MBTA Silver Line plan would rip up Boylston

by Beacon Staff • September 24, 2008

The battle for Boylston Street will begin in earnest this fall when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority seeks approval from the state to tear up Emerson's turf and send the Silver Line subterranean directly beneath the college's thoroughfare.

Campus would become a construction site for as long as a decade, said David Rosen, Emerson's vice president of public affairs, who said he has dedicated himself to spoiling the T's plan.

Tracklaying would begin by 2011, early enough to affect current freshmen and sophomores. While the MBTA predicts a timeline of just five years, Rosen likened it to Boston's infamous Big Dig project, which set the national budget- and schedule-busting standard for transit projects.

"The physical impact on the life of our students would be devastating," Rosen said. "They will literally be living in a live construction zone."

The conflict has been simmering for four years. Early on, Emerson sought to cooperate with the T in exchange for insurance of Emerson property and some influence over when and where the tunnel would be built, Rosen said.

But the T reneged on a good faith deal two years in the making, and the sides have been at odds since. Rosen and Emerson President Jacqueline Liebergott have sent letters of protest to the MBTA and the organizations to which the state agency will now appeal for permission to build.

Lydia Rivera, an MBTA spokesperson, said local stakeholders have been sought and have expressed their grievances, though they may not be heeded.

"We've opened the door to receive all comments and concerns," Rivera said. "Of course, change can be difficult at times."

Rivera declined to comment on other specific aspects of the project, and repeated requests for comment this week were not returned by the MBTA.

To green light construction, the T will soon declare potential environmental and operational effects of the construction on the community to the Federal Transit Administration and state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, according to the project outline.

Once the paperwork is filed, the public will have a 60-day window to respond. According to a 2005 version of the proposal, which would have sent the tunnel beneath Tufts Medical Center or Columbus Avenue, the MBTA had already begun contacting local organizations.

The Silver Line tunnel will connect Roxbury residents to jobs in Chinatown, the South End and the South Boston Waterfront, according to the MBTA project outline. It would also ease access to Logan International Airport.

Some Roxbury residents, however, prefer enhanced Orange Line service, which Julio Hendriquez, of the Washington Street Corridor Coalition, has been seeking for years. Hendriquez said he believes job creation is an excuse to push the project along.

"I don't get a sense that there are any industries that would benefit or that any jobs would become available," he said.

He said he believes the Orange Line would be much less expensive and more valuable use of MBTA efforts.

Mark Slater, president of the Bay Village Neighborhood Association said his organization, which abuts the Threatre District and is one of the community groups with which Emerson has allied, has not been contacted.

"They have offered no method to accept feedback from the communities," Slater said. "There have been no meetings whatsoever where we were asked for our opinion. They tell us [the expansion] is good for us, so get over it."

Emerson students are already decrying the plan. Freshman Pat Lambert said he worried the construction would scare away prospective Emerson students.

"It would throw off the campus and the school," the political communication major said. "It would be like, 'Welcome to Emerson! Watch out for the manhole!'"

The MBTA plans to finish the preliminary public response phase within the year. Then, they'll request permission to finish designs and seek funding from the federal transit agency. If each step passes unimpeded, construction would begin in early 2011 and, the MBTA predicts, take five years to complete.

Rosen questioned the T's timeline, in light of construction delays during the Big Dig and other MBTA construction projects.

"They've been working on Kenmore and Arlington [on the Green Line] for years," he said. "The MBTA has a terrible track record for getting things done."

Rivera, meanwhile, said she is confident the MBTA will do its best to adhere to the schedule, but cautioned that for "a project of this magnitude, delays are inevitable."

Rosen also worried the T, already awash in debt, would capsize under the weight of such an ambitious new project, which now carries an estimated total price tag of more than $1 billion, according to the outline. It was originally estimated to cost $770 million. The Boston Globe reported in August the MBTA was $8.1 billion in debt.

"It's hard to see how they could possibly afford this project," Rosen said. "It could make them go completely bankrupt."

The MBTA would be responsible for 40 percent of the costs under current plans, and the onus for the rest would fall on the Federal Transit Administration.

Studies have shown the environmental benefit of the project would be relatively insignificant.

David Luberoff, of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government conducted a study of the environmental impact of the project in 2005. According to his calculations, the nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds would be reduced by .046 percent, about the equivalent of replacing 55 of the worst polluting cars currently on the road with the same number of Toyota Priuses or other hybrid vehicles.

Slater worried construction would damage his neighborhood.

"These are old houses we have [in Bay Village]," he said. "They have history to them. This project will cause catastrophic damage."

Drew Murphy, president of Broadway Across America located in Downtown Crossing, said he fears the negative effects of the expansion on his business.

"If it's inconvenient for people to get here, they're not going to come to shows," Murphy said. "It's just not worth it for them."

He also said the MBTA had not asked Broadway Across America for its input.

During early planning stages, the MBTA sought to build an entrance to the Silver Line tunnel where the Dunkin' Donuts in Emerson's Little Building is located now. Because the construction would be on the college's property, the MBTA was open to signing a written agreement.

When the design changed to no longer include any construction on Emerson-owned property, the Transportation Authority pulled out of negotiations with the college, claiming it was no longer legally obligated to parley with Emerson, Rosen said.

"I've never seen such an ill-conceived plan that started with such good intentions," Rosen said. "It's the Big Dig II, the tunnel to nowhere. They must have something better to do."