T board approves commuter rail vision

Calls for subway-like service on ‘most dense corridors’

THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD unanimously approved five resolutions on Monday designed to start transforming the state’s commuter rail network into more of a subway-like system with electrified trains arriving every 15 to 20 minutes on the “most dense corridors.”

The initial phase of what could be a decades-long process, according to the resolutions, would be the Providence, Fairmount, and at least a portion of the Rockport/Newburyport line that serves Lynn, Chelsea, Revere, and Everett. The resolution calls for rapid-transit-like service on the Fairmount and Lynn corridors at subway prices.

The resolutions also called on the Legislature to pass Gov. Charlie Baker’s transportation bond bill, specifically provisions providing funding for initial work on the commuter rail system and authority for the T to enter into a public-private partnership with a company or companies to build and/or operate the system. The resolutions also called for the creation of dedicated teams to oversee the transformation of the MBTA’s commuter rail and bus systems, with T staff to report back by the end of January on what the makeup of those teams would look like as well as their initial timetables.

Each member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board began the debate by outlining their priorities for commuter rail. A task force had settled on six options for the commuter rail system of the future, ranging from relatively simple changes (option 1) on some lines to the most sweeping transformation (option 6), with electrified trains operating every 15 minutes across the entire system. Most members of the task force and advocates backed option 6, which would have had an estimated price tag of $28.9 billion in 2020 dollars.

Several members of the control board said they would probably fall in the 5.5 range on the task force scale, but it quickly became clear the board would not go along with the task force’s options. Instead, Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, proposed four resolutions and Monica Tibbits-Nutt added a fifth dealing with the bus system. Amendments were added on the fly calling for equity concerns to be included in any decision-making and some preparation for what happens when the existing contract of Keolis, the current commuter rail operator, ends on June 30, 2022. Officials said they might not have the final wording of was approved until tomorrow.

The resolutions were broad and seemed designed to get the process moving rather than set an end goal or chart a specific timetable for action. The broad goal is to provide more service, get people off the roads and out of their cars, and electrify the system to speed up trains and reduce carbon emissions. “None of the specific alternatives [created by the task force] should be endorsed because each one of them has limitations,” Aiello said.

Aiello’s first resolution, which he described as a vision statement, called for rapid transit with 15 to 20 minute headways on the commuter rail system’s “most dense corridors,” suggesting the initial focus will be on lines where  more frequent service could boost passenger traffic significantly. The resolution recommends “appropriately scheduled service” on the system’s less dense lines, meaning trains on those lines would presumably operate less frequently. The vision also calls for electrified trains and the implementation of high-level platforms where they make sense, and full integration of the commuter rail system into bus and other services to get people from stations to their ultimate destinations.

A fifth resolution, proposed by Tibbits-Nutt, called for the creation of a dedicated team to work on improving bus service. “The bus system is failing,” she said, adding that the board had failed to think ambitiously enough in launching its so-called Better Bus Project. She also raised concerns that trains and subways tend to separate communities, while bus systems run well can often knit them together.

The approved resolutions contained no mention of some of the big projects included in some of the task force’s options, including an underground rail link between North and South Stations, expansion of South Station, or development of rail service on existing track running from the Allston area to Kendall Square and North Station. There also was no price tag for the work.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack did not oppose any of the measures openly, but she made remarks and asked questions designed to elucidate the immense challenges ahead and the potential costs.

For example, the original resolution called for high-level platforms at commuter rail stops as a long-term goal. Transportation advocates push for high-level platforms to make loading and unloading of trains much faster; at low-level platforms, passengers have to wait until conductors open train steps down to the platform and then cautiously move down the steep steps.

Pollack pointed out that building high-level platforms is not just a question of adding concrete to the platform. She said raising the platforms would have to be accompanied by a series of other measures to make each station fully handicap accessible. She noted a redo of a commuter rail station in Natick the board approved on Monday would cost $43 million and take 30 months. She said the task force indicated raising the platforms across the entire system would cost $3 billion, and that’s only if the average cost of station overhauls was $40 million.

On the Providence Line, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said the cost of installing elevated platforms would be $500 million.

Aiello was openly skeptical of that estimate for the Providence Line. “I find that shockingly high,” he said.

Pollack also asked Poftak how long it would take to purchase electric multiple units, the name for train cars individually self-propelled by electricity. The units are able to accelerate and decelerate much faster than diesel trains and reportedly also have lower maintenance costs.

Poftak said his “educated guess” would be that it would take two to four years to purchase enough electric multiple units for the Providence Line, a timetable that had some board members fuming.

Pollack also raised concerns about the decision to start with the Providence, Fairmount, and Rockport/Newburyport lines. She noted the board has traditionally launched pilot projects only after obtaining detailed information on costs and benefits, but with the board’s proposal would be pushing forward with major projects on the three lines without knowing much of anything about costs or benefits.

Aiello said he didn’t view work on the three lines as pilot projects. He said ongoing work to transform the Red, Orange, and Green Lines proceeded without having all the information ahead of time, and he said the T needs to move forward with commuter rail transformation now and adjust as the projects proceed. “We learned as we went,” he said, referring to those other lines. “It won’t be perfect.”

Board member Brian Lang backed the decision to begin moving ahead. “There’s some urgency here,” he said. “We need to make some decisions with the information we have now.”

Lang asked why Aiello chose the Providence, Fairmount, and Rockport/Newburyport lines as the initial focus. Aiello said the Providence Line, which is currently used by Amtrak, is already electrified so it makes sense to start with that route. With service to Lynn, Aiello said the “environmental justice” communities served by that line had made a strong case over the last several weeks for increased service and he also worried about decreasing congestion on the North Shore and preserving access to Logan International Airport. As for the Fairmount Line, Aiello said the state has long promised rapid transit-like service to that line’s users. “My view is the time is near to commit to it,” he said.

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