Federal stimulus could be boon for Fairmount Line

The immediate future of the Fairmount Line is shaking out as the federal government determines what projects to fund with the $825 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act this month, though on the ground ridership is dropping because of erratic service during construction, forcing the MBTA to issue a new, reduced-service schedule.

The Recovery Act is being framed as the New Deal of the 21st Century by some, and as such, a prime time to expand transit and obtain exponential economic benefits. President Barack Obama, in his first weekly address, said that one goal of the act is "providing new mass transit options for millions of Americans."

But with the MBTA already in dire financial straits, concerns about the increased operational budget that would come with more frequent service along the Fairmount Line make it less likely for the T to pursue improvements that would make running more trains possible, particularly when ridership is low as construction continues to disrupt service.

The planned Four Corners Station had to be added to a tentative short list of "shovel-ready" projects the T submitted to the Executive Office of Transportation earlier this month. The list - which also includes Phase II of Ashmont Station, signal improvements on the Red Line and several other MBTA systemwide maintenance improvements - is now in the hands of Gov. Deval Patrick.

Three other planned Fairmount stations - Newmarket, Talbot and Blue Hill - are not listed.Design plans for the three stops are well underway but not yet complete. They could still qualify for the second half of the stimulus package which is expected to fund projects that are shovel ready in the next two years, but little is being envisioned in terms of tackling the other barriers to more frequent service that exist along the line - such as improvements at South Station that would add capacity, or solutions to heavy traffic along the Fairmount Line tracks that also prevent adding more trains to the schedule.

"Clearly Four Corners is a no-brainer. It will put a lot of people to work and it will stimulate a lot of development," said Carrie Russell, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation that sat on an economic stimulus transportation task force. "Could they expedite these [other station] projects and get them ready in time? I think they could. The CLF is advocating that many of the Fairmount Line improvements get included… We need to make that case and get them to be a little more visionary."

Of course, there are also competing visions in the works, such as the Silver Line Phase III project&emdash;heavily criticized by groups like Alternatives for Community and Environment in Roxbury for having little potential for economic impact or improved service, but enthusiastically promoted by A Better City, a advocacy group that represents businesses and institutions&emdash;a sector that does not have the Fairmount Line on its priority list.

Asked what the MBTA advisory board's priorities are, executive director Paul Regan said he "would hope that at the very least that they would use the money to get at the backlog of maintenance projects. This is stuff that could be turned around very quickly. It would increase the reliability and the dependability…this is the bread and butter of the system."

He also expressed a confidence that the T is gung ho to push the Fairmount project forward, despite their not initially listing the Four Corners Station as shovel-ready.

"If there was any way possible for them to do it they would do it, because this is a project that the feds love," he said.

And the MBTA would be the entity responsible for distributing any money they get, according to Executive Office of Transportation spokesman Clark Jessen, unless money was designated for specific purposes by the federal or state government.

"The whole effort has been to emphasize the systemwide improvements as opposed to is it this project or that project," he said Friday. "The T always has to make decisions about what investments are critical… additional funds is what it really comes down to."

In the Senate and the House, where the bill is being voted on this week, big-city legislators like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) are pushing to increase billions currently allotted to transit funding, but there is heavy resistance to adding any kind of spending to the bill. One amendment that would have added $2 billion to transit funding had already been voted down as of Tuesday.

According to a release by the Senate Appropriations Committee Friday, public transportation would be given $8.4 billion and highways $27 billion. In Congress's version, transit capital improvements would get $9 billion and highways $30 billion.

"I'm going to try and increase the transit and rail pieces," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at an economic stimulus roundtable in his Bowdoin Square office Saturday. "There's a lot of money in there and there'll be more. This isn't the whole package."

The Senate bill as it stood on Friday would invest $365 billion nationwide in the first wave of the bill, with more of the total $825 billion to follow. Some $140 billion would go to infrastructure and science.

Obama told reporters he hopes to sign the bill by Feb. 16.

Meanwhile, bridge construction that eliminates one track between Massachusetts Avenue and Columbia Road has been causing train cancellations along the Fairmount Line, particularly those running mid-day. A new schedule worked out with community input and effective Monday, Feb. 9 eliminates eight off-peak trains and leaves a two-and-a-half-hour gap in service from 8:25 to 11 a.m. To mitigate the wait, the T is running a bus starting at Fairmount at 9:15 a.m. and stopping at all stations.