Union square

Decades in the making, the Green Line extension to Union Square in Somerville is finally open to passengers

Curtatone was on board.

“It only happened because an entire city demanded that the state and federal governments honor their commitments,” he said. “We had to fight like hell.”

Steve Poftak, chief executive of MBTA, waited outside Union Square station for the first ride on the Green Line extension beginning around 4:50 a.m. Monday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Transit enthusiasts traveled from near and far to be aboard the first carriage of the new Green Line extension on Monday morning, gathering outside Union Square Station in the dark amid high winds around 4:30 a.m. . They were joined by Curtatone, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority General Manager Steve Poftak and Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne. As the first cart departed, the crowd erupted in cheers. High fives, hugs and handshakes abounded.

“It’s amazing,” said Reuben Vierling-Claassen, 13, from Cambridge. “It’s important to see things like this.”

“It’s history,” said August Blake, 30, of Saugus, who sported a green hat for the occasion. “The first train will only arrive once.”

The opening of passenger service at the new Union Square station in Somerville and the revamped Lechmere station in Cambridge marks an important milestone for the MBTA. The Green Line Extension, a $2.3 billion project, is the first new subway branch to open in the Boston area since 1987.

Poftak met at noon Monday with dozens of local, state and federal elected officials, including Governor Charlie Baker, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Ballantyne and hundreds of T staff and transit advocates to cut a green ribbon for the project under the tracks at Cambridge’s new Lechmere station.

“This represents the culmination of years of really hard work,” Poftak said.

City, state and federal officials gathered at Lechmere station in Cambridge to celebrate the opening of the Green Line extension.Staff of Pat Greenhouse/Globe

Still, there’s still a long way to go to scratch the expansion off the agency’s list of ongoing capital projects. The timing of the opening of the much longer second branch to Medford, which includes five new stations, has been postponed until this summer. And advocates are still pushing for that branch to reach Highway 16, which the state committed to in 2007 but is not part of current plans.

But for those who have been campaigning for the extension since the 1990s through a seemingly endless series of stops and starts and for local elected officials, Monday was a good day.

“I’m excited for the area, I’m excited for Somerville,” Ballantyne said.

In 1990, the state promised to extend the Green Line to Ball Square/Tufts University as part of an agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation, a legal advocacy group, to mitigate the environmental impacts of the Big Dig, which has buried Interstate 93 under the center. from Boston. The foundation sued the state in 2005, accusing it of blocking the project, and settled in 2007 when the government agreed to complete it by 2014.

Cambridge’s Ruben Vierling-Claassen (in orange coat) snapped photos of the first run of the Green Line extension from Union Square station in Somerville early Monday morning.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The years dragged on with little progress until early 2015 when the state won a $1 billion federal grant for the expansion. But later that year, Massachusetts halted the project and considered abandoning it altogether after the total cost soared to $3 billion. At the time, the MBTA said the project suffered from insufficient oversight, an accelerated schedule and a poorly managed bidding process.

Ellen Reisner, a Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership activist in her 60s, remembers it as a dark time.

“A lot of us, I think, went through major depression,” she said. “We were devastated, but we kept pushing.”

Ballantyne and Curtatone credit local activists like Reisner with keeping the pressure on and holding the state accountable for completing the project.

After some cost cuts, the MBTA Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in November 2017 to award the design and build contract to GLX Constructors, a joint venture of several construction and design firms.

Construction on the 4.7-mile project to Somerville and Medford began in 2018 with the aim of beginning passenger service at the seven new stations by December 2021. Complications in the construction of its substations along the Union Square branch pushed the opening to March. The MBTA estimates that the Medford branch could open as early as this summer.

John Dalton, the MBTA’s Green Line Extension Program Manager, has overseen the project since November 2016. The T’s decision to make the extension a “stand-alone operation” with its own human resources, legal and Supply turned out to be exactly what was needed to get the project across the finish line, Dalton said.

Activity around the new Lechmere station on Monday.Staff of Pat Greenhouse/Globe

He had followed the excitement over the opening among transit enthusiasts on Twitter, but was surprised to see so many people showing up to catch the first tram on Monday morning.

“It says a lot that people want this train here,” he said. “They endured a lot of bumps in the road and waited a long time.”

There will be more bumps to come as Somerville deals with the relocation of long-time residents, many believe the extension of the green line is the cause of developers buying up properties nearby and increasing the rents. Ballantyne said more needs to be done to ensure everyone can benefit from the new transit line.

“We need to continue to use every tool we can in Somerville to help our residents take advantage of the green line opportunity,” she said. “There’s more to be done to make sure everyone is included.”

Taylor Dolven can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.