AFTER YEARS of work, three gleaming train stations have opened in some of the city’s roughest areas, part of a $200 million campaign to spruce up the ailing commuter rail line that winds through Dorchester. The new stations on the Fairmount Line, and a fourth still under construction, could spur economic growth in needy neighborhoods, especially coupled with an 18- to 24-month MBTA pilot program to lower fares and increase frequency on the line. But the T’s influence extends only so far. With the transit agency’s huge investments, the corridor’s long-term future now needs strong leadership by the city to bring new development to the corridor.
Right now, the Fairmount Line carries a paltry 1,200 daily riders, making it the least popular commuter rail route in the MBTA system. Running entirely within Boston, the route starts in Readville and skirts the Neponset River before bisecting Dorchester and terminating at South Station. Often, many cars on the train are empty and darkened. The company that operates the commuter rail has proposed running shorter, self-propelled cars on the route, which could allow greater frequency. But any further capital investment by the cash-strapped T has to wait for visible commitment from the city.
The line’s basic problem is that there’s not enough housing near stations to attract would-be commuters. Making the most of the new improvements will mean developing more housing, especially in Mattapan and Uphams Corner, where the city owns large parcels at the former Cote Ford and the Maxwell Box factory. The Boston Redevelopment Authority launched a planning process for the corridor in 2012, but has run into a widespread concern that development around stations will trigger gentrification and displace residents.
Yet the status quo carries its own cost: a scarcity of economic opportunity. Besides, there are ways to encourage higher-density land use while minimizing displacement, and that has to be the city’s goal for the Fairmount corridor. At many stations, there’s plenty of room to grow without displacing anyone; the BRA has catalogued many vacant, weed-strewn lots lying fallow around the stations. And residential development can be mixed-income, to ensure that there’s a place for residents if the neighorhoods become more desirable and rents move upward.
The type of housing most suitable for the areas around Fairmount stations is also the kind the city needs the most: dense, transit-oriented, non-luxury units. The city needs more units appropriate for residents who don’t want to own a car, and for young families who now find it difficult to afford living in Boston. Building more of such multifamily housing can be a win-win for the city and the neighborhoods, which will gain more transit options and vitality. The T has spent too much money improving the line already to let these opportunities go to waste.