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Auchincloss Frustrated Over Newton Stations Project

Auchincloss Frustrated Over Newton Stations Project

In addition to the billions of dollars that it will steer to Massachusetts in the coming years, elected officials have hailed last year's federal infrastructure law as a prime chance for Massachusetts to secure gobs of additional money by competing for federal grants. But one project is revealing that state and Congressional leaders are not always on the same page when it comes to what makes a state application competitive.

U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a former Newton city councilor who represents the district stretching from that Boston suburb down to Fall River, sees an opportunity in the law to reel in federal money for a long-discussed project to upgrade the three commuter rail stops in Newton -- Auburndale, West Newton and Newtonville. The congressman said the "decrepit" stations on the Framingham-Worcester Line are not accessible for people with disabilities or strollers, and that improving them will help Newton maximize the potential of transit-oriented housing developments along adjacent Washington Street.

And because the stations only have platforms on one side, they can't handle normal two-way traffic and serve as roadblocks along what Auchincloss described as "the Main Street of Massachusetts" and the tracks on which a Boston-to-Berkshires rail link and other transportation advocate dreams could become a reality.

"Think of Newton as a bottleneck, where the Framingham-Worcester Line can never really become a regional rail, it can never develop beyond being sort of nine-to-five commuter service into truly 24/7 or even just more expansive regional service until these commuter rail stations get fixed," Auchincloss said. "It's not just about accessibility, although that's critical, it's also about the actual bidirectional travel capacity of these stations."

The T agrees that the Newton stations need to be improved and started holding public meetings to gather input on the project in July 2019. In the last month, crews have been conducting "geotechnical drilling activities" to collect data needed for the project's design. An MBTA spokesman said the agency is making "good progress" on the project's design phase, which is fully funded and expected to be finished next fall.

Construction at the three stations is estimated to cost $170 million and Auchincloss, a member of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has his eyes on the infrastructure law's All Stations Accessibility Program (ASAP) to help pay for it. The T has applied for an ASAP grant, but Auchincloss said the state needs to put more of its own money on the table to show the feds that it is truly committed to the project and its grant application.

"This is a priority for me," Auchincloss said. "I spoke to [U.S. Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg directly about this grant application and he indicated that it's really important for a state to demonstrate financial commitment as well for these grant applications. Those make them much more competitive, which we've known and which is why Governor Baker made it a priority at the beginning of the year to put down $85 million in proposed funding for this in the May supplemental budget."

A $1.7 billion supplemental budget that Baker filed in May sought to put the state's surging surplus to work before inflation, supply chain headaches and labor issues could do too much harm to all kinds of projects around Massachusetts. The governor's bill would have spent $580 million on transportation infrastructure projects and "commuter rail stations in Newton" was the second such project the governor mentioned in his filing letter. The bill included $85 million "for reliability and modernization improvements at Auburndale, West Newton and Newtonville Stations."

"We cannot lose additional time by waiting to appropriate funds for these projects; any further delays will be to the detriment of the citizens of the Commonwealth who will benefit from these investments," Baker wrote of his package.

But the Legislature never touched Baker's supp; it's been sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee since May 19. When the House and Senate approved their economic development bills this summer, neither included hard money for the Newton projects. Likewise, the project was not in the final economic development bill signed last month.

The $11.3 billion infrastructure bond bill that Baker signed in August authorized $85 million in borrowing for the project, a step halfway to committing hard money to it. But that bond authorization would need to be slotted into a capital plan or acted upon to become reality. The fiscal year 2023-27 Capital Investment Plan that the T released in May (before the Newton authorization) anticipated an $8 million outlay for the Newton project's design work with a total authorized budget of $12.7 million. It did not mention the project's construction phase.

"Unfortunately, I haven't seen the urgency and the prioritization from the MBTA that I was hoping for and that would make this grant truly competitive," Auchincloss said.

The MBTA declined to respond directly to Auchincloss's comments and instead pointed out that it maxed out its ASAP application for the project.

"The T applied for the maximum amount that we could in this program, 80% of construction phase costs, or $123.38 million," T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.

The work planned at the three commuter rail stations in Newton includes construction of "two fully accessible, high-level side platforms at each station and accessible pathways to each platform from the adjacent sidewalk network and station parking areas." While they're at it, the T will also make track and signal upgrades to address reliability and modernization needs, the agency said.

"It was a priority for the governor, he put down hard money in the May supplemental. It's been a priority for the mayor, it has been a priority for me. I am working through my posts on T and I and am directly talking to Secretary Buttigieg about it," Auchincloss said. "It's been a priority for Rep. Kay Khan, she's been working on this for 25 years. It's a priority for state Sen. Cindy Creem, who got this money turned into a bond authorization. I'd expect that it would be a priority for the MBTA as well."

The T is soon going to be under new management when Gov.-elect Maura Healey takes office in January and picks a new secretary of transportation and a new general manager at the MBTA. And while he thinks the Newton stations project could be advanced now, Auchincloss said he expects it will get more attention from the new administration.

"Given that level of federal, local and state alignment around this project, I hope and expect that it's going to be a priority for the next secretary of transportation," he said.
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