….you forget that people who move to New Hampshire to escape the People’s Republic of Massachusetts think trains are a Communist plot to sap the precious bodily fluids of Real Americans(tm). They’ll drive to the enormous parking lot at the end of the line, in Massachusetts, and take the train from there. To get to Boston, even if they do that, they don’t want to stop every mile along the way.

          • threestationsquare

            If I’m reading the MBTA’s public data correctly it looks to me like Lowell Line weekday ridership as of 2018 was about 10k per direction actually, 20k total? Plus some extra for Haverhill Line and Downeaster trains that use the line. This despite infrequent and premium-priced service; with better cheaper service (which could be funded by replacing the antiquated conductor-ticket-punch fare system with proof-of-payment spot checks) ridership would likely be much higher. For comparison GLX is expected to eventually have weekday ridership of 45k one-way trips (and some of those will be to/from Union Square). So I don’t think crippling the Lowell Line for the sake of the GLX stations when the latter have only twice as many riders is particularly justifiable. Electrification and four-tracking (at least at strategic passing points) but serving the new stations with regional rail instead of the Green Line should have been considered as an alternative, but it’s not clear it would have been very much cheaper, and it would have other drawbacks.

      • Luke

        The point is that the project could’ve come to perfect success, and public perception would largely skew negative in any case. I honestly think that people underestimate the extent to which the whithering away of the American state is, to a large extent, a complete project, less because of any actual functional failing than because the expection for success is unreasonably low, and therefore the pressures to improve functionality–probably best, at this point, by looking to developed countries–are mostly absent. I don’t mean to imply, necessarily, that the U.S. is a failed state, rather that public perception among lay people seems to be that a productive state (and any accordant capacity) is a failed concept, a non-sequiter. There can be no such thing as successful government if the two words are thought to be oxymoronic; why bother trying to improve that which is broken by its nature?

        • threestationsquare

          But the public perception is positive; that’s what Alon is complaining about. The only complaints are that government is *too* effective, in that it might occasionally complete localized improvements on timescales short enough to cause perceptible increases in the demand for housing in a particular neighborhood (“gentrification”).

          • Luke

            I think the broader context here is being missed. “Public” perception, here, is refering to the media that publicizes such things, and American transit-focused media in particular, and the section of the public who take public transportation. In the U.S., the average newspaper or local news channel doesn’t pay much attention to transit because it’s not a factor in the lives of most Americans. Certainly in Boston, this is a small percentage of people. Even pre-COVID and its attendant service reductions, the modal share of transit in Boston (and this is just for work trips) is under 20%. I.e., the vast majority of people in Boston don’t use public transportation in most circumstances.

            Among transit-oriented Americans, expectations are low and easily satisfied because the quality of service is usually low; hence the mostly-unjustified positive reception of GLX. However, outside that niche of people–which is largely looked down upon as either poor if we have no other option but transit or weird if we do and use transit anyway–there is not even the expectation that public transportation COULD be good in the U.S. If the goal of all of this is to effect large changes in modal share, it needs to become a consensus–even among people who, given the choice, would simply pick whichever means of travel is most effective for satisfying their wants and needs–that public projects can be better-executed than profit-driven private ones. For that to be possible, expectations for public projects need to be high enough that even those who are affectually disinclined to like government can’t deny its possible efficacy.

            I know it probably sounds incoherent, but that a small subsector of Bostonians *like* the GLX is a factor in the broader public dislike for public projects.

          • threestationsquare

            I rode the first GLX train and was surprised by the amount of local (print and TV) press that was there at 4:50am. You’re right about modal share in Boston but I think a lot of people use transit at least occasionally and so care about such an expansion. (Also the comments about “gentrification” Alon mentions from Ayanna Pressley demonstrate how at this point transit riders are at least as likely to be stereotyped as rich as they are to be stereotyped as poor, which in turn means that e.g. Somerville homeowners care about GLX because they think it might raise their property values even if they don’t intend to ride it.)

