THE MBTA FISCAL AND MANAGEMENT CONTROL BOARD’S lack of confidence in the transit agency’s ability to build the Green Line Extension to Somerville and West Medford plunged to new lows Tuesday as the board members signaled their interest in possibly recruiting an outside firm to analyze the current cost overruns and develop new project management strategies.
Control board chairman Joseph Aiello said he wanted to find out not only how costs on the trolley line ballooned to more than $3 billion, but where the MBTA managers and technical experts fell short in failing to recognize the scope of the problem.
“I continue to be just extremely worried about how we got here,” he said.
Aiello expressed fears that any possible future cost overruns could jeopardize the agency’s entire capital budget. “This is not the only big project we are looking to do as a transit authority,” he said.
Interim MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola gave the board a brief overview of cost increases since 2010. In June 2010, the price tag for the Green Line Extension was $953 million. By September 2013, the project’s costs had increased to $ 1.4 billion; a little more than a year later the figure was $ 1.8 billion. By January 2015, the cost had gone up to nearly $2 billion. Last week, the board learned that costs could shoot up further to nearly $3 billion.
“I’m not wholly confident that we‘ve got this right yet,” said Steve Poftak, a control board member and the executive director of Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.
Control board members agreed that an outside evaluator might be better able to determine how costs spiraled out of control and at what point project managers knew they had a problem, but they didn’t take any action at their Monday meeting.
The US Department of Transportation’s Federal Transportation Administration, which provided funding under its New Starts program, also came in for criticism. “This was vetted by federal agencies,” said Brian Lang, the head of the Unite Here Local 26, Boston’s hotel and food service union. “It’s mind blowing that so many could have looked at it and said ‘yeah, this makes sense, the numbers line up.’ ”
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack noted that the control board had several options: MassDOT staff could continue to rework the costs and determine what revenues would be available to proceed with the project; incorporate “lessons learned” into the project as it gets re-evaluated; and assess the current project management team and determine what changes need to be made.
Aiello said that the cost overruns indicated that there were significant shortcomings on the management side, especially when it came to understanding new construction project methods and handling requests from community groups for more station upgrades. “Was there anyone playing defensive back saying that we couldn’t do it?” he asked.
The board chair indicated that he was open to “radical” ideas on how to deal with the MBTA’s latest problem and pushed back on Pollack’s suggestions. “We need to have a pretty dramatic set of choices about how to move forward,” Aiello said. “Do we need to bring an outside receiver-type to come in and really independently provide the leadership on a project like this?”
Pollack said that MassDOT was responsible for supporting the board if members needed to go outside the agency for help. “I completely agree that the board may have to have its own independent advice,” she said.