By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
Some high-profile advocates argue that the Green Line Extension should be built because it will stimulate economic and housing development. The mayor is telling regional media and policy makers that the GLX will lead to 30,000 new Somerville jobs and 10,000 new homes. Yes, 10,000!
Indeed, increased commercial-tax-revenue and jobs are essential reasons why we need it. But the Green Line should be extended through Somerville for a more compelling reason: justice.
For almost three generations, no other city in the Commonwealth has borne more burdens to support regional transportation while reaping fewer benefits. We have already paid for the GLX—with a blockaded street grid, crumbling bridges, stunted economic development, lethal pollution, and shortened lives for our citizens.
In the early 1970s, I-93 ripped up East Somerville, demolishing homes, scattering families, and isolating Ten Hills and Assembly Square. But that was the least of its damage.
Public concern regarding air pollution reached its historical peak in 1970. That year the Commonwealth commissioned Bolt Beranek and Newman to quantify the pollution that the I-93 extension would produce, and the Clean Air Act was amended on December 31.
BB&N published its study the following April. Even though it underestimated I-93/Route 38 traffic at what would be half it’s actual levels, it pollution at five times the federal limits. Massachusetts buried the report and proceeded with construction, fully aware of the six regulated pollutants’ and lead’s health impacts.
But at the time, few knew that all the vehicles travelling to somewhere else along I-93, McGrath Highway, Route 38, and through Union Square were pumping out far deadlier pollutants.
One of my all-time favorite ‘Villens was Joe Lapiana who, with his wife Dolores, raised a family on Pennsylvania Avenue in the shadow of I-93. They led Somerville Citizens for Adequate Transportation (SCAT), a grassroots group that fought to build the expressway below grade. When he was dying in 2005, there was some question as to whether his heart disease or his lung cancer would kill him first.
Joe had spent much of his life inhaling air that contained up to 1.6 million ultrafine particles per cubic inch, produced by passing cars and trucks. Exhaustive scientific research has established that these particles are killers. Their impact is more lethal than pollutants regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and much more local.
That’s why Somerville has such a high incidence of heart disease and lung cancer, even though we have no significant sources of industrial air pollution and below-average incidence of tobacco smoking. The last time I checked, Somerville had the highest number of excess deaths per square mile from heart attacks and lung cancer among Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns.
In response to SCAT protests and evidence of I-93’s impacts, the Commonwealth in 1972 agreed to build an East Somerville community center, plant trees, and erect walls along the expressway to partially reduce noise and pollution. State officials ended up reneging on even these wholly inadequate “mitigations.”
Today, over 200,000 vehicle miles per square mile are travelled through Somerville per day—the most in the Commonwealth. And people who live or are stopping in Somerville account for a microscopic fraction of that traffic.
That’s not the only burden we bear so that other people can get where they want to go. Six diesel rail lines lacerate our neighborhoods, truncate our streets, and spew carcinogens, huge volumes of ultrafine particles, and twenty times the nitrogen oxides emitted by equivalent gasoline engines. That’s 15,000 trips per Somerville square mile per year—again, the most in the Commonwealth.
But none of them stop here.
While we receive no benefits, the Commonwealth and the MBTA seem indifferent to the burdens they impose. It took them 2,245 days to put the disintegrating Lowell Street Bridge back into service. And there are plenty more Somerville bridges that have required rebuilding or desperately need structural attention.
Many of those who drive and ride through Somerville are on their way to Boston or Cambridge, which both have 1.8 jobs per working resident. In Somerville we have 0.5 jobs per working resident, a majority of which are in low-wage and part-tine sectors with limited-benefits. Although we have a skilled workforce, 80% of us who have jobs must leave the city each day to work.
That’s because our city doesn’t have office and R&D space that can accommodate job growth. Over the twenty years between 1990 and 2010, the total square footage of Somerville’s commercial space increased by only 4%.
Commercial development is finally increasing in Assembly Square because it is served by a new T stop. But these increases are swamped by citywide housing development, worsening our fiscal health and live/work balance.
Beyond Assembly Square, the neighborhoods with the greatest job- and property-tax-creation potential are Union Square/Boynton Yards and Brickbottom/Inner Belt. Fully unleashing their potential requires extending both Green Line spurs.
The Court understood the burdens imposed upon Somerville when it approved a 1991 consent decree mandating transit investments—including the Green Line extension—to mitigate Big-Dig environmental impacts. But although state officials invested hundreds of millions in low-impact suburban projects, they did nothing on the Green Line until 2006 litigation forced their hand.
Finally, in 2010 MassDOT announced that the GLX would become operational in October 2015. But in August we learned that, after already spending $750 million in unrecoverable expenses, the MBTA was anticipating Green Line costs $1 billion over budget.
Now state officials seem intent on extorting cash from the City of Somerville and developers like US2 to help pay for their mistakes. Astonishingly, some city officials appear ready to bargain.
But as Bill White observed in his inaugural address this month, “We [already] have more skin in the game than anyone else. Enough is enough… If we have to pay for the Green Line though property taxes, we could end up losing money in the deal.” And if the state shakes down developers, it will expropriate the surpluses required to fund community benefits.
‘Villens are in no way responsible for the gross incompetence that blew apart the Green Line budget. We have been paying to support regional transportation for a half century. What we owe today is exactly $0.00.