            I’m not quite sure what modal share has to do with expectations of public vs private projects though, since cars also use government-built infrastructure and indeed are even more dependent on it (whereas in at least some parts of the world transit is private). US highway megaprojects are almost as poorly run as US transit megaprojects, and this doesn’t stop drivers from welcoming them and coming back for more.

          • Luke

            (In response to your most recent comment)
            If people think about roads at all, it’s usually if there’s something wrong with them. I.e., insofar as Americans think of public infrastructure projects as existing, they think of them poorly. Cars are private transportation, and thought of accordingly, even if the roadways they require need government activity to build and maintain.

            By extension, the “public” in public transit means, much more than with public roads that are used by private automobiles, by nature it cannot be good. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in the minority in this country, and the celebration of subpar projects by those people is just further evidence in the mind of the car-driving majority that public transportation (as a subset of types of state activity) is bad, much like people complain about their taxes but rarely ever express gratitude for the roads, public education, water works, etc., those taxes provide.

          • threestationsquare

            Politicians certainly think that incredibly overpriced highway projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement or the Seattle SR99 tunnel are good ways to get votes, and they don’t seem to be wrong about that. Whereas political opposition to highway expansions on the grounds that government projects are inevitably mismanaged is basically unheard of.

            In New Jersey a lot of the commuter buses are privately run and people don’t seem to think any better of them than the public NJT buses. People certainly don’t think better of private Greyhound than public Amtrak. So I don’t think government vs private is really the relevant distinction here.

          • adirondacker12800

            The Tappan Zee bridge is wide and long. Per lane mile it’s not outrageous. It’s a toll bridge. The minority of users, Rockland County residents, screamed that it would be outrageous if the toll was as high as other New York City crossings. The legislature then went and made the tolls for everybody lower instead of doing something complicated like other crossings.That whacks non residents There’s still a toll. You don’t want to cross any of them without an electronic toll tag. Toll roads are quite common in the Northeast. Where we burn taxed fuel so that people in the hinterlands can have free interstates.

      • threestationsquare

        Providing good frequent regional rail service on the inner part of the Lowell Line would have required four-tracking (including replacing all the bridges as was a major part of GLX), electrification, and stations with long high platforms rather than GLX’s smaller stations. I’m doubtful that it would have been much cheaper than GLX overall, and would have wound up with less useful service that dead-ended at North Station when most riders want to go further into Boston. It might still have made more sense as part of a cohesive regional rail modernization plan but I don’t think it would have been a way around the problem of very inflated costs on this line, and the cost problem is something that needs to be confronted for regional rail modernization is viable.

        • Eric2

          Four-tracking would be totally unnecessary – the current commuter service on the line has miniscule ridership. Electrification and station platforms would have cost a tiny fraction of all the GLX building and rebuilding.

          Why didn’t the billions wasted on this project instead go to connecting North to South Station?

          • themissinglink

            If you consider the money spent on GLX to be “wasted” because the project doesn’t fit your exact specifications or address your trivial issues with it, you clearly don’t care about providing good transit, you only care about your own transit completionism fantasy.

          • Eric2

            It’s wasted because it provides minimal if any benefit over a vastly cheaper option, as I explained in other comments.

    • Alon Levy

      Baker isn’t interesting enough to do it on purpose. He ideologically wants to drown the state in the bathtub, but it doesn’t mean he deliberately mismanages it; he genuinely thinks that long-term investment in the public sector is a waste of money, that clever tricks to shift funding from the state to the feds are prudent, that the public sector is always overpaid and overstaffed and therefore low-effort hiring freezes never create local staff shortages.

      • Luke

        I would argue that a person whose role is essentially a public servant, who takes as one of his primary responsibilities the shrinking of the public sphere and acts accordingly, is deliberately mismanaging. He and his ilk may not think of it that way, but it’s like a doctor “improving” public health by killing people so there are fewer to be sick.

