Cost derails Greenbush: Overruns prompt six-month delay; debate on project beginning anew
The Patriot Ledger
The state's decision to delay construction of the Greenbush commuter rail line has killed the project's momentum and set off a furious debate over whether it should be halted permanently.
In announcing the six-month delay, transportation officials disclosed that inflated costs for land takings and procurement of rail coaches have caused Greenbush's bottom line to increase by at least $35 million.
Officials emphasized that they are far from canceling the $470 million project, but state Transportation Secretary Daniel Grabauskas was noncommittal about the rail line's future, saying it is being included in an overall review of the state's major transportation projects.
‘‘All I can tell you is that we're proceeding very aggressively to make sure that every project gets a thorough scrub,'' Grabauskas said in an interview. ‘‘The people of Massachusetts are tired of unclear objectives and cost overruns that are obscene.''
Grabauskas and MBTA General Manager Michael Mulhern said the decision to temporarily halt construction came after they concluded that unresolved issues involving permitting and access to rail beds could result in large cost increases.
Mulhern said the project's contractor, a joint venture of Jay Cashman and Balfour/Beatty, could claim hefty contractual penalties if work crews were forced to stop construction because the MBTA failed to complete the required legwork.
Among the other obstacles to construction are: delays in receiving wetlands permits in several communities; an inability to reach a compensation agreement with CSX Corp. over access to 1.4 miles of track in Braintree; and design issues in Weymouth Landing.
‘‘All these issues have real potential to significantly impact the project's bottom line,'' Mulhern said.
Then, in a thinly veiled reference to problems with the Big Dig, he added,
‘‘As we have learned with other large public works projects, costly mistakes can be made by moving forward with incomplete design plans.''
Although officials said design work will continue during the construction delay, strikingly absent from their comments were any firm assurances that Greenbush will move forward despite its difficulties.
The 17.5-mile, Braintree-to-Scituate rail line has been dogged by local opposition since the restoration of service was first planned in 1984, but top transportation officials have always stood behind the project and insisted that it would not be derailed.
Now, with the state facing a projected $3 billion deficit in the next fiscal year, the Romney administration is reviewing the financial impacts of a number of transportation projects. Among those being reviewed are Greenbush, the proposed Fall River/New Bedford rail lineextension and the Route 3 and Route 128 widening projects.
Despite opponents' speculation that Greenbush is in jeopardy, many supporters said it's unfathomable to think that a project in the works for 20 years would suddenly be canceled after countless time spent on negotiations and other work that has cost the state $70 million.
Toni Hicks, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said state officials couldn't back out of the project now even if they wanted to. She pointed out that the state agreed to build the line as part of a deal for the Central Artery project.
‘‘It's a legal commitment,'' she said. ‘‘(Greenbush) has already been delayed quite a bit and delays bring further costs with them.''
Ronald Zooleck, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, called the decision ‘‘a stupid move'' that will only inflate costs in the long run. ‘‘Prices for construction go up, not down,'' he said.
Meanwhile, longtime critics of the project said problems moving forward with Greenbush lend credence to recent studies concluding that the MBTA cannot live within its financial structure.
In a report issued last February, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research found that the MBTA could not proceed with Greenbush and other expansion projects without compromising its existing facilities.
Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, said the postponement puts the project a step away from defeat.
‘‘We've put the corpse in the coffin, but we haven't nailed it shut,'' he said.
Hedlund also charged that the MBTA chose to use a design/build construction method to accelerate the project to a point where it couldn't be derailed by financial concerns.
Under a design/build format, a project is started without final designs in place. It had never been used in Massachusetts to construct a public transit line.
The MBTA ‘‘just wanted to get the contract out on the street, and get it underway so they could come back to the state and look for assistance for the shortfall,'' Hedlund said.
Another opponent, Rep. Garrett Bradley, D-Hingham, said the MBTA has basically admitted it doesn't know the final cost of the project. As a result, he hopes state transportation officials will use the delay to reconsider the project's merits.
When the price tag is revealed, he said, ‘‘people will realize this project's costs far outweigh its benefits.''
MBTA officials said cost overruns associated with land takings and other issues could reach $50 million.
But MBTA spokesman John Carlisle said officials are confident that the overrun will be closer to $35 million, which would make the total cost about $470 million.
Carlisle emphasized that the decision to halt construction was not related to the review of other major transportation projects.
‘‘The six-month freeze has nothing to do with the review,'' he said. ‘‘This is not a fatal blow to Greenbush. It's something that good business practices and responsiveness to taxpayers mandates.''
MBTA cites four reasons for delay
An MBTA official outlined in a memo reasons for the six-month delay in building the Greenbush rail line. Assistant General Manager David Ryan cited:
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Copyright 2003 The Patriot Ledger