MBTA weighs long-term plans for commuter rail    

File photo/The MBTA is developing six service alternatives, featuring a range of service approaches and technologies, for how the commuter rail could operate in the future.

BOSTON — Big plans are on the drawing board to modernize the MBTA's commuter rail, but the upgrades come with a hefty price tag.

The MBTA's Fiscal Management and Control Board is set to vote on a long-term plan to upgrade the system, with options ranging from adding to the current fleet of diesel-powered trains to providing more frequent service to a radical transformation into a subway-like electric rail with trains that run every 15 minutes.

The control board, which is scheduled to discuss the plans at a meeting in Boston on Monday, is reviewing six alternatives. They range in cost from $1.7 billion for a basic upgrade of the diesel-powered rail system to more than $28.9 billion for electrified rail throughout the entire 400-mile network over the next 20 to 25 years.

Members of the advisory committee for the MBTA's Rail Vision project seemed to favor the sixth, most expensive choice at a meeting last Monday, where they briefed members of the control board and the MBTA's board of directors on the plans.

Lynn Mayor Tom McGee, a former state senator and member of the advisory committee, said he wants the state to "think bold" with the plan to electrify the system.

So too does Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill, another member of the committee, who voiced support for a fully electrified system.

"For my constituents, it's about reliability, frequency and access to all parts of the region," he said at Monday's hearing.

Former Gov. Mike Dukakis recently threw support behind the fully electrified option in a letter to the advisory committee, citing the inclusion of a plan to link the MBTA's North-South commuter rail networks. Dukakis has been a longtime champion of the plan, estimated to cost more than $9.5 billion.

Transit officials say the current system limits options for riders who reverse-commute, and it doesn't provide enough frequent connections between gateway cities and Boston. That prevents the system, which serves an average of 127,000 daily passengers across 138 stations, from growing ridership or generating more fare revenue.

Keolis Commuter Services, the French company that has operated the commuter rail since 2014, and the Baker administration have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on locomotive repairs, upgrading miles of rail ties, switches and signals, and other work to improve service after the brutal winter of 2015 crippled much of the system.

Transforming the T

If the control board pursues any of the options, it's unclear how the upgrades would be funded.

None of the proposals suggest raising fares — which increased 6% in July — though some plans suggest "distance-based fares" for some riders. State law limits MBTA fare hikes to 7% over a two-year period.

At last week's meeting, the advisory committee talked about the need to pursue public-private partnerships to offset what's sure to be a hefty price tag.

On Beacon Hill, debate over transportation money is raging with transit advocates and some lawmakers pushing to raise the gas tax and other proposals to fill funding gaps. The MBTA already plans to spend $8 billion over the next five years to upgrade tracks, signals and other infrastructure on the commuter rail, subway and bus systems.

Matt Casale, a staff attorney with the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said big projects are needed to transform one of the nation's oldest public transit systems.

"We're in the midst of a transportation crisis in Massachusetts," he said. "If we want to fix any of the pressing issues we face, we really have to transform the entire system."

Electrifying the rail network would serve dual goals of reducing congestion and lowering emissions that scientists say are contributing to climate change, he said.

"The air pollution caused by diesel is really bad for health," he said. "So living around and taking the commuter rail is going to be healthier if we electrify it."

Boosting ridership

Modernizing the commuter rail system and the frequency of trains would boost ridership, according to a report from the advisory committee. For example, providing service every half-hour at peak would boost daily ridership an estimated 19,000 people by 2040, while adding 15-minute service would add 225,900 riders.

More people riding the commuter rail in and out of Boston and other major hubs would mean fewer driving their cars to work. Statewide the number of vehicle trips could drop anywhere from 2.6 million to 36.8 million per year, depending on which plan is adopted.

Lawmakers who represent communities served by the commuter rail say modernizing it is key to attracting younger families and more investment.

"Massachusetts has to pivot to a more robust transportation system," said Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, whose district is served by the Haverhill line. "If we don't, we're going to lose a lot of our young workforce."

More information about the rail plans can be found here: https://www.mbta.com/projects/rail-vision

The T's fiscal control board meets at noon at the State Transportation Building at 10 Park Plaza, Boston. The meeting will be live-streamed here: https://bit.ly/2JI7tBt

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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