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CityFixer

America’s Great Infrastructure Stagnation

The entire system of fixing old roads and rails and financing new ones is breaking down—just ask Boston.

An extension of the MBTA Green Line (shown here in 2011) is estimated to cost $3 billion. (PROMichael Day / Flickr)

For the Greater Boston area, the revelation of massive cost overruns in the planned extension of the MBTA’s Green Line was déjà vu all over again. Another mega-project, the Big Dig, famously ballooned from $2 billion to $16 billion, and the state is still struggling with paying for its portion, well beyond the federal funding that was provided.

Most planners believe that extending the iconic Green Line from its current terminus at Lechmere station in Cambridge northward through the adjacent city of Somerville is a very good idea. It’s one of the basic expansions of the MBTA system—others include connecting the Red and Blue lines, or extending the Blue Line to Lynn—that is an exercise in building on an excellent century-old network. Just a tweak, with huge returns for improved access, and opportunities for transit-oriented development.

The original estimate was around $500 million, in part because the subway line, for a portion of the project, could share a right-of-way used by commuter rail. The alignment otherwise darts through industrial areas currently in transition in Somerville, known around here as the Brooklyn of Boston. Even in these lean times for federal funding for transit projects, it was a no brainer.

Then came this week’s buzzkill: the cost could be closer to $3 billion, with the state on the hook for at least $1 billion of that. Nothing is easy.

But the increase in the estimated cost also raises philosophical questions of another kind. How can cities even think about building costly new infrastructure when so much time and money is needed to fix existing infrastructure? And how can they proceed when those repair projects themselves end up costing more than first anticipated—not least because cars, trains, bicycles, and pedestrians need to keep using critical infrastructure while it’s being worked on?

Fixing the old

Over the past two years, Bostonians have been confronting the repair of existing infrastructure that has complicated the basic business of getting around. The reconstruction of two bridges vaulting the Charles River have been the most visible—like living with a never-ending kitchen renovation.  The Longfellow Bridge, known colloquially as the “salt and pepper” bridge for its neoclassical granite towers, was built in 1908. The span connects Boston and Cambridge, carrying 90,000 Red Line passengers every day, plus 28,000 vehicles and an increasing number of bicyclists, pedestrians, and joggers. I was working in state government in 2006 when engineers informed us that the span, due to rust and structural issues and wear and tear, was in danger of falling into the river. It was wisely decided that this particular connection was pretty important and needed to be fixed.

Original estimates to reconstruct the bridge in place—the state couldn’t just build a new span, because the Longfellow is considered a historic landmark—were around $60 million. The bid amount for the job was approximately $255 million, says Michael Verseckes, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Traffic is one-way only for now, and Red Line trains continue to rumble down the center in both directions. The project is on track for completion by approximately November 2018, which is about two years behind the original schedule. Once the engineers get in there, they invariably find things were even worse than they thought.

Repairs to the aging Longfellow Bridge are expected to continue into 2018. (Soe Lin / Flickr)

Traffic is similarly reduced from four lanes to two (although running in both directions) at the Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting the Allston neighborhood of Boston—home to Harvard Business School and Harvard Stadium, and prime for redevelopment—and bustling Harvard Square in Cambridge. Like the Longfellow Bridge, the Anderson bridge, finished in 1915, is considered historic and needed to be rebuilt in place, while continuing to be operational throughout. The crossing is at the site of the Great Bridge built in 1662, the first structure to span the Charles River and obviously a pretty important connection. The bridge itself is an elegant three-arch structure of unreinforced stone concrete, timbers, and brick finishes, adorned with lampposts and generous sidewalks that are filled with pedestrians most hours of the day.

I’ve been fascinated with this project, in part because I use the bridge just about every day. It seems to be taking a very long time. But the excavations and new abutments and towering cranes make it clear that this is a complicated bit of engineering surgery. The cost is a mere $28.8 million, and completion is set for June of next year. Inevitably, some new finishing touches have been proposed, such as an underpass at the banks of the river for pedestrians, bicyclists, and joggers.

These projects are typical for many cities: vital infrastructure needs to be maintained, repaired, and improved. Too often this unglamorous and tedious work is put off, and we’ve all seen how that turns out—whether collapsing spans or water, sewer, or gas lines that theatrically fail. Cash-strapped cities dealing with unfunded mandates and declining revenues have had to make terrible choices. (The Lincoln Institute this week launched an effort to promote what we’re calling municipal fiscal health to get at the structural problems in the financial management of cities.)

Building the new

Compared with just averting insolvency, however, planning for capital projects—the new stuff—is even more fraught. Which brings us back to the Green Line. Massachusetts is trying to do both: fix the old and build the new. Former Governor Mitt Romney established the official policy of Fix It First, aimed primarily at halting proposals for new sprawl-enabling highways. The troubles at the T this past winter in the Boston area underscored how the system needs to get itself in order before even considering any expansion. But the Green Line is a vital piece of new infrastructure. In city building, transportation is destiny.

The project could become particularly agonizing for the Massachusetts transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack. As part of the advocacy group the Conservation Law Foundation, she helped sue the state to extend the Green Line, along with other transit improvements, as mitigation for the highway-centric Big Dig. Now in government, she may have to pull the plug on the very project she helped make happen.

It may not come to that. There are ways to cut costs, beginning with less elaborate stations. But what we may be witnessing is a breakdown in the overall system for planning and financing infrastructure. Elsewhere around the world, particularly in Latin America, fast-growing metropolitan areas have been experimenting with new land-based financing methods such as value capture, where private developers help fund infrastructure because it increases the value of their properties.

Something has to change in the metropolis continually under construction. Otherwise the old will continue to fail and the new won’t get built at all—hardly the vision of those who put all that infrastructure in place at the turn of the last century. Or, to take it further back to the Great Bridge of 1662, more than two centuries before that.

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