Friday, April 19, 2024

The state has backed off on plans to run its Grand Junction commuter rail through Cambridge, connecting North Station and Worcester without a stop in the city. The Cambridge Chronicle’s Scott Wachtler has the story, noting that the state’s Department of Transportation “left the door open for passenger service on the line in the future.”

Wachtler quotes Ned Codd, director of project-oriented planning for the department, as saying:

“Our plan is to move forward with South Station expansion on the Framingham/ Worcester Commuter rail line and not actively pursue the Grand Junction passenger service at this time.”

City councillor Tim Toomey called it “Great news,” but recent council candidate Charles Marquardt noted that it was great news some in the crowd at the Kennedy-Longfellow School Auditorium were slow to grasp — they continued to harangue transportation officials even after the announcement they were dropping the idea for now.

Cambridge residents and officials universally disliked Lt. Gov. Tim Murray’s plans for the Grand Junction rail line, an 8.6-mile broken-down freight rail line winding through East Cambridge and Cambridgeport, passing through Kendall Square and near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its proposed conversion to commuter rail had been raising public concerns about noise and safety for more than a year, and it has long been intended for access to recreational areas and as part of an eventual Urban Ring bus rapid transit project.

Then the state bought the lines from the CSX rail company in June 2010 and began $1.6 million in repairs, warning Cambridge of its intent. Murray backed the connection as a former mayor of Worcester but argued that South Station was too crowded to handle a Worcester rail line.

But it was the department’s own ridership study that was cause for the halt, Toomey said, since the service was projected to increase ridership by only 300 people daily through 2035. “While there would be regional air quality benefits from the diversion of 250 cars per day due to the small increase in utilization of the Commuter Rail, MassDOT’s feasibility study has conceded that there would be real negative impacts for the city of Cambridge in the areas of traffic, air quality, noise, and vibration,” Toomey said Thursday on his blog.

Travis McCready, president of the Kendall Square Association, was perhaps the public figure most willing to consider a Grand Junction line and the benefit of linking to Worcester, which he called “an interesting town.”

“It’s economically depressed, but if you look at the flip side, how many American cities have a population of under 150,000 that are also serviced by 10 colleges and universities? There isn’t any other one,” he said.

McCready’s take on the rail line was more nuanced than most:

“If the Grand Junction is large diesel-operated units that travel at high speeds and pass through Kendall without stopping on its way to North Station, then the costs severely outweigh the benefits. The flipside, given the demographic down here, is who travels where and the desire to get to North Station and the fact that in the past 10 years we’ve increased our built square footage by 40 percent and at the same time reduced the number of cars on the road. All those things to me speak to the fact that if we can find ways to get people in and out via public transit even more that’s a good thing. I think there’s an opportunity with the transportation folks to suggest that there’s a way to do this that will benefit everybody. And I don’t think they would be averse to hearing that. I don’t think we’re at the point where anybody has stood up and said ‘Here’s how you do that.’”

There may even be some cause for regret, he suggested.

“I think that the planners always knew they would have to stop in Cambridge somewhere, whether on Mass. Ave., closer to MIT or down here on Main Street, closer to Galileo Way,” McCready said.