Proponents are told they need to make ‘strong case’
Top state transportation officials have informed advocates for the Blue Hill Avenue/Cummins Highway commuter rail station that the $25.2 million needed to build it have not yet been budgeted, meaning the proposal will have to compete for approval with other MBTA infrastructure projects that are also under review.
MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola told Fairmount Line proponents in a meeting last week that they will need to make a “strong case” if they want to see the long-anticipated station that was slated to open next year actually built between Cummins Highway and Blue Hill Avenue.
Funding for the station project is being vetted in the ongoing MassDOT/MBTA Capital investment Program (CIP) process, which begins in earnest next month and will be completed in May. The five-year spending plan will include current and future improvement and investment projects for the state transportation system.
"During this public process, each project and initiative is examined and evaluated as they ‘compete’ for the limited funds available in the CIP," MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo wrote in an email to the Reporter. "Like proposed station projects in Chelsea, Malden, and Wollaston, the Blue Hill Ave Station project is a good one with a number of benefits."
The notion that the Mattapan station might not be funded was news to activists who have been pressing for transit equity along the 9.2 mile Fairmount line for the last three decades. The Blue Hill Avenue station would be the fourth in a flurry of stations that have been built or renovated to expand access to the commuter rail line that runs through Dorchester and Mattapan on its way to and from Readville and South Station. The other stations— now open in Dorchester— include Newmarket, Four Corners, and Talbot Ave.
Mela Bush-Miles, a lead organizer for the Fairmount/Indigo Transit Coalition, was baffled by DePaola’s comment. She reminded him and other officials at the meeting that funding for the Fairmount expansion was set back in 2005, under then- Governor Romney, as part of a mitigation settlement stemming from the Central Artery/Tunnel project— more commonly known as the Big Dig.
In 2003, the Conservation Law Foundation sued the MBTA and other state agencies for failure to comply with the Big Dig agreement to fund rail projects in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. In a settlement that resolved the suit, the new stations on the Fairmount Line— including one in Mattapan— were mandated.
"This [project] is not new. Those funds are supposed to be there, ready for when the whole design process is completed," said Bush-Miles. "It should be funded to move forward. It was on the federal register and it was for all four stations, not just the three that have already been built. We know that some of those projects did go over budget, and we had delays, like at the Four Corners station because of broken drill bits and hitting lead. But the approval of the funds was done and this station is not supposed to be taken off of the list and be put in line behind three or four other projects."
State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, who has been working with the community for more than a decade to make sure the new stations along the Purple Line get built, has been speaking in recent weeks with members of MassDOT and the MBTA to emphasize the importance of this station.
"The process, although it was long, did make it better," she said on Wednesday. "This is a long time coming, so I want to make sure that this project gets on the docket to begin because they are almost at 100 percent design. Now we need the groundbreaking to take place in 2017, or maybe even late this fall.”
Planning was slowed in 2009 due to opposition from abutters who worried that construction of a new platform on the right-of-way along Woodhaven Street would negatively impact their properties. The design was revised to be less intrusive, with a single platform between the tracks located farther away from abutting back yards. An October 2014 press release from MassDOT estimated a $25.2 million total cost for the station.
Gov. Deval Patrick appeared with other state transportation and elected officials to announce plans to proceed with the new station in October 2014. Last September, in what was billed as a final design meeting with residents, the projected schedule outlined by the MBTA estimated that construction would start in September 2015 with the new station opening in June 2017.
The T’s Pesaturo said this week that the full design of the station will be completed this spring.
Located a short walk from the retail hub in Mattapan Square, the Blue Hill Avenue station would fill a significant gap on the commuter rail line between the Fairmount and Morton Street stations, opening up access to a large number of public-transit-dependent passengers.
State Rep. Russell Holmes said this week that he will advocate strongly to see that the station gets the necessary funds. "The new administration is reviewing all of the projects on the MBTA," Holmes said. "They are pushing back hard to say that the ridership is not high enough for us to build a new station, and we're pushing back as hard as we can to say the ridership is not as high as it could be without the frequency and without the Blue Hill Ave station."
Current ridership for the Fairmount Line averages 2,700 passenger trips on a typical weekday, according to the MBTA.
Last Friday, 23 people stood on the Morton Street station platform waiting for the 8:03 a.m. train. Inclement weather caused delays on the line the day before, said commuter Michael Lamerique. "There are usually more people than this. I would say 25-40 depending on the day.”
The new connections on the line have cut Lamerique’s commute to a fraction of its former time. He thinks a station at Blue Hill Avenue would be a boon to Mattapan. "I know a ton of commuters who come from that area, and it would save them a ton of time if they could just take that instead of a bus to the train,” he said. “It could be a worthwhile investment."
The consequences of a stalled build-out of the station loom even larger if plans for a new mixed-use development that is now nearing the final stages of planning right next door are taken into consideration.
Cote Village project, which includes a 76-unit apartment complex, is slated for construction on the corner of Cummins Highway and Regis Road. It is centered on the former Cote Ford car dealership, a long vacant city-owned lot, and has been trumpeted as the largest new redevelopment project in Mattapan in years. The property was marketed to potential developers as perfect for “transit-oriented development,” given its easy access to the planned station less than a block away.
If the Blue Hill Avenue station is delayed or shelved, it would mark the second major setback for proponents of expanding service along the Fairmount Line under the Baker administration. The Bay State Banner reported on Feb. 10 that Baker’s transportation leadership has scuttled plans to buy a fleet of diesel multiple unit trains – known as DMUs – that were ordered by the MBTA under Gov. Patrick for an estimated $240 million. The lighter, more efficient DMUs would have allowed for more frequent service, transitioning the current commuter rail line into more of a rapid transit line. The new engines were supposed to go into service in 2018, but their procurement is no longer in the MBTA budget, according to the Banner.