The Silver Line Expansion Is a Rare Bright Spot for the MBTA

In a year marred by calamities, the Chelsea project stands out for the struggling public agency.

The Silver Line Expansion Project in Chelsea. Photo by Sarah Fisher

The Silver Line Expansion Project in Chelsea. Photo by Sarah Fisher

This has been the worst year ever for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

A series of brutal winter storms exposed nearly every flaw in the creaky system. Decades of mismanagement and neglect were suddenly on prominent display for all to see, including international suitors the city was busy courting to come here for the Olympics.

The colossal failure of the nation’s oldest subway system led to the familiar scene of elected officials posturing and promising to finally fix the MBTA. However, before anything could be fixed, a group of fiscal management doctors was dispatched to diagnose the system’s condition. What they found was a public agency riddled with deep financial, cultural, and management problems. A good repair backlog ballooned to $7.3 billion after a newly formed control board reviewed the system from top-to-bottom.

The kicker to all of this came in August when officials announced the cost of the highly anticipated Green Line extension to Medford was at least one billion dollars over budget. The project’s budgetary woes prompted some to suggest cancellation as a possibility.

While the MBTA has lurched from public humiliation to elected scolding, construction workers and engineers have quietly pushed forward with one of the system’s most important expansions in decades.

The MBTA is extending its Silver Line bus rapid transit service from South Station to Chelsea with some creative engineering. The new service will trace the current Silver Line route to Logan Airport but stop at the nearby Blue Line station instead of the individual terminals. From there it will travel along the Coughlin Bypass Road before crossing into Chelsea via the Chelsea Street Bridge and run along an exclusive busway to the Mystic Mall.

When the service opens in late 2016, Chelsea residents, long subjected to crowded and slow buses on traffic-choked streets, will finally have reliable direct service to downtown Boston. The transformative power of this project is impossible to understate.

“There are so many people in Chelsea that should be working in Boston but don’t have access to transportation or can’t afford to pay for parking in Boston. The biggest thing about this project is how it will help many people from Chelsea be able to get to new jobs in Boston,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash.

Ash, a former Chelsea city manager, said the project could lead to some good problems for future leaders of the city.

“The challenge for planners is to welcome connections to the new economy, manage the negatives that happen, and balance all the wonderful things that come with it,” said Ash.

This is no ordinary transit expansion project.

With the help of MassDOT, the MBTA is building four new Silver Line stations along a 1.3-mile exclusive busway, a relocated Chelsea Commuter Rail station, a new Washington Avenue bridge, and a ¾ mile recreational path in the often overlooked community.

A recent Boston tour of the site found it to be progressing on schedule and having a positive effect on nearby neighborhoods. Many existing properties along the planned busway appeared to be undergoing extensive renovations and several new ones are rising within walking distance of future Silver Line stations.

Now, this may come as a shock but the entire Silver Line expansion project is currently within the confines of its initial $82.5 million budget. The paperwork for the bid contains strong incentives for contractors to bring the project in under-budget and on-time. So far, the contractor for the project, McCourt Construction, appears capable of delivering them.

The Silver Line expansion may not be a flashy new trolley or massive tunnel under the city’s core, but it is an example of how the state’s transportation people can successfully execute important projects.