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MBTA board commits to ambitious transformation of the commuter rail

Commuters filled the platform as they arrived during the morning rush at South Station.
Commuters filled the platform as they arrived during the morning rush at South Station. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The MBTA’s oversight board voted Monday to embrace a “transformation” of the state’s commuter rail system — including a push to electrify service on at least three lines — in a first step toward potentially pursuing billions of dollars in new projects.

The five resolutions adopted by the Fiscal and Management Control Board drew praise from advocates and caution from the Baker administration, but they also largely avoided committing to specific timetables and an overall price tag for reshaping the network. The moves left open questions of how the T would pay for the sweeping changes to a rail system that snakes from downtown Boston to its suburbs and beyond.

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The votes were packed with aspirational language in which the board said it “expects” the system to eventually run trains every 15 to 20 minutes in its most densely populated corridors, to be “largely electrified” in the future, and to ultimately resemble rapid-transit subway service.

Electric trains accelerate faster than their diesel counterparts, and advocates say they’re also more reliable.

One resolution directed the agency to pursue adding electrified service to the Fairmount Line, the Providence/Stoughton Line, and a section of the Newburyport/Rockport Line between Boston and Lynn as part of a first phase. The language outlining the three-pronged effort said it could “require” $1.5 billion, though chairman Joseph Aiello asked that the T ultimately produce a specific cost estimate.

Taken together, the series of votes Monday amounted to the first outlines of a broad plan that could reshape transportation in the region for decades to come.

“This is going to be a generational plan,” board member Brian Lang said before the vote. “But let’s start now with steps that we can take.”

The board also voted to have MBTA general manager Steve Poftak create a plan for a commuter rail “transformation office” by January, detailing what staffing and budget it would need and a schedule of work it would pursue over the next two years.

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The board passed the resolutions after officials spent about a year crafting a “rail vision” study laying out options for the future of the system. The half-dozen choices each promised to add tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of new daily boardings on commuter rail trains, but they also come with vastly different price tags.

In one scenario, the sixth option, the T would take on at least $28.9 billion in capital costs by adding nearly 60 miles of tracks, electrifying the system, and ensuring that every station would see a train every 15 minutes. The plan would also create a flat fare for rides within the inner core of the system and increase boardings by about 225,900 per day.

The board did not adopt any one option, though some board members described themselves as backing a “5.5” option. That appeared to carve out middle ground between the fifth option in the rail study, which included electrification and was estimated to cost $10.6 billion, and the sixth option, described as a “full transformation.”

By doing so, the board avoided tying the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to a variety of specific projects wrapped into each option.

But the debate wasn’t without friction. Stephanie Pollack — Governor Charlie Baker’s transportation secretary — said she’s concerned with the “specificity” of the resolution pursuing initial electrification along the three lines, arguing that past plans for pilot programs often include far more detail.

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“We don’t know if we can buy EMUs, how much they would cost, and when they would be delivered,” she said, using the acronym for self-propelled electric cars, known as “electric multiple units.” “We don’t know how we’re going to electrify the system.”

Poftak, the T’s general manager, estimated it could take the MBTA two to four years to buy the electric cars.

But Aiello, who proposed four of the five resolutions, said the T should embrace the concepts, even if it means figuring out the details along the way.

“If we keep studying and studying and studying and don’t commit ourselves to going to implementation, we’ll be here in 20 years again at the same point,” he said. “I agree some of this stuff is a little blunt. But I [would] rather be a little bit on the blunt side and have the staff push back and the process push back.”

The board’s endorsement of a range of ideas drew immediate praise from advocates and lawmakers, many of whom had called for it to think big about the direction of the system.

“I’m glad the board is focused on doing something aggressive,” said Senator William N. Brownsberger, who is the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat and who attended Monday’s hearing. “I think the board is thinking as big as it can.”

Jarred Johnson, the chief operating officer of the nonprofit TransitMatters, which had promoted running trains every 15 minutes between downtown Boston and nearby stations, said the resolutions signal the MBTA “is about to embark on a wholesale re-imagining” of commuter rail service.

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“It’s a win for better service, it’s a win for equity concerns. And I think they also heard the call loud and clear that the commuter rail fares have to be much, much more affordable,” he said.

The board, as part of one resolution, also urged the Legislature to get behind a series of changes Baker tucked into an $18 billion transportation bond bill that officials say will streamline the procurement process at the MBTA.

Baker said Monday he thinks “significant portions” of the system should be electrified. But he put the timetable “over the course of the next 15 or 20 years” and stressed that he remains focused on the “stuff right in front of us,” such increasing capacity within the current system.

“The big issue there is if you’re going to electrify the system, you’ve got to make sure that the grid has the capacity to absorb it and deliver it,” he said.

The resolutions come as lawmakers on Beacon Hill are already preparing still-undefined legislation designed to spur revenue for the state’s transportation network, including through a potential mix of tax and fee hikes.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com.