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Work begins on new South Acton train station

After years of meetings with town officials and residents to design a new commuter rail station near the historic district in South Acton, the state is set to start the project this fall.

A temporary platform has been installed as officials prepare for the construction, which is expected to take about 18 months, said David Martin, chairman of the South Acton Train Station Advisory Committee.

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“It’s taken several years to get to this point,’’ Martin said. “It was a long time coming.’’

Martin said site work will take place this fall and winter, followed by the construction of a new inbound platform and overpass next spring and summer. The temporary platform is located on the outbound end of the existing station. There is a paved walkway providing access to the temporary platform.

Work is expected to begin next fall on the new outbound platform. The reconstruction of an off-site parking lot will take place in the winter of 2014, and the entire project will be done in the spring of 2014, under the state’s timetable.

According to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, South Acton is the busiest station on the Fitchburg commuter rail line. The station has a low-level platform alongside a single main-line track, creating a problematic arrangement for boarding trains for passengers who have difficulty negotiating stairs.

The MBTA is rebuilding the station as part of a $277 million state and federal investment along the 50-mile corridor of the Fitchburg line, which it describes as the longest, slowest, and among the oldest and least reliable of its commuter rail routes. The MBTA says the project’s track, signal, station, and bridge improvements will reduce trip times and improve service reliability and access.

In 2009, the MBTA proposed a South Acton Station design that residents and town officials described as ugly and inconvenient, and likely to deter people from using public transportation. The plan called for an elevated center-island platform, reached via ramps and a walkway from the north parking lot crossing one set of the tracks. A roof and side enclosures would have blocked the elements.

“The original design was not very good for the town,’’ Martin said. He said it didn’t have access from the south side of the tracks, and had a concrete ramp system instead of an elevator for handicapped access.

Residents, town officials and state legislators worked together to come up with a different design and the ­MBTA accepted it in 2010.

New, full-train-length, high-level platforms on both sides of the tracks will be constructed to replace the existing platform, allowing level boarding access. An enclosed overhead walkway served by stairs and elevators will be constructed over the tracks connecting the two platforms. To supplement the drop-off area in the station parking lot, a second passenger drop-off area will be constructed on Maple Street adjacent to the new inbound platform. The main station parking lot will continue to be owned and operated by Acton, which will also be responsible for the maintenance of the new station elevators.

According to the MBTA, station amenities will include new canopies, passenger shelters, benches and wind screens, sign­age, train approach warning system, variable message signs, and platform lighting. The station will be equipped with closed-circuit video surveillance cameras, police emergency call boxes, and public telephones.

“I’m very happy with the progress, and the MBTA for being open and transparent about the process and quick to address concerns of the residents,’’ said state Senator Jamie Eldridge,  a Democrat from Acton. “They went from a design that was quite unpopular to one that was designed by the residents.’’

Eldridge said only a few residents attended a recent informational meeting on the progress of the project, which told him that many issues have already been addressed.

Despite the changes, not everyone is satisfied.

Katrina Buck, who lives on Faulkner Hill Road in Acton, said the current design is better than the original proposal, but still isn’t good enough. She described the design as a modern “monstrosity.’’

“It’s inappropriate for this part of town,’’ Buck said. “They could’ve done something that looked more in character with the buildings that are historic in nature.’’

Buck thinks the town caved in to certain design elements because the state is footing the bill for the station.

“It’s all about the money,’’ she said.

Martin acknowledged that not everyone is pleased but said it’s a big improvement.

“There are still some concerns about the aesthetics near the South Acton Historic District,’’ he said. “It’s now a little more pleasing to the eye.’’

Martin also said there will be disruptions for commuters and residents during construction, but the town and state are working to minimize them.

Martin said the new station will be better for neighbors because there will be less light pollution, and the trains will be stopping farther from the homes in the area. He said most work will take place between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., though there will be some times when night work is unavoidable.

“Unfortunately, there are some disruptions for the next year and a half, and after that it will be improved for everyone,’’ he said. “It’s going to be handled as well as it can be.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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