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Squeaky Wheel on the Red Line


By Robert O. Boorstin

October 30, 1978--Cambridge Mayor Thomas W. Danehy steps down from the bench in the City Council's chamber during a hearing on the Red Line Extension project, and motions for Councilor Lawrence R. Frisoli to take the chair. Danehy leans back in Frisoli's seat, winks and is recognized by Frisoli. Standing, Danehy approaches two representatives from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority [MBTA], and begins accusing them of ignorance and deception in dealing with the citizens of Cambridge throughout their effort to extend the Red Line past Harvard Square. Danehy's voice begins to shake--he clenches his fists--and he begins banging on the table the MBTA people are sitting at.

"We're not going to be shit on by anybody," he promises them and he looks like he means it. "You know what will happen if the Red Line is extended only as far as Alewife?" he asks. They shake their heads, more in nervousness than in ignorance. "You know what will happen? The Boston cops will put all the drunks and the derelicts on the Red Line and send them to the new end of the line. That's where I live," Danehy says. "That's where my wife and daughter walk at night. I'm scared," he tells them, "scared of having this project rammed down my throat, scared of what will happen to Cambridge, scared of having my wife or daughter raped."

THE FACTS OF THE CASE are simple, on the surface. The MBTA plans to extend the Red Line to the Alewife Brook Parkway by sometime in 1982. Originally, the MBTA wanted to extend the line through Cambridge to Rte. 128, and they commissioned an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for that proposal. The Red Line Alert, a coalition of three neighborhood groups, has filed suit in federal district court, charging that the MBTA violated three federal statutes by applying the old EIS to its new extension plans. The Cambridge City Council has voted to join this suit. Any delays in construction, the MBTA promises, will mean losses of $3 million a month and may jeopardize a half billion dollars in federal funds earmarked for the project. The MBTA has stated that construction will begin. The result of all this: a legal battle.

But beneath all the legalese, beneath all the impact statements and public hearings, there are a lot of people with a host of different concerns involved in the growing battle over the extension of the Red Line. Danehy's view is typical of Cambridge citizens--in one sense--it is symbolic of the growing sense of frustration with this project, an idea that has been in the works since 1939. Nearly everybody wants the Red Line extended somewhere--be it to Alewife, Rte. 128 or farther--but almost nobody is very happy with the current MBTA plans.

Cambridge City Hall is not one of the world's more silent places and the Red Line extension fracus has certainly increased the decible level. Danehy has been leading the fight against the MBTA since it started and he maintains that the MBTA is out to force this project on the Cambridge community, any way it can. Cambridge is his lifelong home and Danehy pictures himself as the knight in shining armor, come to save the innocent maiden. Like others, the mayor can perceive the long-term advantages that extension offers but he hesitates to sanction the "destruction of Mass. Ave. for five years or more."

The City Council seems to be behind Danehy, though it is not a unified chorus of support. Councilor Saundra Graham, for example, is a long-time supporter of rapid transit efforts and has opposed the mayor's stand on the issue. The other councilors--save Frisoli and Alfred E. Velluci who side with Danehy--seem undecided at this point, despite their vote to join the lawsuit. If it comes down to a question of "extension to Alewife Parkway or no extension at all," the vote is bound to be close.

WHENEVER something controversial crops up in Cambridge, citizens' groups form to investigate the issue and lobby on behalf of the "community's best interests." The citizens' lobby this case is the Red Line Alert. The Red Line Alert is a coalition of the Neighborhood Ten, (who fought the Radcliffe gymnasium on Observatory Hill), and those who fought Harvard's recombinant DNA laboratories. The issues are different, but the gut reaction is the same: "There goes the neighborhood!"

These are the people who are taking the MBTA to court; the vocal citizens, the long-time residents, well-off enough to take the time to fight the MBTA. On the other side of the coin are those who don't own cars or run businesses in Cambridge. There is a housing project near the proposed Alewife terminus. The people there--primarily lower-middle income blacks--rely on the MBTA for their transportation. These are the people who will benefit from the Alewire terminus and though they are not among the voices at council meetings, they want what the MBTA is proposing, hints one black leader.

The Cambridge business community is also split into two camps. On the one hand, there is the pro-MBTA Harvard Square Business Association, a group heavily influenced by the more secure companies in Cambridge--the banks, the Coop and the theaters. Although Chamber of Commerce officials stress the non-partisan nature of their group, they also favor the extension plans. Both of these groups, says Danehy, are having the wool pulled over their eyes. The small-store owners on Mass. Ave. have taken the other side. They're worried about the 60-odd parking spaces on Mass. Ave. which may be permanently lost. Some of them are predicting that they will have to relocate or go into bankruptcy because of the disruption of traffic and business. The scene they foresee is dismal at best.

And what of Harvard, the city's proverbial nemesis? The University has formed a committee of its own to study the impact of the Red Line extension and, more recently, appointed L. Edward Lashman, director of external projects and a man familiar with state agencies and their problems, to supervise Harvard's role. The University's voice in the project is relatively insignificant--all Harvard wants is a painless transformation of the Square and a construction schedule that won't require mass student relocations.

AND THEN THERE is the MBTA itself. The MBTA has waited a long time to extend the Red Line and this is the farthest it has ever gotten with its plans. But now the MBTA is running scared. Kiley wrote a letter to the City Council last week, urging it not to join the lawsuit, which could effectively halt construction on the project. Danehy has accused the MBTA of "scare tactics." He shows no signs of backing down.

In the end, what Cambridge leaders, citizens and businessmen say about their neighborhoods may not be the deciding factor. For if the MBTA does end up in federal court, there will be delays. Half a billion dollars in promised federal aid may be lost because, as Kiley aptly stated, "Uncle Sam does not hesitate to take funds not being used at the local level and put them on the nearest squeaky wheel that comes along."

Cambridge and the MBTA both have a choice to make. If the citizens and the city council are expecting the MBTA to extend the line all the way to Rte. 128, something it is not financially equipped to do today, they should probably think again. But if the MBTA plans to extend the Red Line to the Alewife area, it can not ignore citizens' moral and legal claims. The MBTA may be gambling with all its chips if it does not perform a supplementary EIS before a federal district court orders one. Cambridge citizens are gambling another EIS would reject the MBTA's current plans, and when Cambridge citizens sit down at the table and deal, they don't expect to lose.

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