  3. CharlesO

    I’ve commented on this before and apparently I have to do so again. The GLX project suffered from poor contract management and the costs got out of control as a result, nobody argues that. But the project is not remotely as simple as just putting down tracks in an existing right-of-way: while the ROW itself has plenty of room for four tracks, the trench that the line runs through for most of its length did not, so it was necessary to widen the trench on both sides and replace or extend several bridges, *while* maintaining commuter rail service.
    And the Community Path Extension, from an overall perspective of providing non-car transportation options, was a necessary part of the project. The existing Somerville Community Path is itself the extension of two major multi-use paths, the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway (one of the busiest paths in the country) and the Massachusetts Central Rail Trail, which when fully built out will extend all the way to Northampton, 100 miles to the west. And right now it ignominiously dead-ends at Lowell Street, where its ROW joins that of the GLX, which greatly limits its potential as a commuter route. Building the extension alongside the GLX was the only way it was ever going to be completed. It also didn’t increase the costs that much; when the project was re-bid, the extension was included as one of the extras that the bidders could include if it came in under the overall price cap (and was assigned lower priority than public art!), and all of the bidders included it.

  4. sarah weeklock

    Somerville is not Boston. Union sq is not in boston it is in Somerville fix that!

  5. Peter Furth

    You characterize the GLX as a failure mainly because it cost way too much and wonder, why aren’t people moaning? Because in Massachusetts, NOBODY CARES ABOUT COST. Capital money comes from Santa Claus. There is no sense of a budget for transportation capital projects, i.e., no sense that what you don’t spend on project 1 could be used on project 2 or 3. Every project is seen as an opportunity to grab “somebody else’s money.” There is every incentive to increase the scope, adding to the cost, and no incentive to cut costs if it involves even the slightest compromise.
    Secretary Pollack and Gov Baker, whom you cast as budget villains, are seen as budget heroes. They did a bold thing in rejecting all bids the first round, when the low bid (maybe it was the only one?) was for $3B. Pollack told contractors to get real and come back with more reasonable costs. Compared to business as usual, they reduced the project cost by $800M, partly by allowing less elaborate stations, and partly by pressure on bidders to give up exorbitant profits.
    Like you, I would like a system in which the incentives are such that costs are driven down. On the political / organizational side, I don’t know what would fix it. Please help.
    On the technical side, I know they could have eliminated a lot of cost (viaducts, bridges) by allowing tracks to intersect at the branching point, accepting the operational restriction and safety risk of controlling intersecting movements. After all, these are Green Line trains that, once they emerge from their tunnel, operate as streetcars, obeying traffic signals at intersection after intersection; why not in Somerville, too? Because we never compromise to save money.
    And yes, including the bike path was the right thing to do. Much cheaper than trying to add it later – and it’s a needed piece of infrastructure, just like the GLX.

    • Alon Levy

      Here’s one incentive: stop celebrating villains. Massachusetts views Baker as a hero? Great, this is a good argument for not giving it outside money. People who neither say “we goofed” nor quietly do the changes needed to do better next time are not a good investment.

      For example, the bike path should cost a few hundred thousand dollars. Repaint car lanes and add some bollards for physical separation. Stop expecting other people to build you deluxe-cost substandard-quality lanes just because you are incapable of suppressing whiners with cars. (At least near Davis, queer women I talk to say the bike path feels less safe to walk in at night than the street. Fewer eyes on the street and such.)

      • adirondacker12800

        It’s not outside money. It’s money that was collected from their paychecks in the Federal deductions. Or on their brokerage account statement. It’s money they have able to wrestle from the welfare queens in red states who love spending blue state money.

        • Alon Levy

          From their perspective, it’s outside money. Somerville was not involved in the grant allocation and if it descoped the $100 million from the bike path it wouldn’t stay locally e.g. in the school system.

          • adirondacker12800

            It wouldn’t have gone to the school budget if they had turned down something from the health care budget. Or defense. Or energy. Or agricultural. or … either.

      • Paul

        Problem is, I’m not sure who in the US can spend transit funding responsibly. Maybe a Sun Belt light rail wouldn’t be completely ridiculous in cost/km? Austin has several lines planned, and Denver and Salt Lake had fairly reasonable costs in the past if I remember correctly.

