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What about a light rail line from Needham to Newton Highlands?

Posted by Your Town  July 24, 2009 08:32 AM

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The best option for “Smart Growth” in Newton and Needham may lie in the unused rail bed that runs parallel to Needham Street and Highland Avenue.

A proposal to restore light rail service between Newton Highlands and Needham Heights would create significant opportunities for further modest-scaled growth in the corridor. In addition, the new light rail extension would have significant environmental benefits to our communities by reducing energy consumptions and traffic pollutants in this otherwise congested part of our community.

The rail line behind Needham Street and Highland Avenue was formerly part of the old Charles River line that was used to haul fill from Needham to the Back Bay in the late 1800’s. Once used as a passenger line, it remained active for freight use until several years ago. The unused rail bed connects the Riverside “D” line just west of Newton Highlands to the existing commuter station at Needham Heights for a distance of about 2 miles, extending across the Charles River and Route 128.

The proposal to reestablish rail service calls for a dual track, electrified light rail line, similar to the existing Green line, that would use modern, quiet, environmentally sensitive light rail vehicles. Passengers would be able to board the line at 4 stations: Needham Heights, the Needham Business Center, Newton Upper Falls, and Needham Street. They would then be able to take the line to stops on the existing Green line, including Newton Highlands, Newton Centre, Reservoir, Brookline Village, Longwood, Fenway, and into Copley and Park Street Stations. Connecting the Needham Street – Highland Avenue corridor and the Needham Business Park to employment and population centers in the central core of Boston would place our area “on the map” for fast, frequent light rail transit service.

Many municipalities have recognized the positive benefits that light rail has on local and regional economies and on the environment. New light rail systems have been built in places such as Portland (Oregon), New Jersey, Baltimore, Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego, and most recently Phoenix, Arizona. The effects of having light rail include new and expanded business opportunities, increased employment, a stronger local tax base, higher real estate values, greater perceived safety, decreased air pollution, and heightened tourist revenues.

Rail facilities can enhance economic activity in a number of ways. Light rail offers improved access to businesses for a potentially significant pool of customers. The public senses that a community with light rail is a desirable place to live and work, which tends to attract new businesses and new jobs. In addition, people and businesses which are near a light rail line have an alternative option to using automobiles, which helps combat auto congestion on roads. Having fast and frequent transit alternatives is one strategy to combat major forms of air pollution and is environmentally “green.”

Newton’s recently approved Comprehensive Plan projects a build out potential of approximately 2 million square feet of commercial real estate in the Needham Street corridor. Needham has projected at least 2 million additional square feet of commercial real estate to be developed in the New England Business Center, in addition to the existing 2.5 million square feet. Both communities have been open to residential uses in the corridor, which now includes the Avalon Bay apartment complex (294 units) and the planned Charles River Landing complex (350 units). And the Northland Corporation has indicated that a large mixed-use project may be developed on the 21-acre Marshall’s Plaza – IVEX site in Newton.

However important this new growth may be to the economic health of these two communities, there are significant concerns about increased traffic congestion. Full build out of the corridor may increase traffic by more than 10,000 trips per day along Needham Street and Highland Avenue. Many believe that the corridor simply cannot handle this additional traffic and fierce opposition to further development may result, reminiscent of the Stop and Shop battles of the 1990’s. Rehabilitating the rail line would offer a way to offset traffic increases from desired new growth while allowing economically sustainable projects to get approved. Ridership on the new rail line would be at least 6900 daily riders, which is estimated to reduce travel times and air pollution while reducing annual energy consumption by about 50,000 million BTU’s. Having light rail in the corridor will facilitate a new Needham Street to take shape, one that respects the “complete streets” concept that calls for streets to be equally accessible to pedestrians, bicyclists, transit, as well as cars. (see:

The new rail extension would initially run light rail vehicles every 15 minutes, taking about 30 minutes to get to central Boston. Trips would cost the same as on the rest of the rapid transit system, $2.00 each way or $59 for a monthly pass, which is a significant cost savings over the existing commuter rail line. The capital costs of building the line are estimated at approximately $100 million, and the project could very well be eligible for federal funding. Federal stimulus funding is intended to support projects that expand public transit and that will increase economic activity. However, Newton and Needham will not receive any of that funding unless our communities and our public officials advocate for projects that are eligible. Transportation accounts for about a third of our overall carbon footprint. The Newton-Needham rail extension represents a significant opportunity to reduce the environmental impacts of growth and traffic. The rail proposal also represents a significant opportunity for our business community and would be a great economic stimulus package for our two municipalities.

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23 comments so far...
  1. Newton will not allow the rail to go through their backyards. After all, rail is good, just NIMBY (not in my back yard).

    They already started claiming that the actually own the rail bed becasuse they have been using it for a few years now.

    File it under never going to happen.

    Posted by HBX July 24, 09 10:34 AM
  1. This corridor should be used for a rail trail or walking path not more mass transit. People could ride their bikes, walk, ride a Segway, jog, etc.. No noisy green line, light rail 'solutions'. A walking path would be a lot better, cheaper and more welcomed in both communities.

