• Brooke Iglar

Union Station Opens: Green Line Extension Takes a Step Towards Completion

On March 21, 2022, the new Union Square branch of the Green Line officially opened in Somerville, as did the updated Lechmere station. The new station is the first addition to the Green Line since the 1980s.

When both branches of the Green Line Extension are open, 80% of Somerville’s population will be within walking distance of a station. Currently, only 20% of the population lives within walking distance.

The $2.3 billion project was originally awarded a contract in November 2017 and included a new Green Line branch on existing commuter rail tracks from Lechmere to Medford, along with a new vehicle storage and maintenance facility. The project also authorized the construction of the new Union Square branch and the renovated Lechmere station in Cambridge. The new stops on the Medford branch of the extension will include East Somerville, Gilman Square, Magoun Square, Ball Square, and College Avenue stations.

The project is currently estimated to be completed by Summer 2022, after having gone through numerous delays and cancelations in the years since it was announced. The Union Square branch was originally expected to open in October 2021, before being pushed back to December and eventually to March 2022. The Medford branch was originally expected to open in May 2022 but has since been delayed to Summer 2022.

The plan for an extension into Somerville began in 1990 when Massachusetts state officials announced it as part of a plan to expand Boston transit by 2020. This was largely in response to concerns raised by the Conservation Law Foundation regarding auto emissions in the area. The original plan was to extend the Green Line beyond Lechmere to West Medford, as well as possibly extend the Blue Line into West Medford. The Blue Line extension has yet to come to fruition and has been largely ignored in favor of the Green Line extension project, due to its nearly double the proposed cost.

In 2005, after years without progress, the advocacy group Conservation Law Foundation sued the state of Massachusetts for delaying the project. The environmental advocacy group claimed that the delays have led to continued traffic congestion and pollution in the area. Eventually, a settlement was reached and a new 2014 deadline was set. In 2007, the project was delayed again, followed by another delay in 2011. By 2015, contracts were canceled with four firms, and the state began searching for a new project manager. Then, in 2017, a new $2.3 billion bid was awarded to GLX Constructors. Construction began again in 2018 with a plan for seven new stations, and an additional 4.7 miles of track.

The opening of the Union Square station was originally set for October 2021, but in June 2021, it was pushed back to December of that year due to supply chain issues following the outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in the US.

Additional delays were caused by a power substation located near an elevated viaduct close to the Cambridge-Somerville border, where the two new branches will part. The size of the substation, which acts as the power source for Union Square, limited the number of workers who could fit inside to work on the station at a time, causing the project to expand its timeline yet again.

In 2016, Cambridge and Somerville committed $25 million and $50 million respectively to help fund the project. MBTA overseers voted unanimously in November to reimburse Somerville and Cambridge for the $75 million they collectively pledged toward the Green Line Extension. They also committed to cancel the additional $30 million. Both cities pledged to contribute and return more than $17 million in unused funds that had already been contributed. The project is currently anticipated to come in under budget.

The project has raised some concerns about gentrification in the neighborhoods it will run through, particularly the Somerville area. Formerly blue-collar neighborhoods have seen an influx of young professionals and new housing developments in the years since officials recommitted to the Green Line extension. With the promise of public transportation connecting employees from a less expensive housing area to jobs in Boston and Cambridge, more people sought to move to the area and developers began to quickly purchase, renovate, and sell housing in the area. Long time residents of the area have complained of rising rents, suggesting that this project may be pushing away the very people it aimed to help.

In an equity analysis performed by MBTA officials, it was found that although the project was not expected to have a racially discriminatory impact; the extension was expected to primarily benefit white, higher-income residents. Other than the reversal of the city’s previous decision to remove the 80 bus, which would have forced residents to pay a higher fee to take the planned parallel Medford branch, no additional steps have been taken to address these concerns.

Following the opening of the Union Square station, Green Line service between North Station and Lechmere will resume, in addition to regular service beginning on the Union branch. B and C branch trains will terminate service at Government Center, D branch trains will terminate service at North Station, and E branch trains will now terminate service at Union Square. Although this project will certainly expand access to public transportation, it is questionable if it will truly help its originally intended audience.