      • mrpresident1776

        Americans have no problem spending billions more just so no motor vehicle lane or parking is impacted a tiny bit. My city prefers to pave over a stream for bus lanes rather than repurpose motor vehicles. I wonder sometimes whether we are building transit infrastructure or motor vehicle infrastructure.

      • fjod

        Do you cycle Alon? Because repainting car lanes and adding bollards is not particularly good cycle infrastructure. This is because it does not help cyclists at intersections, which are by far the most dangerous points on a cycle route. Arguably it’s more dangerous than mixing with traffic, as drivers may not notice cyclists in the cycle lane before turning through the cycle lane – this raises the risk of right-/left-hooks (terminology dependent on direction of traffic). It’s also slower due to the frequent need to stop at traffic lights, which is particularly annoying while cycling as it results in you needing to expend a lot of physical energy getting back up to speed. The use cases for paint-with-bollards solutions are a) low-demand routes with few intersections and b) temporary stopgaps until the road is fully upgraded, not the city end of a (hopefully) busy commuter cycle route. You can use bollards as part of good cycle routes, but you also need to improve the intersections – which, needless to say, is the expensive part.

        • Alon Levy

          I don’t :-/. Even Berlin isn’t safe enough. My understanding is that in Berlin politics, pop-up lanes are considered the low-cost but hostile-to-cars alternative, so the Greens back them and everyone else complains about space for drivers. But also, the high-cost alternative still involves biking on streets, it just means widening the sidewalk for it rather than setting up bike lanes in rail rights-of-way.

          • fjod

            Pop-up lanes are fine if you want to get stuff done cheaply or experimentally, but you wouldn’t want to build that kind of infrastructure as a permanent part of a long-distance route. Cycling in properly segregated lanes (i.e. also at intersections) on streets like the high-cost Berlin solution is more tolerable where the street has priority over side roads; US-style street design with frequent four-way stops therefore makes such routes more difficult. But fully away-from-roads cycling is the easiest and most pleasant (safer, quicker, less sweaty, less fumey)

            Bikes and trains are suited the same sorts of routes: low inclines, gradual curves, few intersections. I suppose this is because they both gain a lot of advantage from coasting, which for both modes of transport requires comparatively little energy. As a result, former and current railway lines are very good for cycle routes – as are things like canals, coasts and riverbanks which share similar properties.

            For example the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, which follows a former rail line through suburban Bristol, apparently gets a few million users each year, which is probably around the same number it would if it was still a mainline railway. There are vague proposals to add BRT or light rail (or possibly light metro) along the corridor but all proposals keep the bike path in place because it’s so successful.

            Highways can also provide such corridors (comparable to the highway-median rail you get in North America) although the noise tends to make them unpleasant. Nevertheless I recall the bike path at the south of the main road in Amsterdam having been well used here:

    • CharlesO

      They were still going to need at least some viaduct work to cross over the Fitchburg Line. My recollection is that they modeled a flat intersection and the resulting operational issues weren’t worth the cost savings. And generally speaking, when we’re trying to address cost overruns, “organization before electronics before concrete” still applies; it’s why making the stations even more minimalistic than they already are isn’t a good solution either. If we’re going to spend money to build infrastructure, we should spend the money to make it not suck.

      • Steve in Somerville

        I absolutely agree with Charles’s comment above, “If we’re going to spend money to build infrastructure, we should spend the money to make it not suck.” But – and I believe this has been alluded to elsewhere upthread – folks like Charlie Baker have NO INCENTIVE TO MAKE IT NOT SUCK.

        Charlie Baker, for all his bonhomie, is a Republican who believes in “small government” and “lower taxes” (where these phrases are NOT meant to be interpreted literally, as their application invariably results in rapid upward redistribution of wealth and massive deficit spending on boondoggle “defense” projects). Charlie does NOT want the new infrastructure to be excellent and comfortable and respectful toward its users, because then the “wrong” people will start to think that maybe they deserve a decent share of the American resource pie. No, Charlie needed to save his $600 million by eliminating stations and fare collection – thus dooming GENERATIONS of working folks, grandparents, moms and dads and kids, to stand outside in the wind and sleet and rain while they wait for their trains, while he enjoys the comforts of his palatial Swampscott home and is chauffeured around.

