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Baker faces long list of suburban transit projects and short funds

Governor-elect Charlie Baker is taking office at a time when public transportation use has reached record numbers, not just in urban centers but also in the suburbs.

With the agenda for Baker’s inaugural term barely starting to take shape, mass transit advocates are queuing up for a moment with the new administration to stress the importance of ongoing or oft-discussed key public transportation initiatives, like the Green Line’s extension and the South Coast Rail proposal, as well as pitch some new ideas, such as funding reverse-commute options to coincide with improvements to the Fitchburg/South Acton Line.

Wish lists are one thing, but getting to them is quite another, and like governors before him, Baker is going to have a difficult time parceling out scarce transportation dollars among transit and highway projects, according to Kristina Egan, director of a Boston-based statewide advocacy coalition, Transportation for Massachusetts.


Baker will also have the added challenge of less revenue coming in, after the recent vote to end linking gas tax increases to inflation.

“The governor gets to choose which ones go forward. He’ll be pushed and pulled in different directions,” Egan said. “That’s why it’s so important that he adopt criteria for selecting these projects that are really looking at these public policy objectives, like economic development, and environmental, public health, and climate goals.”

The MBTA’s Green Line extension project, an idea conceived probably 50 years ago and seriously conceptualized for the last three decades, is widely considered to be a key public transportation project that would spur crucial economic development, said Eric Bourassa, transportation director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency serving 101 communities across Greater Boston.

The project, which aims to extend the T’s Green Line from its terminus at Lechmere Station in East Cambridge into Union Square in Somerville and College Avenue in Medford, recently received a $1 billion boost in federal funding that will pay for about 43 percent of its anticipated cost.


“The impetus is it will unlock some parcels in Somerville for redevelopment in Union Square and the inner-belt section of Somerville, and NorthPoint in Cambridge,” Bourassa said. “Somerville has rezoned these areas for mixed use, for housing, retail, commercial space, and they’re thinking of them as ‘live, work, play’ transit-oriented developments.”

Originally, discussions included extending the line all the way north to Route 16 in Medford, but although that could be considered a second phase to the project, it is not part of the current planning focus. The latest timetable has the project scheduled for completion in 2020.

Another project that Bourassa said he hopes continues to move forward under the Baker administration is the expansion of the Silver Line Gateway, which would open up bus service into Chelsea, providing the city a direct connection to Boston’s Seaport District.

A $33.7 million contract for the first phase of the project was recently approved by state transportation officials. The bus route would run along an old railway, and ultimately connect to the existing commuter rail track. The fact that about 90 percent of the route would involve a dedicated lane away from surface traffic makes this project a particularly attractive one, Bourassa said.

“This would connect Chelsea to the South Boston waterfront, where many jobs and development are happening,” he said. “Currently, you have to take the bus to Haymarket and switch again at South Station. This would be a direct ride.”


South of Boston, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. — the engineering consulting company handling program management, early design development, and environmental permitting for the long-anticipated South Coast Rail project — was recently awarded a multiyear $210 million contract by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s board of directors.

The first round of funding, $12 million, will kick off the design phase of the project to restore commuter rail service between Boston and Fall River and New Bedford.

For decades, the proposal has promised to open up economic development opportunities in the communities slated to have new stations along the proposed rail route, including Stoughton, Easton, Raynham, and Freetown. Several areas in some of those communities have already been rezoned to accommodate potential development.

But the project, originally estimated at $2.3 billion, could face funding hurdles for years to come, and would have to coincide with an expansion of South Station that has stalled and is estimated to cost another $1 billion, Bourassa said.

“This project has a lot of question marks associated with it,” he said. “If the governor wanted to do this project, they can figure it out, but what that means is you’re not going to do other things.”

West of Boston, ongoing improvements to the Fitchburg/South Acton commuter rail line, including bridge repairs and extending double-tracking by about 8 miles, have already helped address some issues affecting “reverse commuters,” those who travel from urban hubs like Boston and Cambridge to jobs in outlying areas.


The $277 million project, which includes upgrades to South Acton Station, is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

But area leaders still would like Baker to dedicate funding toward improving reverse-commute service, as well as addressing the so-called “last-mile” issue, a term used to describe the gap in public transportation between a commuter rail stop and a commuter’s final destination.

Communities like Littleton and Lexington have taken the unusual step of dedicating local funding toward addressing those challenges by creating Transportation Management Associations, which are partnerships between communities and private businesses that fund alternative transit options.

Littleton joined CrossTown Connect , which has partnerships with major area employers including IBM in Littleton, and Juniper Networks and Red Hat in Westford, said Littleton’s town administrator, Keith A. Bergman.

Because of recent cuts to the state’s Community Innovation Challenge Grant program, Littleton missed out on $140,000 in funding that would have helped design plans to introduce a CrossTown shuttle stop at the new commuter rail stop, he said.

“Our first act during the Baker administration would be to ask them to help us fund this immediate funding problem, because it leads to jobs,” Bergman said.

“It’s our fondest desire to have something operating by no later than January 2016, when all the capital improvements to the Fitchburg line are to be completed.”


One person familiar with the transit-funding challenges that await Baker is Dennis DiZoglio, the former deputy general manager for planning and development at the MBTA. Still, DiZoglio, now executive director at the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission , has ideas of his own he would like to pitch.

In addition to increased capacity, improved service, and new coaches for the Haverhill commuter rail line, as well as funding for upgrading Merrimack Valley Transit Authority vehicles, DiZoglio said, he would like to introduce the idea of bus-on-shoulder service, which would allow commuter buses to use the breakdown lane on Interstate 93from Andover and Wilmington into Boston.

“It’s a low-cost and easy option,” he said. “You don’t have to build tracks, you don’t have to meet design standards. It doesn’t have a ton of that big capital investment — those need money, permitting, and environmental permits. . .  That’s what makes those so unlikely to occur, and it pushes them back and back. Trust me, I know, I was with the T.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.