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State shelves commuter rail proposal through Cambridge for now

Posted by Brock Parker  December 8, 2011 10:54 PM

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State transportation officials said Thursday night that they are backing off a proposal to extend the Worcester/Framingham commuter rail line through Cambridge to North Station.

The proposal to create the spur of passenger train service through an active 8-mile rail line called Grand Junction had drawn considerable opposition in Cambridge, where residents worried about noise and traffic that would be created by additional trains.

But neighborhood worries were at least temporarily assuaged Thursday night when officials from the state Department of Transportation said they are not at this time going to pursue what they said would be a $30 million project to create the spur and build a stop for the commuter trains in Kendall Square.

“We’re not closing the door on it, but we’re not moving forward [at this time],” said Matthew Ciborowski, the project manager for the state Department of Transportation.

More than 100 people broke into applause when they heard the announcement Thursday night at a meeting about the commuter rail proposal in Cambridge’s Kennedy-Longfellow School.

“I think tonight was a big victory for the residents from Somerville and Cambridge,” said state Rep. Tim Toomey, who is also a Cambridge City Councilor. Toomey had raised opposition to adding passenger trains to the rail line through a densely populated area to serve what he said were a small number of commuters.

Freight trains already use the rail line, which runs from Allston to Chelsea and crosses the Charles River below the BU Bridge. Ciborowski said the passenger trains would add another one to two trains per hour to the rail line, depending on the time of day.

Ned Codd, the director of project-oriented planning for the state Department of Transportation, said the agency feels it is necessary to increase public transit service for Worcester and the metro west area of Boston and the preferable way to do that would be through commuter rail.

But Codd said that for now the state will try to improve the service by seeking to increase track capacity at South Station in Boston. Codd said increasing capacity at South Station could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and if the state is unable to do that, they could revisit the idea of adding passenger trains to the Grand Junction line to North Station.

Ciborowski said the state is currently soliciting for a designer for the South Station project.

The state closed on the purchase of the Grand Junction line from CSX in June of 2010 and met with neighbors in Cambridge to discuss the passenger train proposal in June of this year. Ciborowski estimated Thursday that by taking a commuter train on the Grand Junction line, commuters traveling from Worcester to Kendall Square in Cambridge would shave 25 minutes from their travel time.

But Ciborowski said that a study has show that the number of riders on the Worcester/Framingham line would not increase significantly if the Grand Junction spur were added and a station were built at Kendall Square.

MassDOT is predicting the number of riders will increase on the line from 6,700 today to about 9,000 in the year 2035. Adding the Grand Junction spur would only boost the 2035 total to about 9,300, Ciborowski said.

The added trains would also have an environmental impact both from the trains and the emissions created by vehicles idling while waiting for the trains to move through six street crossings in Cambridge, Ciborowski said.

He said the state did not pursue a more in-depth study of the Grand Junction proposal because it has decided not to actively pursue the project at this time.

While the project appears to have been shelved for now, Toomey said Cambridge and Somerville will have to continue to monitor the state’s plans for the line.

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