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MBTA expansion plan raises concerns

December 5, 2014

State transportation officials insist that their proposal to institute full-time commuter rail service from Boston through Walpole, to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, is only intended to drive economic development in the area. They suggest it is pure coincidence that one particular billionaire stands to gain more than anyone else from the project, while taxpayers are left with a hefty bill.

Color me skeptical of their claim.

The state’s actions, which have been anything but transparent and open, and their ignorance in pushing the plan despite their own poor fiscal condition, certainly raise concerns.

Officials from the MBTA and Mass. Department of Transportation met with Walpole Selectmen for the first time this week in front of a standing room only crowd at Boyden School in South Walpole, regarding their proposal to implement full-time commuter rail service between South Station, in Boston, and Gillette.

Under the state’s plan, the MBTA would run trolley-like cars, about five times per day only on weekdays, between Boston and an existing station at Gillette Stadium. The Gillette station, currently used only during football games, is on the “Framingham Secondary” freight line currently owned by CSX.

The trains would run through, but would not stop at Walpole or anywhere else between Readville station and Gillette, essentially giving the stadium and surrounding properties, all owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the Kraft Group, their own exclusive weekday train line in and out of the city.

MassDOT believes the new line would attract at least 600 “new” passengers, on top of about 300 “cannibalized” passengers switching from other area train and bus lines, in Walpole, Sharon, Attleboro, and Mansfield, to commute to and from work.

The proposal is essentially a somewhat modified regurgitation of two prior studies and proposals, one conducted by the MBTA in 2010, and one by the 495 Metrowest Partnership in 2011, that both never came to fruition in large part due to the cost of implementation. The new plan differs from those prior proposals because it calls for no train stops between Boston and Foxboro, trolley cars instead of regular trains, and fewer trains running each day at first.

David Mohler, representing MassDOT at this week’s meeting in Walpole, admitted that state officials had begun working on the plan long before Walpole and Foxboro Selectmen first learned of it in October.

In March, MassDOT signed a five-page letter of intent with the Kraft Group indicating interest in using the Gillette station for full-time use. Conversations between MassDOT and Kraft apparently began in January.

The MassDOT governing board voted unanimously in June to buy the entire “Framingham Secondary” track, which stretches from Framingham to Mansfield through Walpole, Foxborough, and other communities, from CSX for a total cost of about $23 million.

Mr. Mohler insisted on Tuesday that the track purchase itself was separate from any potential plans for full-time rail service to Gillette because the entire track has benefit for potentially connecting the Worcester and Providence rail lines during emergencies.

Although no money has yet exchanged hands, the deal has essentially been consummated, pending federal Surface Transportation Board approval. The state has signed a purchase and sale agreement with CSX.

Mr. Mohler indicated Tuesday that the MBTA would eventually need to spend about $35 million to upgrade the line if they plan to use it for commuter rail use. That means taxpayers will end up paying more than $50 million, including the purchase price, when all is said and done.

Even though the purchase was approved during an open public meeting of the MassDOT board and the meeting minutes have been on the MBTA website, Mr. Mohler took personal responsibility for not informing the towns along the track of the transaction and, more importantly, of the MBTA’s ongoing discussions with Kraft. But he said the MassDOT board’s standard policy doesn’t require public input in those decisions.

He also admitted that there was no particular reason why the track acquisition could not have been delayed for more study, or until a new governor took office, as there was no competition from other bidders for the track.

The fact that MBTA officials didn’t ask for public input suggests that they knew there would be opposition or at least skepticism. That’s not fair, and it’s not honest.

It strains credulity that the MBTA would spend $23 million, with $35 million potentially planned on top of that, on a track that would just be used for rare emergencies. If using it for emergencies was really their intention, it is egregious because that should not be a priority for tax dollars. If using it for emergencies really was not the MBTA’s primary intention, they are not being honest with the people.

For the MBTA, already the most indebted public transportation agency in the nation, to quietly pursue a very expensive plan, without even gauging how the communities along the tracks felt about it, is itself outrageous.

The MBTA is currently saddled with an overall debt of about $5 billion – a figure that increases to $8 billion with interest payments included. That’s an obligation that all state taxpayers will be paying off one way or the other at some point. The MBTA should be thinking of ways to reduce that debt, not to increase it.

The MBTA Advisory Board recommended in their FY 2015 Operating Budget Oversight Report, in April 2014, that the MBTA should focus on using its precious funds to restore service that has been eliminated, like weekend commuter rail service in Needham and at stations along the Old Colony Lines, before expanding service to more communities.

Putting aside the fact that there is and will be intense local opposition along that entire freight line from residents unhappy with the idea of commuter trains rumbling by their homes several times a day, the track purchase itself, and the Gillette rail expansion overall, simply makes no fiscal sense for an agency that doesn’t even have the funding to manage the train lines and services it already owns.