        By the way – I was at the Union Square Station for the grand “opening day celebration” that attracted every politician from Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren to Ayanna Pressley and Mike Capuano (!) to Joe Curtatone and Mike Connolly to a bunch of city councillors and assorted others. Governor Baker rolled up to the Union Square Station in a phalanx of black GMC Suburban SUVs which parked blocking the bike lane right outside the station entrance. Charlie walked into the station, had his pictures taken, boarded the train (without tapping his eponymous Card and getting a receipt!), rode it one stop to Lechmere, and got off. I’d be willing to bet that’s the most he’s ridden the Green Line in his entire life.

        Needless to say, the squad of black SUVs was waiting for him at Lechmere, so that, after the ceremonies, he could be whisked 3/4 mile to the State House – never would he dream of mixing with the hoi polloi and riding the damn train five stops to Park Street and walking up the hill! (And, before you tell me I’m crazy for imagining the Governor of the Commonwealth riding the train to the State House, let me remind you of a certain Michael S. Dukakis, who not only routinely rode the Green Line to work from his Brookline home while Governor, but who continues to ride the trains to this day!)

        • Peter Furth

          Speaking of making it not suck, I had the chance to ride the Green Line extension line last week. Inbound, it ran fast and smooth. But outbound, it was slow, slow, slow, and so squeaky. For crying out loud, it’s brand new; why is it slower than a jogger? Is it going to stay that way?

          • Steve in Somerville

            The outbound ride includes what’s called a “flying junction,” where there are track separations that enable trains to access the new maintenance yards, if my understanding is correct. I believe that the current “Stop Sign” will ultimately become a signal, but, at least during this interim period before “full completion,” they appear to be using signal people with flags as well as this stop sign. I’m trying to find more authoritative info, as I’m just a “fan” and not an expert… currently scanning through the 315-page (!) thread on

          • Steve in Somerville

            I found the proper page of that discussion:

            For those who don’t want to click, here’s the gist of it:

            Coming from the GLX technical provisions directly, the system is designed for:
            (c) Travel time, inclusive of on-Station dwell time, […] of service shall be:
            (i) Not greater than 4.75 minutes from Union Square Station to Lechmere Station;
            (ii) Not greater than 14.0 minutes from College Station to Science Park;
            (iii) Not greater than 14.0 from Science Park Station to College Avenue Station; and
            (iv) Not greater than 4.75 minutes between Lechmere Station and Union Square Station.
            Another interesting call out, while the vast majority of Science Park to both terminals is designed for 50mph operations, the interlocking is a big ole slow zone:
            (d) Through the Red Bridge Interlocking:
            (i) Eastbound to Union Square: 10 mph; and
            (ii) Westbound to Lechmere: 20 mph.
            So, with the exception of the interlocking, any current slowness is not baked in. I think the T was in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation (at least in terms of appeasing transit nerds): either you open it all at once and folks grumble about delay or you open a piece and folks grumble about it not being done.

  6. adirondacker12800

    I no longer remember what local New York media said when Second Avenue Subway opened at the beginning of 2017

    Andy spent a lot of extra money so he could have a nice party in it for New Year’s Eve 2016. As an added bonus it was “complete” in 2016 not 2017, That was in late 2016. They have been saying a lot of other things for a century. Still do. Including that everything costs too much money. And that it should go to Broadway and 125th and if phase 3 and 4 ever get built it should go to the Bronx. Things that they have been writing and talking about for century. Wikipedia has links to almost 200 sources in it’s article on the Second Avenue Subway.

    Speaking of Randy Andy, I just checked numbers on CNN, for deaths per 100,000, by state, from COVID-19. Ten of them have higher rates than New York.

    • Alon Levy

      So, I checked what Second Avenue Sagas said at opening, and it was a celebration but also an acknowledgment of problems. Ben talked about the high costs and the uncertainty around phase 2. It wasn’t the fawning coverage Boston media is giving Baker and his appointees.