    Posted by Marcia Bernet July 24, 09 11:03 AM
  1. It's not NMBY. It is good sense. You want to build a double-tracked, high traffic line two miles from Newton Highlands to Needham. That means you have to build a new bridge over Rte. 128, you would also need to solve the grade crossing problems in Newton and Needham, and then build new stations. So, for a two mile extension you just spent how much? Like I said, it isn't NIMBY it is common sense. This would end up being a million-dollar-a-mile project. And for what? To serve a population that is already served by an existing commuter rail line. This is a bad idea that just keeps getting worse as time goes on. Spend the money on something more worthy, like extending commuter rail to New Bedford and Fall River, or expanding South Station, or bringing back rail service to New Hampshire.

    Posted by NIMBY July 24, 09 11:35 AM
  1. i would LOVE for this to happen and i actually live in newton upper falls. we need more mass transit options in our area.

    Posted by claudia henderson July 24, 09 12:00 PM
  1. Nedham was already offered rapid transit.... the orange line, they declined

    Posted by Mike July 24, 09 12:25 PM
  1. Not a good idea. The people from the Upper Falls have Elliot Station, the people from the Highlands have Newton Highlands station and the people in Needham have commuter rail. The infrastructure that would be needed would cost too much. I live in Newton Upper Falls too and grew up in Newton Highlands. Although light rail vehicles are less noisy, they still are noisy and disruptive of a quiet neighborhood.
    If that makes me a NIMBY so be it.

    Posted by Mike July 24, 09 02:39 PM
  1. There used to be a trolley line up Commonwealth ave all the way to Norumbega park. There is still a big grassy divider next to Comm. ave. They could easily put a rail line back in there, which would make it easier to take the train into Boston, and is something that is would be used more than a line going parallel to rte 128. Of course it would be nice to have a rail line that went North/South, as part of a real rail transport system in the MetroWest area, but that will never ever happen. People like to use their cars for everything.

    Posted by henry July 24, 09 02:55 PM
  1. How about controlling traffic on Highland Avenue and ticketing people who block traffic rather than using the turn lane. The police don't get paid extra to control traffic and driving (and the traffic reflects this), but they do get paid exra to guard the holes in the ground that the station contstruction will create.

    Posted by Dan Ari July 24, 09 03:42 PM
  1. You think Newton and/or Needham will allow mass-transit development????!!! Wow... where have you guys been living...?

    Posted by NIMBYNEEDHAM July 24, 09 03:52 PM
  1. If Newton were interested in smart growth they'd allow development of the semi-industrial area across Washington St from the Pike.

    That they, by my understanding, have opposed medium density development along that corridor suggests to me the City isn't interested in smart growth. What I'm getting at is, why should a large amount of $ be sunk into infrastructure for "smart growth" when there's existing infrastructure to support smart growth elsewhere?

    As for a railtrail along the corridor: 1. look at the opposition to the relatively short (and to me fairly useful) proposed path between the old Grossman's site in Wellesley and Riverside Station; 2. who exactly would the path serve, cycle-commuters coming from Needham headed to Marshalls or the Newton Highlands T station?

    I like bike paths, and I'm not a huge fan of cycling Needham St (Highland Ave is ok, although Needham does a terrible job of maintaining their roads) but I see little point in a R2T path along this line.

    Posted by T+M July 24, 09 04:35 PM
  1. Great idea but a nonstarter because:

    1. Newton and Needham NIMBYs will deep six the idea.

    2. The MBTA will mess up construction and it will costs 3 times as much as we would get from the Feds.

    Posted by Dave July 24, 09 04:36 PM
  1. There actually used to be a connector between what later became the Riverside Line and the rail line that runs through Needham -- or at least part of the route. It was popularly called the "Ping-Pong Trolley", because it essentially did nothing but make short trips back and forth to connect up two rail lines.

    If I still lived in Newton (I got priced out, years ago), I'd favor the light rail line. Face it, folks -- the NIMBY crowd will oppose ANYTHING that brings the public near their Newton homes (burglars on bikes, or something). Having worked on Needham Street, I can tell you that even 30 years ago, traffic was bad on Needham Street. Had light rail existed, back then, I could have commuted to and from work very easily, and left my car at home. The more that we can encourage that sort of thing today, the better off we'll all be.

    Posted by Newton native July 24, 09 05:02 PM
  1. Newton native wrote:

    "There actually used to be a connector between what later became the Riverside Line and the rail line that runs through Needham -- or at least part of the route. It was popularly called the "Ping-Pong Trolley", because it essentially did nothing but make short trips back and forth to connect up two rail lines."

    Yes, let's put that back in place, as well.

    Posted by Deborah SG July 24, 09 05:33 PM
  1. Newton makes any sort of change, large or small, such an ordeal. It's o.k. Newton, the city will still maintain its pristine and utopian characteristics. Get over yourselves!

