Stalled Fitchburg rail project gets a $55.5m federal boost

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 18, 2010

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The federal government plans to spend $55.5 million to extend the Fitchburg commuter rail line and build a new station, part of an effort to reduce gridlock on Route 2 and help people who cannot afford to live near Boston get to jobs in the city and its close-in suburbs, officials announced yesterday.

Governor Deval Patrick said revitalizing “gateway cities’’ like Fitchburg, regional hubs with struggling economies, is critical to the state’s economic future.

“This is another example of a project or an issue or a need that has been languishing for decades,’’ he said. “It’s huge in terms of the number of jobs right now.’’

With better access between Fitchburg and Boston, recent college graduates and young families could settle in the Fitchburg area, where housing is relatively cheap, yet retain access to jobs inside Interstate 495, said Hunter Ridgway, chief of staff for US Representative John W. Olver, a Democrat who represents the area.

“Staying in Massachusetts becomes affordable,’’ Ridgway said.

The federal money will cover the bulk of the $72.2 million cost to extend the T’s longest rail line by 4.5 miles, to the western edge of Fitchburg.

The state and federal governments had recently committed to spending another $200 million to upgrade the full line’s track and signal system in hope of reducing travel time between Fitchburg and Boston from 90 minutes to under an hour. The line, which carries 6,100 passengers on weekdays, is one of the T’s least reliable.

The planned new station and parking lot next to Route 2 is intended to draw about 400 additional rail passengers a day and increase access for existing passengers who live west of the rail line and who often find themselves backed up in Route 2 traffic or unable to get a parking spot at train stations near Fitchburg. The project would also link a freight line that uses the tracks with a nearby industrial park, with an eye toward more commerce.

In addition to the Fitchburg grant, the state won $20 million for transportation and land improvements around Wonderland Station in Revere to help jump-start a development project, and another $20 million to upgrade train bridges in New Bedford, an early step in bringing passenger rail service to the South Coast. Patrick has long promised to build a passenger line to Fall River and New Bedford, but has delayed plans in order to identify a source to pay the estimated $1.4 billion to $1.9 billion cost.

Patrick hailed yesterday’s grant as an important sign that the federal government is committed to helping with a Fall River-New Bedford line. Patrick said that the rail line would have to be funded “in phases and in bits and pieces, because that’s how it has to get done.’’

Yesterday’s grants are part of the federal stimulus program, designed to jolt the lagging economy. The state has committed to finish the projects in two years.

Massachusetts fared poorly in a competition last month for $8 billion in high-speed rail grants. But the state took in a much larger proportion of yesterday’s transportation grants, winning $95.5 million out of $1.5 billion awarded nationally.

Transportation advocates have praised state and federal governments for putting an emphasis on building rail and transit projects as part of the latest stimulus round. But there is debate about which projects bring long-term benefit to the economy and the environment.

“The commuter rail extension is fine,’’ said Anthony Flint, public affairs director for the Lincoln Institute, a Cambridge think tank. “But you could argue you’d get better bang for the buck by going for funding for aspects of the Green Line extension’’ in Somerville or other bus or subway projects in the urban core, that would carry more passengers and reduce sprawl, he said.

David Luberoff, executive director of Harvard’s Rappaport Institute, another think tank, said adding 400 passengers per day to the Fitchburg Line would neither reduce traffic substantially nor rearrange the job market.

“Those numbers don’t suggest a kind of enormous, transformative effect,’’ he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at