Massachusetts: Big Rail Plans. All Signals Green?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

“GREEN SIGNALS AHEAD: THE FUTURE OF RAIL EXPANSION IN MASSACHUSETTS.” That was the theme of the fall meeting and mini-conference held in Boston on Friday, Oct. 11 and sponsored by the Rail Users Network (RUN). At the event, several rail managers and planners, as well as representatives of elected officials, provided an ambitious plan for expanding rail in the Bay State, from Pittsfield and Greenfield in the west to New Bedford and Fall River in the southeast.

At the conference, advocates urged caution to ensure that sufficient rail service is provided for everybody’s use, and that fares be set at levels that do not shut low-income people out. The audience included planners, transit managers, advocates and elected officials from the Boston area, as well as RUN Board members from throughout the Northeast Region (including this writer) and as far away as Chicago.

In his welcoming remarks, RUN Chair Richard Rudolph explained how RUN represents all riders on rails, from Amtrak’s long-distance trains to “commuter trains” and local transit. He summarized RUN’s history from its founding in the 1990s as a spinoff of the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee (ACAC) to today’s organization, whose members are local and regional rail advocacy organizations, transit advisory committees, and individual advocates.

The host organization was the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), an independent organization that promotes smart growth and planning in the Boston area, and in which 101 cities and towns participate. Executive Director Mark Draisen kicked off the meeting by stating the organization’s commitments to arts and culture, green energy and alternative transportation modes, including more transit. After the welcome, it was time for the brief “business meeting” at which all members who wished to continue on the RUN Board were re-elected.

The rest of the conference began with a comprehensive and far-reaching rail and transit vision presented by James Aloisi, who was Massachusetts Transportation Secretary in 2008-09 under former Gov. Duval Patrick. He mentioned that there is overwhelming public support for strong regional rail, about 80%. He proposed a “transformational approach” under a new business model, providing “efficient and reliable mobility and access to key destinations” that would include “frequent and all-day rail service and connectivity.” Today, regional rail service on the MBTA’s commuter rail lines (the “T”) follows the traditional commuter-oriented model of service, which he criticized as outdated.

Aloisi’s proposal consists of five elements: system electrification, high-level platforms, strategic system and signal improvements, frequent service all day, and fare rationalization. He added that there is a moral element to his plan: People are being displaced, and transit should be affordable to them.

He also characterized the current trend toward “telecommuting” as “elitist and defeatist”; telling people that, instead of going to an office to work, “You stay home!” He expressed concern that time is of the essence, because the Financial Management Control Board (FMCB) appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker as a temporary Board for the “T” appeared more open to his plan than the agency’s traditional Board, which will regain its former authority when the FMCB’s mandate ends next November.

There are two plans under consideration for expanded rail service between Western Massachusetts and Boston; one to establish part of the historic Boston & Albany (now owned by CSX) as a corridor as far west as Pittsfield, the other to start a northern corridor to Greenfield and North Adams. Expansion, at least to Springfield, seems to have political support. The next presentation was a video recording of an interview with Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow (a town south of Springfield that has only limited local bus service), who is pushing for it. He said that recent expansions of service to Providence and Worcester have been successful, and a new rail corridor to Springfield would be, too.

Travis Pollack, a senior planner with MAPC and a member of the advisory committee for the study, explained the six alternatives for a westward corridor. The least-ambitious would add six round trips per day between Worcester (where service on the “T” now terminates) and Springfield, operating as shuttles from Worcester or as through-trains to or from Boston. The study is also considering increasing bus service between Springfield and Pittsfield. The more-ambitious plans call for through trains between Boston and Pittsfield. The least-ambitious Pittsfield plan calls for six round trips per day to and from Boston, and some proposals would upgrade the track to 90-mph or 110-mph operation. The most far-reaching plan calls for 16 daily round trips at the higher speed. Pollack said that three of the six alternatives will soon be selected for further review.

Jared Freedman, Chief of Staff for Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton (a stop on Amtrak’s Vermonter route between Springfield and Greenfield), described the Northern Tier Rail Study, which would restore passenger service between Boston and Greenfield; currently a stop for the Vermonter and two other daily New York trains extended north from Springfield. He said that counties north of Springfield are “crying out for economic development,” and that trains on the old Boston & Maine ran from 1875 until 1960. He also noted that the running time from Boston to Greenfield was 2 hours and 15 minutes in 1958. It took 3 hours and 10 minutes to get to North Adams at that time. He mentioned that PanAm Railways owns the line today, and that it is intact. There is currently regular “T” service to slightly west of Fitchburg, and some trains ran further west to Gardner in the 1980s.

