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Plan for new rail service on table

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / October 23, 2011

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A proposal to use an existing CSX freight line for weekday commuter runs between Boston and Gillette Stadium would bring regular rail service to Foxborough for the first time since World War II.

The plan, which assumes at least eight round trips a day at both peak and off-peak times, was produced by Worcester lawyer John Mirick, with input from the MBTA, a transportation planner, and a regional economic development partnership.

In a study submitted to the town of Foxborough, Mirick called the service a “low-cost, low-risk’’ option to try to reduce clogged I-495 traffic, create jobs in a stalled economy, and ease crowding at other MBTA commuter rail stations.

“The purpose of this study is to evaluate the existing infrastructure . . . between Walpole and Mansfield to determine if an opportunity exists to expand passenger rail services . . . to this region with a minimal capital expenditure,’’ Mirick wrote.

It follows a draft plan floated by the MBTA last year to provide full-time commuter rail service to the special-event station at Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium. That idea caused an uproar in Walpole, in particular, with news that a storage facility for idling trains was planned for the former Bird Manufacturing plant, located close to homes.

Implementing Mirick’s plan would require approval by the town, the MBTA, and CSX, as well as funding from the state.

MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera said the agency is reviewing the draft report and will meet with CSX in the coming weeks to “discuss the feasibility of using existing infrastructure and outline next steps.’’

The cost of implementing the plan would be between $1.7 million and $3.6 million, and would include free parking at the stadium stop, based on research that a parking fee would decrease ridership.

Foxborough Town Manager Kevin Paicos did not comment specifically on the 22-page plan the town is still digesting, but said that, in general, the addition of daily commuter rail service will be a substantial convenience to Foxborough commuters and a potential benefit for economic development.

Paicos and Town Planner Sharon Wason have been working on a plan to rezone land owned by The Kraft Group west of Route 1 and across from Patriot Place and Gillette Stadium for a massive mixed-use development and an $8 million pedestrian overpass to connect the properties.

More-controversial discussions, recently squelched by Foxborough selectmen, included talk of rezoning part of that same parcel for casino gambling, an idea Paicos had drawn up by the Krafts’ attorney to potentially present to Town Meeting.

If Mirick’s report is adopted, it could be put in place as early as next spring, if track and service improvements can be made quickly enough along the Franklin line, officials said.

“We’ve been involved to provide a regional perspective,’’ said Jessica Strunkin, the deputy director of public policy and public affairs for the 495 MetroWest Corridor Partnership.

Mirick and his railroad consultant, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., presented the proposal to the regional economic development group in late September.

Strunkin said the plan gives commuters options and would alleviate constraints on parking. Realistically, though, she said, it comes down to money.

“Everyone knows that available state funding for transportation is not exactly flowing in this economy,’’ she said. “I hope, given the opportunities for jobs and economic growth, that it will lend itself to financing.’’

Lawmakers in the tri-town area of Foxborough, Mansfield, and Walpole, said they see the plan’s obvious benefit. But a subsequent phase that calls for expanded special-event service from Providence through Mansfield to Foxborough is more of a concern, bringing faster trains along a section of track close to homes and businesses along the CSX line’s southern section.

Runs would also be established from Central Massachusetts to Foxborough over the Framingham line, which has no current Gillette event service.

State Representative Jay Barrows of Mansfield said towns need to come together to discuss shared concerns even though his community seems least affected.

“It really is more centered in Foxborough up through Walpole and I don’t envision anything happening below that,’’ he said. “But it’s an active line now, with one freight train a day in the late evening, and the tracks would have to be fortified to handle a commuter rail.’’

Nothing happens overnight, Barrows said, “but that whole area is impacted by traffic on [Patriot] game days, and we have to do what we can to lessen it.’’

One skeptic is state Senator James Timilty of Walpole, who said he rides the train often and doesn’t see the demand for additional runs, “especially seeing an empty parking lot in Mansfield on the Foxborough side.’’

Timilty said the predicted 45-minute trip from Foxborough to Boston in the report is unrealistic and would take at least an hour. And, he added, “How are you offering free parking there when my other constituents at other stops pay $4? What else in that study is wrong?’’

Timilty urged participants to take their time and hear from everyone involved: “I think public transportation to the stadium is great. But where is the money coming from? It’s a fiduciary responsibility to ask.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at