The state Senate is backing activists’ efforts to electrify the MBTA’s commuter rail system.
A proposal in the next fiscal year’s draft budget released by the chamber last Thursday would require transportation officials to study transitioning two MBTA lines — the Providence and Fairmount services — from diesel to electric power and report on the proposal by next March. The T would need to present a plan for running electric service on those two lines by September 2022.
The advocacy group Transit Matters unveiled a plan in February to electrify the system, starting with these two lines, as part of a plan to run more frequent commuter rail service throughout the day. The office of Senate President Harriette Chandler, who pushed for the language to be included in the budget, said it is directly based on Transit Matters’s “regional rail” proposal.
Advocates have clamored for electrified service both as a way to decrease emissions and provide better service, because electric vehicles accelerate more quickly.
Transit Matters thinks the two lines would be the best candidates to electrify first — the Providence line because Amtrak’s electric service runs along most of its route and Fairmount because it the shortest, at about 9 miles.
Also, electrifying the Fairmount line would be a way of moving a step further toward fulfulling promises to improve service for riders in Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury.
“Let’s start out with these two, doing it in a staged way that allows the state to step up to the idea, pilot it, and convince people who are skeptical of the costs and benefits that it can be done and that they’d be worth it,” said Jarred Johnson, a member of Transit Matters.
This isn’t entirely new ground for the T. The agency is already studying whether to electrify the system as part of a broader review of the commuter rail network that will also explore whether to run more frequent service. That study is due to be completed in late 2019.
Johnson said the Senate budget proposal would add urgency and more specific parameters to the idea.
Moreover, he said, it signals to the T that there is some legislative support for the proposal, though the Senate budget doesn’t promise any more money to help improve the commuter rail.
If the Senate adopts the plan, it would still need to be approved by the House of Representatives and Governor Charlie Baker, who has in the past vetoed transportation studies included in the state budget.
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo declined to comment, saying that the agency is reviewing the budget proposal.
In a December interview, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said electrifying the system requires close study because it is “complicated.”
“Just to give you an example, it requires infrastructure on both sides of the tracks. We have never looked at whether we have enough land on either side of the tracks to put the infrastructure up,” she said. “And do we have the generating capacity to generate the electricity that the T would need to buy from the grid? So it’s not just little questions.”
The Senate budget also includes more funds for the state’s regional transit authorities, which operate bus services in Springfield, Worcester, Cape Cod, and elsewhere across the state.
Many of those authorities have said they’re being forced to cut service due to inadequate funding in recent years. This year, the RTAs split $80.4 million from the state.
The Senate proposes funding the agencies with a combined $88 million, the figure the agencies have pressed for, and tying future funding to inflation. The House, by comparison, proposed $82 million for the RTAs, and only after originally proposing $80 million.
The Senate proposal would require the transit agencies to work more closely with state transportation officials to track data, develop best practices, and review routes as a contingency for much of the new funding. The House budget would also require the RTAs to review ways to improve service.Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.