Closer to Boston, the green signals are shining more brightly. The MBTA Green Line (light rail) Extension (GLX) to Somerville and Medford is moving forward, and so is the South Coast Rail Project, which will restore passenger trains to New Bedford and Fall River, after an absence of at least 64 years.

John Dalton, GLX Project Manager, presented an overview of the project that will extend the Green Line from its present northern terminal at Lechmere Station on two new branches: one to Union Square in Somerville with no intermediate stops (1.2 miles long), and the other to College Avenue in Medford. The latter will be 3.5 miles long with five new stops, and will serve Tufts University. The project has other components, too: a new vehicle maintenance facility, 24 new vehicles, a new “community path” along some of the right-of-way, and moving Lechmere Station.

The project is a mitigation measure to make up (in part) for the lack of rail in the infamous Big Dig highway project. The project has a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) from the FTA, and service is expected to begin late in 2021. It is anticipated that “D Line” cars from Riverside will go to Medford, while “E Line” cars from Heath Street will go to Somerville. Dalton said that the new stop at Union Square will increase the percentage of Somerville’s population that can walk to transit from the current 20% to 80%.

The budget for the entire project is $2.3 billion; a reduction ordered by the FTA in 2016. This writer has mentioned the cost-cutting requirement previously in Railway Age, in coverage about the L-train in the New York City system (NYCT Canarsie Tunnel Shutdown Reversal May Produce Ripple Effects). Dalton told the conference that the Design-Build (DB) contract and the re-procurement in response to the demand to reduce costs still satisfy the FFGA requirements. He also praised some of the changes that stemmed from the cost-cutting moves, including new procedures and dialog with the risk management department, new co-location of project management offices and those of the DB contractor, and increased outreach to the communities concerned.

After decades of proposals that went nowhere, it appears that the South Coast Rail Project is finally on track for service to New Bedford and Fall River to begin late in 2023. Project Manager Jean Fox presented overviews of Phases I and II of the project, and mentioned its history. Service began in 1893 (she mentioned that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was an early rider) and lasted until 1959, ending at the time the Southeastern Expressway opened. The new service will run on the existing line from South Station to Middleborough/Lakeville, a station that will be re-located to eliminate a time-consuming and inconvenient backup move. From there, trains will continue to East Taunton and then either to New Bedford or Fall River on separate branches. The proposed operation calls for seven daily trains to and from New Bedford on weekdays, and six trains to and from Fall River, with three peak-hour trains serving each destination. There are currently eight weekend trains to Middleborough/Lakeville; presumably four round trips will serve each new endpoint community.

Trains to New Bedford and Fall River originally ran south of Stoughton, which is a terminal point today. Phase II of the project would rebuild the track south of Stoughton, through Easton and Taunton, to East Taunton. That phase of the project is not scheduled for completion until 2032.

Not all presenters came from the political or managerial ranks. There were also advocates who told cautionary tales. Ben Forman, Research Director for Mass INC., an independent consulting firm, gave a talk on “The Need for a More Equitable Regional Commuter Rail Fare Policy.” He cautioned that low-income residents from “gateway cities” at the outer reaches of commuter rail lines cannot afford high fares, a situation that could prevent them from commuting to jobs elsewhere. He named Lowell, Lawrence and Framingham as examples of such localities. His research indicated that fares could cost as much as 15% of household income. He also said that low-income residents cannot afford to live in transit-oriented development (TOD) buildings, and that many low-income residents were “heavily burdened” by the cost of housing and keeping a vehicle. He concluded by saying that, even if fares were reduced, the “T” would earn new revenue if these low-income residents could commute to a job.

