Ashmont, Fairmount Funds Facing Beacon Hill Hurdles

Legislation essential to the progression of the Ashmont Station renovation and two other local MBTA projects is wending its way through Beacon Hill pitfalls, subject to political machinations and budgetary peccadilloes. Speaker Thomas M. Finneran said the $1.3 billion transportation bond bill, containing $25 million earmarked for the Ashmont rehaul, was expected to pass the House on Wednesday, but still faced numerous obstacles before the money reaches the station.

T planners said they hope the $47 million Ashmont project could begin by early next year. Among scores of other projects statewide, the bill holds funds for partial refurbishment of the Fairmount Line, and upgrades to the Mattapan extension.

But palace intrigue involving a planned commuter rail line to southeastern Massachusetts and the proposed elimination of the mainland rotary before the Sagamore Bridge threaten to delay the bill's passage, tangentially linking the fates of three large-scale transportation initiatives separated by more than 75 miles.

But while Beacon Hill jockeying between legislators and Governor Mitt Romney threatens to stall the appropriation of funds for Ashmont construction, officials and activists remain confident.

"I don't think it's going to have any effect on Ashmont," Finneran told the Reporter on Tuesday. The station sits in his House district.

Chris Stanley, co-chair of the Ashmont community advisory committee, said the project's correspondence with Romney's "fix it first" transit strategy and the T's emphasis on "the urban core" help bolster its chances.

"I think we're in good shape because things have lined up properly," Stanley said.

While the three other Dorchester Red Line stations entered the first phase of large-scale demolition last weekend, the Ashmont project has been slowed by the MBTA and community planners with the intent of allowing its design process to catch up. On May 26, the T-contracted Cambridge 7 design team submitted its plans to the T. The rebuilding of Dorchester's largest station is expected to cost $47 million, according to T officials, with more than half of that contingent on the passage of the Legislature's $1.3 billion transportation bond bill. Last year's bond set aside $22 million for the project.

But the bill is complicated by charges from House Transportation Committee members that the Romney Administration isn't doing enough to expand rail service, and lawmakers from the New Bedford/Fall River area complain that plans to bring a commuter rail extension there have been nixed. Administration officials counter that Romney's "fix it first" agenda calls for repairs to existing infrastructure - such as the local projects.

Members of the South Coast delegation met Tuesday with Romney to discuss their threats to hold out votes on the Cape Cod flyover unless the administration relented on the rail expansion.

Finneran, speaking with the Reporter Tuesday, said he did not expect the back-and-forth to affect the Ashmont project.

But a T spokeswoman and State House officials on both the legislative and executive side say efforts to hammer out differences on the two southern Massachusetts projects could slow efforts to direct funds toward Ashmont.

The Sagamore renovation would eliminate the existing rotary and create a direct link between the highway and the bridge, designed to eliminate weekend traffic tie-ups at the bottom of Route 3.

Romney has designated the Sagamore project a top priority for his administration, telling the Boston Globe in April 2003, "If I couldn't get that fixed, I'd have to resign in shame. I'd better get it done by the end of my first term."

Beacon Hill sources on the legislative side said the project wouldn't attract the two-thirds majority it needs to pass both houses.

House members were scheduled to debate on Wednesday, after the Reporter went to press, the transportation plan, which also calls for a sweeping reorganization of the state's transit bureaucracy. The House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill Tuesday afternoon.

Even if the bond bill clears legislative hurdles quickly, which several State House aides said they expect it to, it must earn the governor's approval in the final bill, then allocation from the Office of Administration and Finance, which determines how portions of the bill's funds are spent.

Finneran said the Ashmont project is imperiled more by this leg of the bill's journey, pointing out that his tenuous relationship with the governor allows him less leverage over the process than he had during past administrations.

"What is unknown at this point is what the governor's commitment to the process will be," Finneran said.

Acknowledging a stingy fiscal climate, Ashmont activist Evelyn Darling said the bill's impacts could resonate along Dorchester Avenue. "I believe the developments along the Avenue, Peabody Square, the St. Mark's area really hinge on the T station moving forward," said Darling, who has been monitoring the bill's progress.

"We're not focused on the politics, we're focused on getting the station complete," said T spokeswoman Lydia Rivera, adding that funds already allocated could bankroll the start of construction.

Adjacent to Ashmont Station is a 17,000-square-foot development parcel that neighborhood planners hope will augment their proposed reconfiguration of Peabody Square. Officials from Trinity Financial, the Dorchester-based firm handling the land, have said their project depends on the allocation of state funds.

"We need to make sure that the station is going to go forward before we can start construction," said project manager Vince Droser. parcel's disposition.