Mr. Mohler said Tuesday that the new line is expected to break even in terms of expenses. But state bureaucrats have a historically bad track record of anticipating the full extent of costs and revenue for transportation projects. When the MBTA spent more than half a billion dollars to complete the Greenbush commuter rail line in 2007, the cost was much higher than original estimates, and ridership numbers ended up being far lower than had been predicted. In fact, many of the passengers on the line had simply switched from other existing MBTA services “with no new benefit to the MBTA’s strained finances or to the environment,” according to a 2010 Boston Globe article. A 2011 CommonWealth Magazine article reported that the Greenbush line was expected to have up to 3,230 commuters during the morning peak time, but actual ridership ended up being only about 1,900 riders during that time of day. The most recent MBTA ridership statistics, from this year, indicate that Greenbush sees fewer than 2,800 riders traveling inbound each day. It’s unclear how many of those are on inbound trains during morning peak times.

Extrapolating this differential, between projections and actualities, to the proposed ridership of the Gillette Stadium line, where taxpayers will be on the hook for so much in initial capital costs, is cause for concern. Mr. Mohler admitted that commuter rail lines generally are money-losers, even while he maintained that the Gillette line would be self-sufficient.

Meanwhile, as CommonWealth and other media outlets reported last year, commuter rail lines across the state are facing declining ridership for reasons that include higher fares, higher parking fees, increased telecommuting, and a population migration of working professionals relocating from the suburbs into the cities. The MBTA would be better suited shoring up its services within the city, rather than further extending outward into the suburbs which is significantly more expensive.

Ultimately, the significant initial and ongoing investment by state taxpayers to finance the new service to Foxboro will benefit primarily just the Kraft Group and the properties they own surrounding the stadium. MassDOT officials have stated that the Kraft Group would pocket a portion of parking revenue, for lot maintenance. However, most of these commuters would otherwise simply park at the Sharon, Walpole, Attleboro, or Mansfield MBTA stations which are going to be maintained with tax dollars anyway. That means the MBTA is losing even more parking revenue, because they will be handing a portion of it over to a private party.

Mr. Mohler told Foxboro Selectmen last month that “the origin of the idea [for a train line] is housing and economic development, more specifically at Patriot Place,” but professed to know no specifics about what the Kraft Group might have in mind. The MBTA’s 2010 feasibility study for the Gillette line alluded to potential housing with up to 1,000 units across the street from the stadium. But implementing an expensive rail service just so that affordable housing can be built is a poor use of public resources, without a clear demonstrated need.

Either way, the economic development that the MBTA believes will come about because of the new trains will be located exclusively on land currently owned by the Kraft Group on both sides of Route 1. The station’s location is simply too far away from any other economic centers in Walpole or Foxboro to be meaningful financially for anyone other than the Kraft Group. And this vague reference to economic development by the MBTA is not necessarily encouraging, considering that the Kraft Group’s conception of economic development in the past has included such damaging things as a proposed casino, which was soundly halted by public opposition in 2012.

Mr. Kraft is also involved with the committee seeking to bring the Olympic games to the Boston area in 2024, and has publicly indicated interest in the past in bringing a Super Bowl to Gillette in the future. The taxpayer-subsidized train line could conceivably enable him to bring any of those events to Gillette, all for monetary gain.

Nobody from the Kraft Group was present at Tuesday’s meeting in Walpole, though Selectmen suggested that they were aware of it and could have attended. Representatives from the Kraft Group were present, but never spoke, at the MBTA’s meeting with Foxboro Selectmen last month.

Selectmen and residents pointed out Tuesday that the MBTA could consider more cost effective alternatives to outright commuter rail expansion, such as extending bus service to Gillette and areas along Route 1. Mr. Mohler did not directly explain why this option was not considered. And if there are parking shortages at other area commuter rail stations that warrant a need for a Foxboro station, perhaps it is time for MBTA officials to consider building parking garages or more efficient use of lots in partnership with local business owners.

So, exactly who benefits from this plan, other than the Kraft Group? Taxpayers lose, because they will be paying more for a bankrupt transportation system. Foxborough and Walpole residents certainly don’t win, because they have other perfectly acceptable commuter rail options available to them at the Walpole, Sharon, and Mansfield commuter rail stations. There has been no crying demand for the rail line expansion. The only one who walks away from the entire deal as a winner is Mr. Kraft and his company.

If officials had been open and honest from the beginning, it might have reassured residents that the proposal was being properly vetted and its intention was purely for the best interest of the area. But local officials weren’t even given the courtesy of a phone call when MassDOT’s decision to purchase the CSX line first came down. That sure does sound rather bizarre, given how simple it is to make a phone call (or send an email). What’s really going on here? Why the secrecy surrounding a very significant decision with major implications for both area residents and taxpayers as a whole?

One Comment leave one →
  1. John Freitas permalink
    December 5, 2014 11:56 AM

    I plan on emailing teh Kraft Group letting them know that I will not be frequesnting Patriot Place if they continue to support this expansion. Let’s drive the retailers out of Patriot Place so that Bob loses tenants.

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