Two of the state's top transit officials said Tuesday that the MBTA will revise its Ashmont Station design plans rather than lobby the Legislature for new funds.
Despite a community decision last month to try closing the station renovation's $10 million budget gap with political pressure, MBTA General Manager Michael Mulhern and state Transportation Secretary Daniel Grabauskas said they instead would split the project into two phases and look to pare back aesthetics that did not add to the facility's functionality.
Construction could start this summer, but likely will unfold in two phases, with several project amenities, such as details of the continuous roof structure designed to span the length of the station, delayed until the second phase. According to Mulhern, the first phase would include key structural elements like the foundation, passenger platform, and headhouses.
"If somebody wants it to be pretty on the inside, I don't think that's as important as having it done," said Grabauskas, who chairs the T board.
Contractor bids returned in January came in a minimum of $10 million over the T's $33 million cost estimate for the station modernization, alarming Ashmont residents who had been promised a thoroughly rehauled station, and sending T officials scrambling to find ways around the shortfall. At a hastily-arranged meeting on February 7, politicians and activists vowed to try securing the funds in the state budget or supplementary spending.
But Mulhern and Grabauskas said the T has decided instead to scrap - or, at least, delay - parts of the design scheme that were the focus of dozens of community meetings, and a rallying point for Ashmont-area activists. Community efforts have also pushed forward a plan to revitalize nearby Peabody Square, which has drawn some funding from City Hall. Private investments in an adjacent 38,000-square-foot parcel marked for retail and residential development hinge on the Ashmont redevelopment, further heightening the stakes.
Timing considerations drove the decision to bifurcate the plan, Mulhern and Grabauskas told the Reporter on Monday, minutes prior to a meeting with the T's Ridership Oversight Committee.
"There are ways to make this a premiere station without including some of the design elements the architects put in," Grabauskas said.
Addressing rail advocates at the committee's monthly meeting in the Transportation Building near Park Plaza, the two officials said other policy matters swirling around the state's largest public transit system all were affected by what Mulhern called the agency's "significant financial stress."
On March 11, T officials plan submit to the fiscal year 2006 budget to its board of directors., according to Mulhern "Embedded in that budget recommendation," he said, "are a number of what we believe will be controversial decisions," including cuts in bus service. Mulhern said the number of people employed by the T is the lowest it's been in 72 months, despite jobs created by the first two phases of Silver Line construction.
With other state agencies also facing unpromising fiscal situations, Grabauskas said, "The message loud and clear from state legislators is: 'Don't come back to us, we've got our own problems'."
Planning to meet next Tuesday with Ashmont activists, T officials said they would lay out the new construction phasing then. Since station redesign negotiations began several years ago, Ashmont's function as a terminal for bus, train, and trolley lines has proved complicating, both structurally and as a scheduling factor.
Christopher Stanley, co-chair of the station community advisory committee, said neighbors deserved the station they negotiated, but added that he wanted to allow the T "some flexibility."
"You just hope money will fall from the sky, or you use the time between the drawings to scratch your head to make it cheaper and make it work," Stanley said.
"Maybe there's a way of looking at this again and looking at the cost, without gypping the community as to what they want it to look like," said City Councillor Maureen Feeney. She said settling for postponed features was more appealing than an all-or-nothing approach that could scuttle the entire project.
"There's been nothing about this project that has not been challenging, why should we have expected that the financial funding would have been easy?" Feeney said.
But longtime Ashmont activists appeared content last fall, when Governor Mitt Romney, then-House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, Mulhern, and other top officials came to Ashmont to coronate the project as fully funded and on the cusp of greatness. After announcing his retirement days later, Finneran hailed the project as an important facet of his legacy.
Ashmont advocates have long expressed optimism that their project has garnered special favor with the Romney Administration because it meets the governor's manifest "fix-it-first," transit-oriented development strategies. Grabauskas insisted the plan still has full state backing, saying, "We're 100 percent behind the project. We were as disappointed as anyone with the initial cost estimates, but we're absolutely four-square behind the project."
While delaying and potentially eliminating parts of the project that had been decided in a series of painstaking forums, the bifurcation option could signal lessened Beacon Hill enthusiasm for the project. Faced with the budget shortfall last month, elected officials state Sen. Jack Hart, state Rep. Martin Walsh, and Feeney pledged to pressure colleagues to back additional funding.
At the Feb. 7 meeting, with promises of support from politicians, activists debated whether to seek more money, and potentially the delay the start of construction, or explore ways to scale back their immediate goals. Officials pulled the meeting together quickly after word spread that the lowest bid for the Ashmont project, submitted by Barletta Heavy Division, which is handling construction at the other sites, registered at $10.8 million above the initial estimate. The J.F. White Contracting Company submitted a $47.8 million proposal, while Jay Cashman Inc. bid $54.5 million.
T officials said last month that soaring construction costs explained the discrepancy, but Grabauskas said Monday that outside designers often adhered to design principles rather than fiscal restraints.
Trinity Financial, which owns the adjacent development parcel, said they will tailor their construction timeline to match the T's.
"When they put a shovel in the ground," said project manager Vince Droser, "we'll put a shovel in the ground."