      • adirondacker12800

        Six months from now nobody is going to remember the fawning coverage. Just like almost no one remembers Andy spent a lot of money so that it was “complete” in 2016 and he could have a kewl New Year’s Eve party. I do hope that six months from now people are still talking about how it cost more, per rider, than the Second Avenue Subway. Maybe they can talk about how it costs less, per rider, than East Side Access?
        The Big Dig was grossly over budget and late. Everybody fawns over the lovely park. Do they talk much about how it was grossly over budget and late? Wasn’t one of the mitigation measures connecting North Station to South Station?

  7. JJJ

    “so station staff stand in front of the platform directing passengers to tap their cards to get paper receipts”

    This is particularly stupid because the MBTA fare checkers have the ability to tap your charlie card on their handheld machines and see when it was last used. The only excuse is that these handheld machines broke down or were lost.

    The MBTA actually did PoP on the Green line for about 6 months in 2006 or so. The D branch had dedicated PoP tap machines on platforms (they now live on the Fairmount line, which supposedly is PoP?). But the whole system was abandoned for the same reasons it will be a problem when AFC2.0 starts – PoP requires police, and American police are unable to interact with the public without racism-fueled violence.

    So when you talk about the benefits of free transit, I hope you mentioned that the first step to a successful PoP system is comprehensive police reform. You might want to note that Los Angeles had/has a PoP system that was enforced by County sheriffs but they were fired for the same reason. And the NYC system involves stopping a bus for 5+ minutes screwing everyone over.

    • Nathanael

      JJJ is correct. We can’t implement POP when the police department are violent, racist criminals. It is interconnected. 😦

      It’s legal in the US for a transit agency to have its own police, and to discourage the city police from entering the transit system. But they still have to be trained to be the opposite of typical US police.

  8. Riverside

    Hi Alon, would you mind providing a citation for this statement? Thanks.

    >local politicians like Ayanna Pressley are using the line as an opportunity to make social criticism and impose even more political restrictions

      • Joe

        That quote seems pretty innocuous. I’d also be interested in hearing about the political restrictions Alon mentions.
        The larger issue is the American belief that improving public services always leads to displacement, and can’t possibly be good- never mind that even the activist the article quotes knows that housing prices are increasing everywhere, not just Somerville.

      • Riverside

        Thanks Tom. I agree with Joe that the quote (the sentiment of which is not unique to Pressley’s remark — Markey and Warren both said similar things) is pretty innocuous, and it seems like a stretch to decry it as “an opportunity to make social criticism”.

        @Alon, can you confirm that quote is indeed the source of your claim? And can you please provide a citation for your other claim, that Pressley is using GLX in an effort to impose more political restrictions? It’s a pretty incendiary claim to make unsubstantiated. Thanks!

      • adirondacker12800

        From the article “…… family-owned triple-deckers, are gone….” People who own don’t pay rent. And don’t have to move because they are the landlord. They are delighted because they can charge higher rents on the other two apartments. When the tenant moves out for some other reason besides high rent. She’s pulling out all the stops on heart strings.

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  10. plaws0

    “Right now, I do not see any political group in the Boston area that is interested in making things better. High costs to them are just “it’s our turn to hog the trough.” This has implications for federal funding: the feds should choke funding to the region if it stays like this.”

    Lol! Way late to this thread party so surely already addressed, but do you not remember the CA/THT and CA/NA projects? Oh, sorry, the Big Dig (Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel, Central Artery/North Area). Total fiasco even it it did pull the slobbering Green Monster from downtown (not the Green Monster over in the Fens … that’s still there and it’s fine). I lived through that .. I *commuted by car* through that … from 1985-90.

    No doubt that I-93 through the CBD had to go but damn, what a mess. And 15-20 years before the Big Dig fiasco, the locals at least got the I-695/Innah Belt stopped as well as the Southwest Expressway (now the Orange Line/Commuter Rail/NEC, with the latter two designed for 250-km/h service west of BBY even if they pretend otherwise). IIRC, Route 2 west of what is now the Alewife Red Line station was supposed to demolish a swath of Cambridge to connect to the Innah Belt.