    Posted by avi cohen July 24, 09 05:54 PM
  1. There are plenty of Newtonites who support this idea. (1) Contrary to some of the posts above, many people who live in Newton are in favor of smart growth and of good public transportation. (2) Many people who live in the region dislike the pedestrian-unfriendly nature, and heavy traffic, along Needham Street. A light rail line along this corridor would go a long way to solving this problem.

    Posted by James July 24, 09 06:04 PM
  1. Are you all insane? The T can't even manage what they've got and you want them to expand service? Whatever y'all are smokin' gimme some fast. Idiots.

    Posted by Chloe-OBrien July 24, 09 06:21 PM
  1. Reinstatement of the rail line makes good sense. It would allow easy access to the Longwood area, where many people in these communities work and commute by car. It would enable retail and residential development in the area while reducing traffic and pollution. I'm all for it!

    Posted by Greenman July 24, 09 10:49 PM
  1. This idea is already in the MBTA's long range plan. The T, however, has been saddled with a huge debt load that was not of its own making; it was loaded on them by the Central Artery/Tunnel project. As a result, this and many other excellent ideas will be pushed off into the indefinite future.
    As to the merits of this idea: to begin with, people need to understand that commuting goes both ways, not just into Boston. There are a lot of people who live in Boston, Brookline, and Newton who would use this line to commute to jobs in the Needham Street/Highland Avenue/Gould Street corridor, not to mention the large industrial area south of Highland Avenue and east of 128. While Needham has a rail link to Boston with the commuter rail, it only goes one way, south and east. How accessible is this area, or Brookline, or the Longwood medical area to Needham residents? This line would provide another way out of Needham. And folks who live along the commuter line that ends in Needham might ride it outbound and transfer to this extension of the Green Line. It's all about providing mobility, CAR-FREE mobility.
    Driving a car costs, today, at least 35 cents per mile. These costs are only going up, between the cost of oil and the taxes we pay for highways. It will not be long before many people realize their car is costing them $3,000-$4,000 per year, and will want some alternatives: good, flexible, frequently scheduled public transportation.
    Mass Highway Department's plans for widening 128 through this stretch are currently planning for the bridge on this line to be easily expanded to double tracks for this very purpose.
    There is another connection between heavy rail and light rail that should be made. The Riverside Line used to, when it was heavy rail, did connect to the Boston & Albany line which is now along the Turnpike. There was a station where they joined. You can still see the grade for this line beyond today's Riverside Station. We should be able to connect between the extended Riverside Line and the Commuter rail trains running out to Worcester, and those commuters should be able to jump on the Green Line and go their jobs in Brookline and/or the medical area. Instead, these people are sentenced to spending hours in their cars, commuting.
    As to a circumferential route parallel to 128, it doesn't take too terribly much imagination to conceptualize how the extension of the Riverside Line north to the commuter rail along the Pike could be extended through Auburndale, and even on to Waltham. A stretch? Sure, but someday we wil recover what we once had, flexible, inexpensive, frequent public transit.


    Posted by The Scribe of Newton July 25, 09 12:21 AM
  1. Ride my Segway, Marcia? Yeah, sure. I'll go plug it in right now. Give me something useful like a trolley, so I don't have to spend all my time sitting at Needham's dreadfully coordinated traffic lights waiting for two walk-cycles, a train, and everyone else's left turn When gas prices go back up (which they will), we'll see what people have to say then.

    Posted by mr b July 25, 09 12:36 AM
  1. This idea - a branch off the D-Riverside Line between Newton Highlands and Needham Heights made sense thirty years ago when my wife and I bought a home in Newton; it still does. Want a bike trail instead? Expect burglars using it at night to sneak around; and bikers to urinate over your back fence (if not more) and throw their trash wherever they please. Let's face it, riders on a train might not be the same race that you are or live in the same town that you do, but they are not going to steal a television set or refrigerator and then try to sneak it back into town on a trolley. Let's face it, part of suburban NIMBYISM is politically-correct racism. Don't want to make it easy for "those people" to come to our neighborhood.

    Posted by Phil Craig July 25, 09 12:55 AM
  1. I wish this happened many years, like twenty-five years ago, when this was originally proposed along with other forms of expansion. Expansion, where construction ought to be most flexible, along the Needham and Newton borders, is at a point of paralysis and this train line is absolutely necessary.

    Todd Stevens

    Posted by Todd Stevens July 25, 09 01:33 PM
  1. The "Ping-Pong" didn't run between Newton and Needham but between Newton and Wellesley, specifically between Riverside and what is now Papa Razzi's in Lower Falls. It ran as an electric trolley car until 1930, when the Commonwealth Avenue stretcar line from which it got power went away. From 1930 until 1956 it ran as a locomotive and one car.

    Posted by Rob July 29, 09 07:37 AM
  1. i have walked from birds hills to newton highlands many a time to get off and on the T, and think is awesome idea, will it happen,no. so a bike path it is, but make a huge bike path with two huge lanes and a skate and bike shop on it, the bridge at 128 has to be addressed, lets start there

    nhs class of 74'

    Posted by greg k July 29, 09 10:53 PM