Decades in the making, Green Line Extension to Somerville’s Union Square finally opens for passengers

Decades in the making, Green Line Extension to Somerville’s Union Square finally opens for passengers

Decades in the making, Green Line Extension to Somerville’s Union Square finally opens for passengers

by Taylor Dolven / via The Boston Globe

It was 2004. Around 300 people filled a State House auditorium fired up and furious about the stalled Green Line Extension project to Somerville and Medford. It had been promised since 1990 and no shovels had yet hit the ground.

Then-Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville demanded the state keep its end of the bargain. “A deal is a deal,” he told lawmakers.

Thirty-two years after the state first promised to extend the Green Line and 18 years after that hearing, the first trolley car full of passengers rolled down the tracks from the new Union Square station in Somerville just before 5 a.m.

Curtatone was onboard.

“This only happened because an entire city demanded that the state and federal governments honor their commitments,” he said. “We had to fight like hell.”

Transit enthusiasts traveled from near and far to be onboard the first trolley of the new Green Line Extension Monday morning, gathering outside the Union Square station in the dark amid whipping winds around 4:30 a.m. They were joined by Curtatone, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority general manager Steve Poftak, and Mayor Katjana Ballantyne of Somerville. As the first trolley departed, the crowd erupted in cheers. High fives, hugs, and handshakes abounded.

“It feels amazing,” said Reuben Vierling-Claassen, 13, of Cambridge. “It’s important to see things like this.”

“It’s history,” said August Blake, 30, of Saugus, who sported a green hat for the occasion. “The first train is only going to happen once.”

The opening of passenger service to the new Union Square station in Somerville and remade Lechmere station in Cambridge marks a major milestone for the MBTA. The Green Line Extension, a $2.3 billion project, is the first new subway branch to open in the Boston area since 1987.

Poftak gathered at noon Monday with dozens of local, state, and federal elected officials, including Governor Charlie Baker, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Ballantyne, and hundreds of T employees and transit advocates to cut a green ribbon for the project under the tracks at the new Lechmere station in Cambridge.

Still, a lot more needs to be done to cross the extension off the agency’s list of capital projects in the works. The timing of the opening of the much longer second branch to Medford, which includes five new stations, has been delayed until this summer. And advocates are still pushing for that branch to reach Route 16, which the state committed to in 2007, but is not part of the current plans.

But for those who have been advocating for the extension since the 1990s through a seemingly endless series of stops and starts and for local elected officials, Monday was a good day.

“I am excited for the region, I’m excited for Somerville,” Ballantyne said.

In 1990, the state promised to extend the Green Line to Ball Square/Tufts University as part of an agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation, a legal advocacy group, to mitigate the environmental impacts of the Big Dig, which buried Interstate 93 beneath the center of Boston. The foundation sued the state in 2005, accusing it of stalling the project, and settled in 2007 when the government agreed to complete it by 2014.

The years dragged on with little progress until early 2015, when the state won a $1 billion federal grant for the extension. But later that year, Massachusetts halted the project and considered scrapping it entirely after the total cost ballooned to $3 billion. At the time, the MBTA said the project had suffered from too little oversight, an accelerated timeline, and a mishandled bidding process.

Ellen Reisner, an activist with Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership in her 70s, remembers that as a dark time.

“Many of us I think went through a major depression,” she said. “We were devastated, but we kept pushing.”

Ballantyne and Curtatone credit local activists like Reisner for keeping the pressure on and holding the state accountable for completing the project.

After some cost cutting, the MBTA’s oversight board voted unanimously in November 2017 to award the design and construction contract to GLX Constructors, a joint venture of several construction and design companies.

Construction on the 4.7-mile project to Somerville and Medford began in 2018 with the goal of beginning passenger service at the seven new stations by December 2021. Complications in building its substations along the Union Square branch pushed the opening to March. The MBTA estimates the Medford branch could open as soon as this summer.

John Dalton, the MBTA’s Green Line Extension program manager, has been overseeing the project since November 2016. The T’s decision then to make the extension a “standalone operation” with its own human resources, legal, and procurement teams proved to be just what was needed to get the project over the finish line, Dalton said.

He had been following the excitement about the opening among transit enthusiasts on Twitter, but was amazed to see so many people turn out to ride the first trolley Monday morning.

“It says a lot about how much people want this train here,” he said. “They’ve endured a lot of bumps in the road and been waiting a long time.”

There will be more bumps to come as Somerville deals with the displacement of long-time residents many believe the extended Green Line is causing as developers buy up properties nearby and raise rents. Ballantyne said more needs to be done to make sure everyone can benefit from the new transit line.

“We have to continue using every tool possible in Somerville to help our residents benefit from the opportunity of the Green Line,” she said. “There is more to be done to make sure that everybody is included.”

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