Friday, May 24, 2024

The state is moving quickly on a Boston-Worcester commuter rail plan that could send 25 trains a day through Cambridge on little-used freight tracks. The path leads through East Cambridge, Cambridgeport, Kendall Square and past the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Photo: essygie)

In little over a year there could be up to 25 commuter rail trains a day barreling through Cambridge on the way to and from Boston’s North Station.

Cantabrigians, despite a tendency to support public transit as a solution for environmental and traffic problems, see the “Grand Junction” plan for commuter rail to Worcester as not worth the tradeoffs. City councillors and recent council candidate Minka vanBeuzekom criticized the idea Monday even as a weary-looking City Manager Robert W. Healy presented a report saying the state’s Department of Transportation is starting

to research ridership potential, and to determine what the demand for the service would be [and what] the impact on ridership would be if a station were to be located in Cambridge. City officials have requested that MassDOT undertake a full analysis of the potential benefits of the project, including improved transit access for Cambridge residents and employees, as well as potential impacts, including noise, traffic delays at crossings, safety, etc., before moving forward … MassDOT anticipates that it will complete its work so that if it moves forward, commuter rail service could begin in 2012.

“We don’t want it, period, whether it’s 2012 or 2020,” said councillor Tim Toomey, citing the danger of trains going up to 70 miles per hour through heavily populated parts of the city. He asked that the matter go back to Healy for more information, a motion the full council adopted.

He was also “aggressively” working against the plan at the state level, he said, in his role as elected state representative for Cambridge and Somerville.

The history of the 8.6-mile freight rail line goes back about 150 years, but it has been little used recently and the tracks winding through East Cambridge and Cambridgeport, passing through Kendall Square and near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have fallen into disrepair.

“We had promised residents we were going to put in a pedestrian and bicycle path,” Toomey said.

In addition to the path, which would give residents access to nearby recreation, the Grand Junction was to be used by the city for eventual Urban Ring bus rapid transit, Healy noted. But the state bought the lines from CSX in June and began $1.6 million in repairs immediately in preparation for rail — a pet project of Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, a rail fan as well as a former city councilor and mayor in Worcester. Councillors complained Sept. 13 that plans were proceeding with no input from the city’s residents or officials, and Healy set up a Sept. 27 meeting with department officials.

Mobilizing the public

A presentation to the public was planned, probably for the spring, Healy said, but Toomey was already talking about mobilizing the public against the plan.

Vice mayor Henrietta Davis agreed on the need to organize public meetings and get the state to sit down to discuss the plan and its effects on the city. “We’ve been doing planning around that area for a long time,” Davis said, noting the city’s insistence that an MIT building by the tracks be designed in such a way — with a large section cut out — to allow Urban Ring buses and traffic for the pedestrian and bicycle path. “This has a huge impact on the Eastern side of the city.”

“I too am kind of amazed, and I know it has a certain political element to it, that it got to this point so fast,” she said of the rail project. “If the state is ignoring us at this point, we’ve got to take the initiative. We have to hold a community meeting, we’ve got to ask the Department of Transportation to come to our meeting and answer these questions, because we need the answers. We can’t just let this be coming through our city without regard for all the other things on which it might have an impact.”

With everything seeming to depend on the ridership study, there was no guarantee state officials would come to such a meeting, Healy said.

“At their peril,” Davis said.

At the heart of the plan is the state’s rapidly growing commuter rail service, much of which runs to South Station. While that hub for the T, bus service, taxis and rail has reached capacity, Grand Junction’s revival is intended to send more traffic to the underused North Station.

It disturbed some that there could be 25 trains a day — a figure supplied by Healy — coming through Cambridge, across major streets where rush-hour traffic would stall for rush-hour train service to pass, without even stopping in Cambridge to pick up or disgorge passengers.

“The only way it makes any sense is if we have a train station as well, instead of just allowing them to bring people through the city,” vanBeuzekom said during the meeting’s public comment period. “Kendall Square seems like an ideal place.”