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Red Tape: Why the Red Line Stopped Short

Off Campus | February 18, 2014

A working-class, Irish-Catholic community on the edge of suburbia, with access to downtown Boston, and a small-town feel that no one wanted to change—this is Arlington, MA in the 1970s. Most families had lived in the town for their entire lives, and connections ran deep. The church parish was strong (“devout, conservative and traditional”) and children growing up knew they were going to play either Little League or hockey. However, as the 1980s approached, a change was going to come in the form of a proposed subway through the heart of the town. The Red Line Extension, which was to extend the Red Line from Harvard Square to Arlington Heights and eventually to Rt. 128 in Bedford, divided the community. It was eventually defeated, but not before laying bare the town for what it really was: a community resistant to change and overwhelmed by the prospect of outsiders dictating—some would say even taking part in—its future.

To anyone who has moved to Boston in the last 30 years, the Red Line has always ended at Alewife, and Tufts has always been known as the university that is near the Davis Square T stop. However, this was not always the case; there is a story behind why the Red Line exists as it does today. At its heart is Arlington, a town that borders Somerville and is just one mile from Tufts’ campus. The community of Arlington played a central role in how the Red Line Extension project proceeded, with consequences that reverberate today.

Since 1914, the Red Line terminated in Harvard Square. Along with Harvard University, the station at the end of the Red Line contributed to the development of Harvard Square as a hub of commercial activity. However, in the early 1970s, a concerted effort began to finally complete the Red Line. The governor at the time, Francis Sargent, had placed a moratorium on new highway construction in 1970 and was utilizing federal highway funds, not to build more highways but to fund public transportation projects such as the extension of the Red Line to Braintree and the re-construction of the Orange Line. It was during this era of mass transportation that the push to extend the Red Line to Rt. 128, by way of Arlington, began.

The Red Line Extension plan in its original conception would have essentially consisted of two parts. The first part would have extended the subway from Harvard Square to Arlington Center, while the second part would have taken the subway all the way to Rt. 128 in Lexington, where it would connect to a major highway. Though this plan won almost immediate approval in Cambridge and Somerville, the fact that the Red Line would temporarily end in Arlington Center caused an initial round of opposition. The community feared additional traffic, parking, and general congestion that would result from living at the end of a subway line where commuters would park and ride into the city. As a result, in 1972, the Board of Selectmen voted for “128 or nothing”—either the Red Line would extend all the way to Rt. 128 or it would not extend through Arlington at all.

Credit: Mia Greenwald

As the Board of Selectmen vote illustrates, some initial opposition to the Red Line Extension did exist, but it was not determinative. In fact, the local opinion at the time was split not on the question of whether the Red Line should be extended, but on whether or not the community could allow it temporarily to end in Arlington Center. Just four years later, in April of 1976, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council completed an application for federal funding for the Red Line Extension. At the time, it was the largest application for federal funds ever made in Boston ($381,191,000) and these federal dollars would have covered 80 percent of the cost of the total project. Today, such spending by the federal government on large mass transportation projects is unheard of; this application truly represented a once in a lifetime opportunity to complete the Red Line.

Local opposition intensified quickly. The proposed Red Line station in Arlington Center was near Arlington Catholic High School, a division of the local church. Local residents and parishioners saw this location as undesirable. The State Representative, John Cusack, responded by introducing a bill to prohibit the MBTA from constructing any facility within 150 yards of the high school. Though never passed, the bill was supported by 1,000 Arlington residents at a town hall meeting. Out of this legislative effort, the Arlington Red Line Action Movement (ALARM) was born. Largely a creation of the local church, St. Agnes, ALARM placed a special referendum on the ballot in March 1977 on whether or not the Red Line should go through Arlington. The pastor of St. Agnes called a “no” vote, “a must for the survival of Arlington as a residential community.” ALARM and the church worked together to distribute literature, call 18,000 homes, and in the end send the referendum question to overwhelming defeat, with voters rejecting the Red Line Extension 9 to 1.

At the end of the day, Arlington had a chance to have a station on the Red Line and rejected it. In the course of less than one year, the town went from being part of the largest federal mass transit project ever proposed in the region, to forever excluding itself from the subway system. The causes were a combination of reasons, both those stated overtly and those left unsaid. Local residents worried that the second half of the extension project would be delayed for decades, leaving Arlington Center as the terminus of the subway line with increased congestion and parking needs. The church—politically influential and “omnipotent” according to a local official—spoke of the need to preserve the fabric of the community.

Together, these concerns may have been enough to stop the project on its own, but they were not what fundamentally drove opposition to the Red Line in Arlington. In reality, it was fear; Fear of “undesirables” using the subway to get the community, including those who “need no more instruction than finding the end of the line in order to get to Arlington.” The church magnified the views of its white, semi-suburban constituency and convinced them that the subway would bring “outsiders” into the community. No argument about transportation or jobs could stand up to this fear.

Today, the town of Arlington still holds on to remnants of its past. Though the church is no longer monolithic, old ways die-hard and pockets of Irish-Catholicism remain. Children still know they are going to play one of two sports, except now it is hockey or soccer. The lack of a subway protected the community from urban change longer than its neighbors in Somerville, but today Arlington experiences rising housing costs just like any other local community. The town often does not want to face its less-than-praiseworthy past, and would rather focus on the neighborhood it has become today.

Without acknowledging where it came from though, Arlington will never know who it really is. The fear of change still exists, as seen through a lack of diversity in Arlington’s affordable housing, socio-economic isolation, and resistance to the Mass Ave. redevelopment project—and it is not unique to ‘townies.’ Progressive or conservative, new to town or born and raised, the urge to exclude crosses all boundaries. As Arlington plans for the next 40 years, it would do well to heed the lessons of the previous 40 and plan for not just a prosperous, but an inclusive future.

Full disclosure: The author was born and raised in Arlington, and grew up around the corner from St. Agnes Church.