Lawmakers keep focus on planned Fairmount stops at Monday meeting

A modest crowd came indoors on a beautiful spring evening Monday to participate in a forum sponsored by state elected officials who represent communities along the Fairmount Commuter Rail Line, the aging MBTA rail line poised to undergo a major renovation project. The forum was co-sponsored by state Sen. Jack Hart, and state Representatives Liz Malia and Marie St. Fleur.

Hart, whose first Suffolk district includes much of the commuter rail line's route, started the meeting on an optimistic note, highlighting the $200 million that has already been invested in improvements to the MBTA's Red and Fairmount lines.

"The good news is there are four new stations," said Hart, referring to the four completely new Fairmount line stations that are already in the planning stages. The locations of those four stations are Blue Hill Avenue, Four Corners, Newmarket, and Talbot. In the current plan, those four new stations will join three existing stations along a route that runs from Readville and South Station.

But there is also a new effort, spurred by a coalition of community development corporations and residents along Columbia Road to bring a fifth new station to that neighborhood. Supporters hope that a fifth station could be constructed near Ceylon Park on Quincy Street, a development that they say would be an invaluable boon to business and accessibility in that neighborhood. Just two weeks ago, advocates for that station staged a rally at Ceylon Park.

City Councillor Chuck Turner challenged state elected officials on Monday to find a way to add that fifth station to the project without slowing progress on the four stations already under development.

"I want to pose the question, how we could work to get the issue of a fifth station into the planning process," asked Turner. "What do we do now in order to flag the issue of the fifth station and in some way get it into the planning process?"

St. Fleur urged community activists to continue lobbying for improvements along the line. While money has already been allocated to design four new stations, the fifth station is not currently part of the MBTA's improvement plan, and money has not been allocated in current budgets for the actual construction of the four other new stations.

"Although it's promised, it's not cash in hand," said St. Fleur, referring to money that would fund the construction of four new stations, "and until its cash in hand, it's not real."

The first work that will occur when that money becomes a reality, said MBTA project manager Esther Johnston, will be replacement of three aged rail bridges along the line, at Columbia Road, Massachusetts Avenue, and Quincy Street. By court mandate, all four new stations must be functional by December of 2011.

But current planning and future budgeting will not include transitioning the line from a commuter rail to true rapid transit, like the red or orange lines, which some community groups have advocated for by calling the line "Indigo" rather than Fairmount.

"That could happen in the future &endash; it's a lot more money," said Johnston. "What we are planning will not prevent that… but this is part of our current commuter rail system, [the Fairmount line].

Several attendees also asked whether, in lieu of true rapid transit &endash; which would require a monumental investment in both new trains and new tracks &endash; the frequency of commuter rail service might be increased. The current schedule brings a train down the Fairmount Line every half an hour during peak weekday commuting hours, every hour during off peak hours, and no trains on weekends.

Frank Astone, a project manager with an engineering firm hired by the MBTA, said more frequent service was likely, but not guaranteed.

"That study is going on right now. There likely will be some increase in that service, including some weekend service &endash; likely Saturdays," he said.

Hart urged attendees to focus first on advancing the design process for the four allotted stations, then to turn their attention to rapid service advocacy.

"Let's work on design and construction, and then we'll figure out a way with the T to make [Fairmount service] as good as the service that everyone else around the state gets. If we need a train every 15 minutes, we'll make that happen."