Elected officials in Foxborough and Walpole say they were startled to learn that the MBTA is considering new passenger rail service to connect Foxborough to Boston, and they question whether there is enough commuter demand for the route.
Foxborough’s town manager, William Keegan Jr., recently announced in a public meeting that state transportation officials had told him the transit agency wants to acquire a CSX freight line that would allow extension of daily commuter rail service from an existing station at Gillette Stadium to the Walpole station on the Forge Park line, which connects to South Station.
Keegan said Tuesday that state officials told him they wanted to run eight passenger trains a day on the line, which runs north from Foxborough, through south Walpole, to Walpole station.
Although owned by CSX, the tracks are used occasionally for special-event passenger trains, including for transportation to New England Patriots games, according to an MBTA report, which in 2010 examined the feasibility of establishing regular commuter rail for Foxborough. At that time, it estimated up to 990 people a day would ride the train, which under the most expensive option would feature direct service to Boston through a 13-mile extension of the Fairmount Line, which now serves city neighborhoods between South Station and Readville Station in Hyde Park. The expanded Fairmount Line would have included six stops on the Forge Park branch, including Walpole, Norwood Depot, and Islington.
Since then, Foxborough officials say, they hadn’t heard anything about the possibility of commuter rail — until now. Residents have told officials the service is not needed in Foxborough, said Lorraine Brue, chairwoman of its Board of Selectmen. Several surrounding towns have commuter rail stations, she said.
“We have an empty parking lot,” she said, referring to a shuttle stop in Foxborough for the station in Mansfield. “Where are the extra 900 riders they’re talking about?”
An MBTA spokesman said last week that no expansion of service has been announced, but that the agency would be meeting with elected officials in both Walpole and Foxborough in coming weeks to brief them on the matter.
“As a courtesy to the town manager, he was given some preliminary information,” spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail Wednesday. “It’s unclear why he decided to discuss that preliminary information publicly before MassDOT and MBTA officials had an opportunity to brief all of the elected officials in the Foxborough/Walpole area.”
State elected officials who represent the towns say they were startled to learn of renewed interest in extending the commuter rail. State Senator James Timilty, who represents Walpole and Foxborough, and state Representative Jay Barrows, who represents communities including Foxborough, heard about the project from Keegan, who called them after his meeting with the MBTA and DOT officials.
In a letter to the state’s chief transportation planner, Barrows said he wanted to know details of the decision-making process.
“I am very disappointed in the lack of transparency and communication from the MBTA, regardless of the merits of the project,” he wrote.
Foxborough selectmen, following a meeting Tuesday, said they had heard from residents concerned about traffic delays on roads and other issues associated with regular commuter rail service. Most of the CSX line runs through south Walpole, but residents in Foxborough in the past have expressed concern about the storage of train cars, noise, and other potential issues.
“They don’t see the need for it,” said Selectwoman Ginny Coppola. “If they use the train, they go into Mansfield or Sharon.”
In an interview Wednesday, Timilty said he doubted there is enough passenger demand for a new commuter rail station, and he said the MBTA is already burdened by significant debt. Although Foxborough residents do not have a commuter rail link, four surrounding towns do, he said. The agency would be better off running a bus to Foxborough from an existing station, he said.
“There is either a culture of arrogance or a conspiracy of ignorance, because they don’t look at the bottom line,” Timilty said.
Keegan told Foxborough officials that the state will hold an initial briefing for the elected state officials, then hold meetings in Foxborough and Walpole with local officials. He told selectmen he had also recommended that the state hold a public hearing in a larger venue for local residents.
According to the 2010 feasibility report, prepared for the state by Jacobs Engineering Group, Foxborough last had scheduled rail service into Boston in the 1940s. The report stated that the Gillette Stadium station was in an area with a potential for significant growth, including up to 1,000 new homes.
Mary MacDonald can be reached at marymacdonald3