The conference concluded with a panel entitled “Going Your Way” and moderated by RUN Vice Chair Andrew Albert, who introduced the presentation by warning that the New York City system is short of operating funds, which could result in service cuts. Mela Bush-Miles of the T-Riders Union and the Fairmount Indigo Transit Coalition (as well as a RUN Board member) complained that the new Foxboro service, which will debut on Oct. 21 as a one-year experiment, was forced onto residents along the Dorchester Branch to Fairmount, a service change she expects will result in crowded trains during peak commuting hours. She also complained that “off-peak riders, especially low-income, are not valued.” Ellen Reisner of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership welcomed the prospect of rail service to her town, but expressed concern that the new TOD buildings near Union Square would be separated from the line by a long, unprotected ramp. Jared Johnson, COO and Development Director for Transit Matters, repeated Forman’s call for fare equity for low-income residents of outlying cities. He also said that, while gasoline “taxes” have gone up by 15%, transit fares have risen by 200% to 300% during the same period. Albert expressed his appreciation for the advocates at the end of the conference, saying: “The community is better off because you are doing what you’re doing.”

All in all, the “T” seems to be living up to the conference’s title, “Green Signals Ahead,” in some respects. The Green Line Extension and the South Coast Rail Project are under construction, and there are opening dates projected for each within the next few years. There are often unforeseen delays in getting such projects completed and starting service, but those delays are yellow signals, not red ones.

Going west from Boston to Greenfield and Springfield or Pittsfield, there are no green signals yet; it is too early. Those projects may be funded and built, the most likely being a minimal service to Springfield, which could also connect to the new Hartford Line service to New Haven, initiated by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) last year. That service connects further to New York City’s Grand Central Terminal via Metro-North.

On Albert’s panel, John Kyper, Chair of the North-South Rail Link Committee of the Sierra Club, again called for construction of a rail link between North and South Stations; a component that was excluded from the “Big Dig” highway project. In the spring of 2016, RUN sponsored a day-long conference in Boston that included a full panel on the North-South Rail Link. This writer moderated it, and one of the panelists was former Governor and 1988 Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. He and his fellow panelists were enthusiastic about the project at the time. Today, only 3½ years later, nobody mentioned the project, except Kyper. Time will tell, but it appears at this writing that the decision-makers concerned have lost interest. Albert mentioned the high cost of the project, which may have caused such interest to wane.

Maybe the high cost of that particular project scared them off, but every project is expensive. Still, transit funding as an issue received little attention from the managers and politicos who presented. Bostonians and other Bay Staters have reason to expect that they will someday have transit to Medford, Somerville, Fall River and New Bedford, and perhaps trains between Boston and Springfield. At this point, anything else is unclear. The decisions that determine how much transit and how many trains the people of Massachusetts get will be made both in Boston and Washington, and they will be political.

At the start of the conference, James Aloisi delivered an impressive vision for transit, the most impressive this writer had ever heard. Because it was so sweeping in its scope, it will be very expensive. After his presentation, a commenter noted that the Baker Administration is reluctant to fund expansion of transit. We have been providing extensive coverage of the Gateway projects in New York City and New Jersey, a program now slated to cost more than $30 billion and use up more than 60% of the total amount of money that the FTA will have available to allocate for new-starts around the nation. The more money Gateway projects get, the less will be available for projects in other places like Massachusetts. That caution only applies to capital funds; paying for operations remains a local matter.

It is not only operating any new services, but also continuing to operate existing services, that require operating money. So does the introduction of the sort of fare policies for which the equity advocates call. Any reduction in fares takes money directly from the operations pot, which must be increased to cover those costs, or the inevitable result will be service cuts. If elected leaders in Boston do not fund the entire “T” system adequately, there will be few green signals; only yellow at best and red at worst.

It appears that Massachusetts will get some new transit and trains; how much more depends on politicians. Despite their optimism, Bostonians are patient. They remember the World Series drought that began in 1918 when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. They “waited until next year” for a better season, and they may have to wait a long time for better transit, as well.

There may be hope for the future. Dennis Kirkpatrick, this writer’s former Managing Editor at Destination: Freedom before it folded in 2017, mentioned “Miles on the MBTA”; a website by a young man named Miles Taylor, who went everywhere on the “T” and posted what he saw, capturing the public imagination because he was in high school at the time. Taylor is now a student at the University of Pennsylvania and is writing “Miles on SEPTA.” With Miles and other college-age advocates learning the transit ropes, they may help hasten the day when Bostonians and other folks see a train or a light rail vehicle coming down new or refurbished track to pick them up and take them to their destinations.

So Bostonians continue to live in hope about better transit. After all, the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004!

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, as well as on connecting transportation. The Coalition, founded in 1979, is one of the nation’s oldest rail advocacy organizations. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).

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