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Pike chief sees monorail train on median strip

Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello, under fire for a planned opening celebration for the southbound side of the Interstate 93 tunnel, said yesterday that he has already started thinking about an idea for the agency's next big project: a monorail or magnetically-levitated train on the median of the Massachusetts Turnpike from Springfield to Boston.

 

Speaking before construction industry leaders, Amorello said the monorail, which would take up less land than conventional railroad tracks, would provide a whole new way to commute from fast-growing areas west of Boston and could tie into New York rail service at Springfield.

"The right of way is an asset, and we should take advantage of it," he said, referring to the median of the turnpike. "The Turnpike Authority is a building authority, and we will continue to do so."

After his remarks at the forum, which focused on future transportation projects, Amorello said he has commissioned a $10,000 study on the feasibility of a rail line down the median of the turnpike. He did not say where funding would come from.

Monorails have rebounded in popularity since the 1960s and 1970s, aided by new technology, including the magnetic levitation system, which uses electromagnetic power to lift, guide, and propel trains above an elevated guideway. Such a monorail has been proposed between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., between Chattanooga and Atlanta, and connecting southern California suburbs with Los Angeles International Airport. Monorails are in place in Seattle, Miami, and at the Old Dominion University campus in Virginia.

Jonathan Carlisle, spokesman for state transportation secretary Daniel Grabauskas, said he could not comment on Amorello's proposal.

"We'd be happy to look at the study when it's completed, but we'd have to know more specifics -- number of trips, what it would cost -- before we could say how it would fit into the state's transportation network," Carlisle said.

Amorello has been the target of withering criticism recently from legislative leaders and Governor Mitt Romney, who wants to merge the Turnpike Authority with the Highway Department, and take over Big Dig management.

The controversy has centered on expenditures for an opening ceremony for the southbound I-93 tunnel on Dec. 19 featuring an underground concert by the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. Some Beacon Hill leaders say the estimated $350,000 cost of the event -- $100,000 of it to come from public funds -- is excessive, given the project's overruns.

Without addressing the criticism directly, Amorello noted that the three major components of the $14.6 billion Big Dig -- the Interstate 90 extension to the Ted Williams Tunnel, northbound I-93, and southbound I-93 -- will have all opened in the same year. He also said he was looking forward to demolishing the elevated Central Artery in the months ahead.

He then quickly moved on to turnpike-related projects, including new interchange configurations and the availability of 190 acres of turnpike-owned land in Warren for a casino if the Legislature allows gaming in Massachusetts, before discussing what he acknowledged as a fanciful idea to put rail on the median of the turnpike.

The median is only a few feet wide for significant portions of the 135-mile roadway, from Interstate 495 to the Back Bay, where concrete jersey barriers separate the travel lanes. In other spots the median has a width of 30 feet or more and features grass, trees, and plantings.

If found to be feasible, the monorail would be on an elevated guideway with a relatively small foundation in the median, and the platform for the trains cantilevered over the travel lanes in a T-shaped configuration, Amorello said. Another possibility is putting a rail line on the surface, in the median where there's room, and in the highway lanes for other segments.

One major obstacle that must be overcome is getting by the dozens of bridges that block the median corridor, Amorello conceded.

The transportation planning firm HNTB, based in Kansas City, Mo., is doing the feasibility study, at a cost of approximately $10,000, said turnpike spokesman Doug Hanchett.

Trains have been put in highway medians in a number of metropolitan areas, notably Chicago, where a heavy rail line takes passengers into the city from O'Hare International Airport.

But some specialists express resistance to the idea here.

Magnetic leviation monorails are "one of those wonderfully bad ideas that keep coming back," said David Luberoff of Harvard's Kennedy School, coauthor of the book "Megaprojects." Such proposals sound good at first, Luberoff said, but the systems are often "extremely difficult to build, almost impossible to finance, and unlikely to provide any significant transportation benefits."

The Massachusetts Turnpike doesn't go directly into any urban areas besides Boston, Luberoff said, which would mean that the state would have to undertake costly land taking for spurs into places where the stations would be convenient. It's also not clear why commuters would take the median train when commuter rail is available, he said.

Anthony Flint can be reached at flint@globe.com.

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