Mayors, city managers forming commuter rail coalition

Driscoll: ‘There needs to be a voice for commuter rail and its riders’

MAYORS AND CITY MANAGERS across eastern Massachusetts are forming a coalition to advocate for the MBTA’s commuter rail system.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who is active in forming the coalition, said the commuter rail system often gets overlooked in discussions about transportation even though its impact is enormous in many communities.

“It’s the lifeblood of our community in many respects,” Driscoll said. “There needs to be a voice for commuter rail and its riders.”

Marc Draisen, the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said the original idea for the coalition grew out of meetings he and his organization had with municipal officials around the region. He said he would go into the meetings to discuss one subject but the conversation would inevitably come around to concerns about the commuter rail system. He said he began to realize that municipalities that rely on commuter rail share a lot of the same concerns but have no one to advocate on their behalf.

“The commuter rail system doesn’t really have a group of advocates because it is so geographically diverse,” he said.

Draisen said the group, to be called the Commuter Rail Communities Coalition, is open to mayors and city managers of any community that hosts a commuter rail station or abuts a community with a commuter rail station. He said two exploratory meetings have already been held and a third is planned for January, where officials will begin forming a geographically diverse board headed by two or three co-chairs.

At the most recent meeting last month in Framingham, officials from Beverly, Franklin, Canton, Littleton, Foxborough, Norwood, and Swampscott attended. US Rep. Seth Moulton sent a representative and David Scorey, the general manager of Keolis Commuter Services, gave a presentation.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll

All sorts of issues are on the table, from longer-range goals such as electrification of the system and more frequent service to more mundane matters such as maintenance, on-time performance, parking, and ticket pricing. Officials say they want to work on first-mile and last-mile connections to commuter rail stations, station accessibility, and better communication with Keolis and the MBTA.

On many issues, officials said, the goal will be to find common ground among the more than 100 communities likely to participate.  “How do we help each other?” asked Driscoll, explaining one of the main ideas behind the coalition. “The idea of a commuter rail bill of rights – is that something people are interested in?”

Other mayors who have shown interest include Beverly Mayor Michael Cahill and Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer.

The timing is good, since the MBTA is currently involved in a study on the future of commuter rail. The business community is also taking an interest in commuter rail. The group A Better City recently brought two officials from London and Toronto to Boston to talk about their efforts to revamp commuter rail service in their communities.

Driscoll is not sure where the coalition will end up on most issues. Asked if she gets a sense the group supports the concept of region rail, a more frequent service model to accommodate travel all day long and not just at peak commuting times.

“We are not there yet,” Driscoll said.

In addition to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the council is supported by the 495/MetroWest Partnership, the Transportation for Massachusetts Coalition, the MBTA Advisory Board, and the advocacy group TransitMatters.

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