    So Boston, being Boston, has a long history of both blocking highways and eagerly welcoming them. And whatever they do, it’s pricey. But don’t expect Congress to do anything about it – that was the plan all along (well, not blocking roads and building transit – that was an anomaly).

  11. Thomas K Ohlsson

    Everything is wrong. Wrong and bad. No good.
    Short resume of the authors wiew on almost everything that happens outside his ivory tower…


  12. adirondacker12800

    “their ivory tower” implies a group circle jerk. Theirs would be singular following the convention for his, hers and its. Germanic languages offer lots of choices for alternate pronouns. “Thine” would be the alternate in English. Though “thy” would work too. Youse all have to get together and pick a set.

      • adirondacker12800

        It’s an amphorous undefined someone somewhere. Not a specific person. Commonly teamed up with a recurring action. In the examples in Wikipedia, the second and third ones work just as well with plural subjects instead of singular subjects. And would be more likely to be used because it applies to a class of people.

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  15. anonymouse observer

    Just by looking at the alignment on Google Maps with little to no local rail or geographical knowledge, I think this extension project is redundant because it runs parallel to the existing double or more track commuter rail track, and the majority of the length are built in or right next to the existing commuter rail right of way.

    This could’ve been done by adding in-fill stations and running more frequent service all day long instead of building a brand-new light rail tracks and saved a lot of money.

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  17. Greg

    You do have some good points here like (1) John Dalton being let go after doing an amazing job reducing the cost of this extension. And (2) yes, if Regional Rail and RailVision electrification occurred then yes, the whole GLX could have just been infill stations on a now-electrified Lowell and fitchburg line.

    But to hate on Somerville’s Community path is misguided. It’s not only Somerville’s path: it will allow those taking the minuteman path to have a bikeway to charles river. It’s more than just somerville. And both the minuteman, alewife linear park ,and somerville community path are extremely popular. It will be used.

    Also: the community path will function as an emergency access road for MBTA vehicles and emergency personel god forbid that something happens at a Green Line station or on the commuter rail.

  18. Pingback: How to Spend Money on Public Transport Better | Pedestrian Observations
  19. Nathanael

    You make an implementable proposal: actually hire Dalton full-time for the MBTA.

    I think this is possible. The government of Massachusetts is not as openly transit-hostile as it was for the previous 40 years (starting before the Big Dig), and the idea of maintaining in-house expertise may actually find people willing to listen.

    • Nathanael

      The political situation with Baker and transit is *interesting*. He appointed a “Fiscal and Management Control Board” for the MBTA, which are usually complete ax-wielding maniacs in other states — but then, rather than filling it with transit-hating Republicans, he apparently took expert advice on who to put on it and filled it with people who actually cared about the MBTA succeeding — much to everyone’s surprise!

      I attribute this to Baker not actually caring enough to fill it with hacks! Result has been that the FMCB has been one of the best managements in the MBTA’s history. I can’t attribute it to Baker making good choices, but I can attribute it to a form of *benign neglect* on the part of Baker. Rather than the typical open hostility to public transit, he was uninterested enough to actually hire professionals who came with good resumes. Who therefore did a better job than people have been doing for the last 40 years. And people are quite pleased with that and would like to keep the professionals.

      Baker is being cautiously praised for hiring professionals rather than anti-transit hacks, because everyone *expected* him to hire anti-transit hacks. Low expectations make for “praise”, which isn’t really very complimentary.

      The FMCB is effectively the first ever Board for the MBTA. And *they* did a great job.

      It is going to be replaced with an “MBTA Governing Board”. I guess people are thanking Gov. Baker for *creating* an MBTA board, something nobody else bothered to do. I suspect he did it in order so that he could stop thinking about it at all.

      “That panel had recommended creating a “Fiscal and Management Control Board” to manage the MBTA, which was previously overseen by MassDOT’s Board of Directors. During those years, Kane says the MBTA would come up for maybe 10 to 15 minutes during MassDOT’s wide-ranging meetings.”

      Given the dynamics here — the general appreciation of the FMCB, which *is* deserved — I think a campaign to get John Dalton hired permanently is actually viable and might succeed.

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