An electrifying vision: Transportation advocacy groups say …

An electrifying vision: Transportation advocacy groups say …

When the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board voted last November to seek a major upgrade of commuter rail services, including trains running every 15 minutes like a subway system, there was widespread applause by public transit advocates.

Now, all the board has to do is find a way to pay for it.

Cost estimates are not hard and fast and the board did not propose a new revenue stream to support the project.

The idea would require the MBTA to purchase new electric trains, install full electrification systems on three rail lines, and build new platforms at many stations.

Jarred Johnson, CEO of the transportation advocacy group Transit Matters, said a rough estimate of the capital costs might be $500 million for new trains and $180 million to $200 million for upgrades to the infrastructure on the rail lines.

And that is just the capital costs.

An MBTA estimate of various options said operating and management costs would be between $304 million and $643 million per year while fare revenue from additional riders would only be between $15 million and $80 million a year.

State Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack said there are no firm numbers yet, but she supports the “vision” of the proposal.

She cautioned that it would take years to implement the proposal and abutters would have to realize that electric trains would impact them with more frequent trains passing by at higher speeds.

Jim Hawkins at Train Station

State Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro, says revenue to pay for electric trains and many other transportation projects is a “big and complex problem.” The Legislature is starting to discuss raising revenue for transit projects with various taxes and tolls, but, “There is no consensus,” he says.

As for revenue to pay for electric trains and many other transportation projects, state Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro, said the issue is a “big and complex problem.”

The Legislature is starting to talk about raising revenue for transit with a higher gasoline tax, tolls on free highways such as the Expressway, higher taxes on Uber and Lyft, a hike in capital gains taxes and other measures being floated as possibilities.

“There is no consensus,” Hawkins said.

He said Boston has the worst highway congestion in the country and something has to be done, but the answer is not paving more roads.

Johnson said the costs would be well worth it.

Ideally, an electric train system would reduce traffic congestion on roadways, help improve air quality, and provide people with quick, reliable transportation throughout the day, he said.

Trains would come approximately every 15 minutes under the proposal rather than the current system of frequent trains during rush hour with little to no service during off-peak hours.

Jim Stergios of the conservative Pioneer Institute, which is often critical of the MBTA, said the project is affordable.

First, he said, the MBTA must improve its management of capital projects. Then, if the service is run correctly, it should attract more riders, who would bring in more revenue.

“Beyond that, increasing capital outlays in the context of a growing economy and billion-dollar surpluses is entirely doable,” he said.

“Longer-term, meaning from 2025 going forward, the state will need to think through how it pays for additional capital projects. But, again, the short answer is this is entirely doable.”

At the same time, there are many demands for that surplus money, both in transportation and among other services, such as health care and local aid.

For instance, a proposal out of Boston to make bus service free would cost an estimated $36 million a year, which the MBTA says it cannot afford.

There is also some skepticism that the MBTA can handle the huge change.

Commuter Kevin O’Connor of Attleboro said he thinks the MBTA should learn to do a better job managing what it already has before making plans to expand.

He said from what he reads, the MBTA has too many problems to deal with now.

Rachel Heller

Rachel Heller, CEO of Citizens Housing and Planning Association.

But Rachel Heller, CEO of Citizens Housing and Planning Association, said the state can afford the project if politicians make it a priority.

“I do think we as a Commonwealth are going to need to prioritize transit and housing,” she said.

She said frequent, reliable commuter rail service would help address another big problem in Massachusetts — affordable housing.

Heller said better train service would encourage the development of affordable housing along the rail lines, as housing in Boston has become too expensive.

Cities and towns with rail service should help encourage housing by having proper zoning in place so areas near train stations could become housing sites, she said.

That in turn would lead to restaurants, grocery stores and other services locating near the housing and trains to create “walkable cities,” she said.

She and Johnson said they fully support the control board proposal.

The middle tracks of Attleboro’s line to Boston, the Providence-Stoughton line, are already electrified for Amtrak use, but Johnson said the electric lines would have to be brought to the outside ones.

The Lynn and Fairmount lines, which are part of the proposal, are not electrified at all.

The lines would also need substations to boost the electricity, he said.

Then — perhaps the most expensive part — electric trains would have to be purchased.

They are vital to improvement, he said, because the current diesel trains are too heavy and slow and take a lot of time to accelerate and slow down. For that reason, they can never run at top speed because the stations are too close together.

Converting to electric trains would make the trip to Boston quicker as they would get to top speed quicker. It would also allow many more trains to be used because the lines would be cleared faster as trains complete their trips sooner,…

Transportation Services Jonathan Cartu

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