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Projects aim to expand freight rail

Two area projects that could lead to expanded freight rail are set to move forward this year after receiving recent funding boosts from the state.

The Covanta SEMASS trash-to-energy plant in Rochester and the Fore River Railroad in Braintree and Quincy each received grants under the state’s Industrial Rail Access Program, which seeks to expand access to freight rail as a way to spur economic growth.

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The Covanta plant, which annually processes about 1.1 million tons of municipal solid waste, will receive $167,040 to add about 400 feet of track and a switch at its 95-acre facility.

The total $278,400 project will enable the plant, officially known as the Southeastern Massachusetts Resource Recovery Facility, to continue shipping 40 rail cars each year of nonferrous metals from its site, and potentially to ship another 350 rail cars of other metals.

“We’re pleased to have received this grant,” said James Regan, spokesman for New Jersey-based Covanta Energy, which owns the plant through a subsidiary. “It will provide more flexibility to the facility to continue and possibly expand the use of rail for our recycled metal.”

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which owns the 2.7-mile Fore River Railroad, will receive $342,000 for a project to replace an obsolete railroad bridge in Braintree with a culvert. Officials said the total $574,244 upgrade will increase the weight-carrying capacity of rail cars operated on the freight line.

In all, nine grants totaling $2.85 million were awarded in the recent round of the state program, which was created through the 2012 Transportation Bond Bill to support rail projects that offer public benefits. Recipients can include railroads, rail shippers, and municipalities.

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The Covanta SEMASS plant provides trash disposal for about 60 cities and towns south of Boston and on Cape Cod. The trash is burned in a boiler, and the resulting steam generates electricity that is sold to the regional power grid.

Metals are recovered from the trash prior to combustion, and from the ash residue after combustion. The recovered metals are transported from the site for recycling, according to Regan.

Ferrous metals are trucked to Schnitzer Steel Industries in Everett, while the less plentiful nonferrous metals are shipped by rail to a company in Kentucky. The rail cars follow several spurs on the southern boundary of the site that connect to nearby freight rail lines.

Regan said Covanta confines its rail shipments to the relatively small volume of nonferrous metals because the spurs do not extend as far as the plant building, making loading impractical.

That problem will be addressed by the addition of the new track, which will connect the spurs with the truck bay inside the plant. Regan said that extension will at minimum ensure that Covanta can continue rail shipments of the nonferrous metals and potentially ship the ferrous metals.

Shipping by rail can save money and is a plus for traffic and the environment, Regan said, noting that shipping 350 rail cars of metal each year would remove 1,200 trucks from the road.

Covanta officials said they hope to start the project later this year.

The Fore River Railroad, which runs from Quincy Point to the Greenbush commuter line in Braintree, was constructed in 1902. Over the years, it served the Fore River Shipyard, including during World War II when its steam locomotives carried more than 750,000 tons of construction materials for Navy vessels, according to the MWRA website.

The MWRA acquired the railroad when it purchased the then-closed shipyard in 1987 to use as a staging area for construction of its Deer Island sewage treatment plant. The agency sold most of the shipyard site when the project was completed, but kept the railroad.

Frederick Laskey, executive director of the MWRA, said the agency uses the line to ship the fertilizer pellets it creates from sludge generated at the treatment plant.

Twin Rivers Technologies, a manufacturer located at the shipyard, also uses the railroad to transport its fatty acids product, and is contracted with the MWRA to operate and manage the railroad.

The rail bridge is located just to the southeast of Chickadee Lane and John Paul Circle in Braintree. It was built around the time the railroad was constructed to allow cows to cross below the tracks, a function that Laskey said long ago became obsolete.

“It’s a very small bridge that inhibits our maximum use of that line,” Laskey said of the 14-foot-long bridge. He said the structure is also worn due to age. Construction of the culvert, he continued, would enable the MWRA to save on shipping costs, since the heavier rail cars it could accommodate would reduce the number of trips needed.

“The bridge itself needs to be repaired, and since there is no secondary use underneath, a culvert would be more appropriate then reconstructing an entire bridge,” Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said in an e-mail.

In addition to supporting heavier trains, the culvert will improve drainage by allowing storm water to pass from the west side of the tracks into adjacent conservation land to the east, according to Verseckes.

Currently in design, the project is expected to be bid in the fall, with construction beginning in early 2014 and finishing in the spring.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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