Advocates Set to Push Again for More Ashmont Funding

Discouraged transit advocates vowed to lobby anew for state funds, after politicians and MBTA officials told them Tuesday that unexpectedly high cost estimates have forced the T to consider delaying or scaling back the Ashmont Station renovation unless other fiscal resources are found quickly.

The Ashmont project, the most ambitious and expensive of the four Dorchester Red Line station rehauls, could see some amenities pushed back until the necessary funding becomes available, because contractors figured the T's $33 million estimate was at least $10 million too low. T design director Barbara Boylan said at a public meeting Tuesday night that the authority is conducting an internal analysis of what facets of the project could be eliminated from the initial construction phase, which the T said last year would begin this spring. She avoided specific examples of what could be targeted.

"We just don't really know what to do in terms of closing the gap," Boylan told approximately 45 people in an All Saints Church meeting room. She said, "We are disappointed."

While the T conducts cost analyses, and the community advisory committee plans to meet again March 8, the three construction bids are set to expire 60 days from their January 13 opening, Boylan said. She said the T could seek to extend the deadline.

Barletta Heavy Division, which is handling a large share of the work neighborhood-wide, bid $43.8 million. J.F. White Contracting Company bid $47.7 million. Jay Cashman, Inc. bid $54.5 million.

Rising construction costs mean that falling behind the timeline could jeopardize another large-scale development, said James Keefe, president of Trinity Financial, the private developer hoping to build a retail-residential complex on a lot adjacent to the station. Noting that the price of construction has increased 12 percent per year for the last five, he said, "I think time is our biggest enemy here. Whatever it is, it's got to be done with all haste, because time is working against us."

Residents and elected officials said they would lobby on Beacon Hill for the extra capital, either during the state's Fiscal Year 2006 budget negotiations, or to be included in a supplemental budget. State Rep. Martin Walsh estimated that supplemental spending could cover half the $10 million shortfall.

Expanding the grassroots lobbying effort that won high praise from Governor Mitt Romney last fall appeared to be one option, because the station serves as a hub for suburban commuters. Estimates hold that 17,000 people pass through Ashmont Station daily, and pressuring lawmakers from other towns could help in the effort to secure funds.

"This is the gateway to the city. This is the station that many suburbs use and utilize," said City Councillor Maureen Feeney.

Turning local pressure into regional pressure could aid the quest to cover the shortfall, which could rise with construction costs.

Last fall, T officials placed the total project cost at $44 million and estimated the construction cost to be $33 million. Project plans currently call for a thorough modernization, with improvements to the main entrance and headhouses, and a continuous roof structure stretching the length of the station.

The cost overruns and prospective delays drew a host of comparisons Tuesday to the state's ongoing Big Dig project, which has lasted years longer and cost billions more than planners predicted. In that project's design stages, state officials agreed to environmental mitigation efforts like regional transit extensions. The Conservation Law Foundation has said it plans to sue the state because of the T's insistence that several service extension projects are not feasible in the current fiscal climate.

"This goes beyond fixing Ashmont Station," Walsh said. "This is a mass transit issue within the Greater Boston area."

Rosanne Foley, who co-chairs the community advisory committee with Christopher Stanley, said Ashmont's languishing project impacts the renovation of Mattapan Station and the scheduled Fairmount Line improvements, and Boylan agreed.

And the 17,000-square-foot development parcel next door on Dorchester Ave. also hangs on the T's schedule, although Keefe affirmed Trinity's intentions last night. "Don't worry about us," he told Stanley before the meeting.

Later, to the crowd, he said, "Our position has always been that we will do whatever we can to make sure, first and foremost, that this station happens."

State Senator Jack Hart urged optimism, but conceded some parallels to the Big Dig are apt, and said the community "breathed a collective sigh of despair" after learning about the implications of the funding gap. Hart called a softening of the project's goals "the worst-case scenario," and officials were careful not to positively indicate that such measures will be necessary.

"There's no question in my mind that we want to maintain the integrity of all the hard work the community has done," Boylan said. But, she said, the most effective means of building a satisfactory station might be delaying some features and attempting to add them later.

She speculated that the renovation's complexity could have led to the bids outpacing initial estimates by as much as $21 million. The viaduct for trolley passage, the building's square footage, and the volume of subway, trolley, and bus traffic pose logistical challenges, Boylan said.

Stanley said he was heartened by the apparent commitment to securing more money, instead of limiting the project's scope. But, he said, the March 8 meeting could produce a bleaker picture, depending on the outcome of the T's internal review.

Daniel Larner, director of the St. Mark's Area Main Street program, urged e-mails and phone calls to Beacon Hill and other area residents.

Leo Smith, an Ashmont Hill resident, said the core group of advocates needed to try to widen support.

"It seems like now is the time for all of us to talk to two or three of our neighbors who may not have been involved with us," Smith said. "Now is the time to mobilize the troops."

Both Hart and Walsh said they would call former House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who called the Ashmont project a key piece of his legacy when he announced his plan last fall to resign his seat and accept the presidency of the trade group Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

But Finneran's potential impact remains unclear, because state law forbids him from lobbying his former colleagues for one year from the time he resigned from the Legislature in late December.

Construction at Dorchester's other stations have encountered other problems. Work on the Savin Hill facility has been delayed several months. Barletta's failure to meet the agreed-upon quotas for women and minorities have sparked criticism from labor activists.

In Shawmut, community advisory committee co-chair Jenny Moye said her group continues to press the T to repair one block of sidewalk between Mather St. and Melville Ave. Citing "safety and accessibility concerns," Moye said the T-owned walkway is unsafe and covered with an inadequate rubber membrane.

According to Moye, a city-funded teaching garden for botanical medicine, which carries a $100,000 price tag is probably contingent on the T ponying up for the sidewalk. She said, "It is extremely unlikely that we would get funding for the gardens if the T does not repair the paving."