Monday, May 20, 2024

Commuters get on the green line at Science Park to complete the trip to the Lechmere stop. Now only one of four green line trains go directly to Lechmere without unloading people at Science Park and turning around. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Support for remaking the Lechmere T area into “Lechmere Square” when the subway stop is moved and opposition to a wider Monsignor O’Brien Highway there helped push a meeting on extending the MBTA green line to an epic three-plus hours last week, even with a two-minute limit on public comments and a smaller than usual crowd.

“We can come together on something that is really going to be a gateway, not just to Cambridge but to Somerville and beyond,” said Sam Seidel, one of four Cambridge city councillors (although Tim Toomey was unable to appear in person and sent a staff member) and among at least a dozen people who spoke on the Lechmere area issues.

They drew the most united comment, along with condemnation of a delay in construction for the farthest T stop planned. While the audience should have been packed with residents of Medford as well as Somerville, since both communities are to get several T stops by Dec. 31, 2014, there were few Medford residents commenting.

The meeting, held at Somerville High School, was billed as a chance to discuss the extension project’s final environmental impact report, but many of the issues had little to do with the report. Instead, proponents or opponents of some aspects of the plans used the lengthy public comment period to plead their case.

Switching a maintenance facility to “Option L” from “Yard 8” was considered a victory, but Scott Allen, general manager of the family-owned M.S. Walker Inc., said Option L could very likely put his wine, spirits and cigar distributor out of business after 77 years in Somerville, forcing 330 people out of jobs.

“We do support this project,” said a subdued Allen, “but we would hope you would look at other options out there.”

Pattern of unhappiness

Beyond criticizing the widening of the highway as a disincentive for alternate forms of transportation, the Lechmere plans also didn’t refer much to environmental concerns.

Karen Molloy, of Somerville, wore a custom T-shirt to a meeting Wednesday concerning the green line extension project.

Private developers had grand plans in 2003 for the T stop as part of the development of the 45-acre NorthPoint area, including moving the station to the far side of the highway and building a footbridge for pedestrians, but legal conflicts put the plans in limbo. The state took over the station with a bare-bones approach lacking a footbridge, meaning pedestrians would have to cross a potential seven lanes of traffic. A recent court decision settled the standoff without relaunching development in NorthPoint.

“When I look at these plans, the thing that keeps coming to my mind is the classic video game ‘Frogger,’” East Cambridge resident Heather Hoffman said. “Widening a highway so we can extend a transit line is crazy. It serves nothing except for concrete companies and paving contractors. It doesn’t do anything to make traffic better, because right down the way there is a bottleneck you can do nothing about. What it does is make it much, much harder for people to get to and from the station.”

Bill Deignan, transportation manager for Cambridge, said before the meeting that the traffic patterns were necessary and, with a large median and proper electronic signals, he believed people could cross safely. Adding to the complication were two needed left-turn lanes, he said. But he didn’t speak to the meeting, and his views weren’t reflected by the elected officials who did. (“Let them sit in traffic if they have to,” said councillor Craig Kelley, a noted foe of transportation by car.)

A request for more information was made to Deignan on Thursday morning, but he hadn’t replied by Tuesday.

Stopping before Route 16

In addition to moving the Lechmere station closer to the NorthPoint development, the project includes a one-stop spur to Union Square in Somerville, roughly where Prospect Street and Webster Avenue meet, and several stops in Medford, including to Brickbottom, Gilman Square, Lowell Street, Ball Square, College Avenue and finally to Route 16, to a site near the Starbucks, Whole Foods Market and U-Haul depot. Officially, all but the outermost stop are to be built by 2015, and the decision to move the Route 16 stop to a second phase — because it’s not paid for in the first — drew much criticism.

A recent state cost estimate put the extension project at about $932 million without a Route 16 stop. Transportation officials say the project will be tackled when funding is available.

The move “is a mistake, it’s an example of a false economy,” said John Kyper, transportation chairman of the state’s Sierra Club chapter.

Better flow of trains promised

There were also concerns about how the extension would affect green line traffic elsewhere in the system, but project manager Katherine Fichter said commuters would experience either little change or improvement. “We’re developing an operating plan that retains existing headway,” she said, meaning at peak times there should still be trains every three to five minutes, and nonpeak waits of 10 minutes for a train should also be unchanged.

Of the four green line trains, only the E goes all the way to Lechmere. Commuters on the other lines have to get off before Lechmere and wait for an E line train to come. But plans for the extension add D line trains to the mix, which double riders’ chances to catch a train all the way to Lechmere, and there will be more vehicles put into the system. The spur at Union Square is an in-out, Fichter said, which speeds trains back to Lechmere, and she reinforced that the station is designed with the potential to extend it to connect to the red line at Porter Square.