About 40 residents, business owners, and environmentalists expressed concerns Wednesday night over the state’s plan to expand South Station, focusing on the potential impact the project could have on the surrounding neighborhoods.
The expansion would add seven tracks and four platforms to the existing station. A main point of contention during Wednesday’s meeting held by officials from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation was how the additional trains would be stored when they are not used during the day, and the land that would be lost as a result.
“In the peak periods of the morning, we have a lot more trains, but during midday when there is no service being provided we need a place to store those trains,” Steve Woelfel, director of strategic planning for MassDOT, said at the meeting held at the Courtyard Marriott in South Boston. “The additional service would need more storage space for about 33 additional trains.”
In order to accommodate the trains, the department would need to transition dozens of acres in and around Boston to midday layover facilities. Some areas that the department said it is considering include Beacon Park Yard in Allston, Readville-Yard 2 at 50 Wolcott Court, and Widett Circle in South Boston.
Woelfel, though, said no spot is currently favored over any of the others, as the project is still “early on.”
MassDOT received a grant of $32.5 million from the Federal Railroad Administration in 2011 to study the potential of expanding South Station. The study must be completed by June 2017 when the grant expires. The project is estimated in the range of $1.6 billion.
According to the transportation department, three times as many trains arrive per hour in the peak hours compared to the off-peak hours of the day. That uneven demand creates the need for the midday storage where the trains can sit for about 4.5 hours between rush hours.
City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who filed a hearing order Wednesday afternoon regarding the plans for the expansion of South Station, said the project would lead to a poor use of valuable urban land in a time where real estate in Boston is booming.
“I think that is irresponsible on multiple levels,” Flaherty said in a phone interview before the meeting. “Widett circle is a jewel in Boston where there are over 20 business, and over 1,000 employees. This annual event of trying to take [Widett Circle] needs to stop. Last year, it was the Olympics.”
While several people at the meeting expressed concerns over the environmental impact the train yards could have, Michael Vaughan a spokesman for the New Boston Food Market, said transforming land in Widett Circle to a layover facility would have far-reaching impacts on business owners in the area.
“I know people think it’s a sleepy place, but if you come by at 5 or 6 a.m. it is a vibrant place that provides a critical service to the city,” he said. “This whole proposal is irresponsible … to the 900 people that work there every day.”
Former Governor Michael S. Dukakis said that the money and resources that would be spent expanding South Station would be better spent building the North-South Rail Link, an underground tunnel that would connect North and South Stations in Boston.
“Nobody in the railroad world is expanding 19th century stub end stations – they are connecting them. It is happening in dozens of cities around the world,” Dukakis said in an interview before the meeting.
The link, he said, would eliminate the need to build layover facilities as the tunnel could be used for both transportation and storage.
Scott Hamwey, manager of long-range planning for MassDOT, said both the North-South Rail Link and the South Station Expansion are major projects that would cost a lot of money for the Commonwealth.
“The [South Station Development Project] is intended to expand the capacity of South Station to provide more reliable service in Boston,” he said. “And the [Link] has a number of benefits if the trains are running through a tunnel and not having to stop at North or South Station.”
While they are both separate and costly projects, he said, one does not necessarily preclude the other.