Capuano asks for ‘open gate’ promotion to highlight Fairmount Line positives

A commuter rail train rolled through Four Corners/Geneva Avenue station last year. Chris Lovett photo

US Congressman Michael Capuano wants to give Fairmount Line commuters a free ride, at least for a short time, in the hope of raising awareness and usage along the line. He is pushing for a trial promotion along the nine-mile stretch to “anybody and everybody.”

“We’re trying to encourage use of the line, and to get more people to experience it,” Capuano told the Reporter on Tuesday.

The Fairmount Line – which some activists want rebranded as the Indigo Line with comparable service to the Red, Orange, and Blue lines – travels through Boston, making eight stops between South Station and Readville. A $26 million station at Blue Hill Avenue is slated, with construction to begin later this year. It will be the last Fairmount station to be built as part of an federally mandated order.

The line runs through historically underserved Roxbury and Dorchester on its way to and from Downtown Boston. Capuano said the route “has never been advertised” effectively, so many residents along the route habitually opt into alternate modes of transportation.

This, he said, is understandable. The Fairmount Line has also had operational difficulties.

Keolis Commuter Service, which runs the MBTA’s commuter rail lines, faced community ire last fall over cancellation rates, which have been higher than any other line, which, in some cases, have resulting in trains being repurposed to busier routes that were experiencing problems.

The company has since corrected the problem— and it now points to higher-then-average performance rates on the Fairmount line. Reliability data released monthly by the MBTA shows largely consistent on-time performance between 94 and 97 percent in the last 30 days, with two dips to 84 percent in mid-to-late-February.

But ridership remains low, comparatively. MBTA metrics show the Fairmount Line carries 2,013 average weekday riders, less than half that of the next lightest-travelled route. Capuano says that more needs to be done to attract riders. “When you get inconsistent service, when you don’t know if the train is going to show up on time, you can’t take it,” he said, “You just say, forget it, I’m not going to do that.” A free ridership promotion could “open the gate,” he added, ideally converting potential one-time commuters into habitual riders.

At a meeting of the MBTA/MassDOT Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) on Monday, an item regarding a “Fairmount ridership promotion” was on the initial agenda but it was bumped from the schedule along the way.

Capuano said that he would let the MBTA sort out the best way to move forward with his idea, given likely logistical and financial hurdles.

On the longevity of the program, he said, “At the moment, try a short term thing and see how it goes. It’s an experiment to some degree.”

Conversations on this or other possible ridership boosters are being discussed with the community, said Mela Miles, co-chair of the Fairmount Indigo Transit Coalition. “We appreciate that he cares enough about it to want to put his money where his mouth is, but we also want to make sure that it will be the best thing for the line,” she said.

Allentza Michel, a Fairmount Indigo Network coordinator, said similar proposals have been floated and they welcome any measures that would bring more ridership and resources to the route, as long as a sustainable longer-term plan is prioritized.

And state Rep. Evandro Carvalho filed a bill in late January that would direct the MBTA to launch a two-year “pilot service evaluation” of the Fairmount Line and advance Indigo Line rebranding.

Fairmount advocates are also weighing in on a proposal to extend the Franklin Line — which uses the Fairmount Line for some trains accessing South Station on weekdays — from Readville to Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place in Foxborough as a pilot program offering “at least three peak period trips and some midday service,” according to an MBTA presentation.

Transit officials assured the control board on Monday that the trains would continue to make all local stops on the Fairmount line and the pilot “does not reduce existing Fairmount Line service, stops, or frequencies.”

The comparably lower Fairmount ridership means the trains are not operating at full capacity and could support increased use, according to the MBTA.

Transit officials say the Foxborough connection will open up additional parking capacity along the line and projects 110 daily new system-wide commuter-rail riders.

The pilot is backed by the Kraft Group, led by Patriots owner Robert Kraft, which has agreed to provide up to $200,000 to offset the projected $950,000 annual cost of adding the regular weekday service. About $10 million in capital upgrades will also be needed for the 11-month pilot, according to the presentation made Monday to the control board.

Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican, said he is concerned about the impacts of adding traffic on the single track running from Dedham out to the ends of the line, according to the State House News Service. He said a disabled train could tangle up service up and down the line, including the Fairmount Line, and upgrades would actually cost $30 million.

Fairmount community members were brought into the discussions at a troublingly late stage, advocates say. The municipalities of Foxborough, Sharon, and Franklin have expressed support for the pilot, along with local chambers of commerce, but those living along the Fairmount line have only just begun to be included, Miles said.

“This project was not discussed with the organizers and the residents along the Fairmount line,” she said. “It was never vetted with us, there was no community process.”

Miles worries about losing the traction that advocates have built up around the line, with no specific development proposals tied to the pilot and the funding diverted to extending service to new areas without adequately supporting those who already depend on the Fairmount Line.

“We’ve been working very hard to get rapid-transit type service, to get the train to run more frequently… and also to get trains that are specific to the Fairmount lines,” she said. “And they’re not planning to do any of that with this pilot.”

The Fairmount advocates are not definitively opposed to the plan, if it does not impact service and offers a boost in access to jobs and ridership. They are, however, worried about the decisions being made without community input from all points on the affected line.

“It is a broader concern,” Allentza Michel said, “because it really is indicative of the history in which the community members have been undervalued over time. And especially now when local governments are supposedly really exploring and engaging in more equity work, why are the very groups that would be impacted by the work always the last brought to the table?”