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MBTA approves Foxborough pilot

Transit advocates say route extension risks Fairmount Line quality, upgrades

Jule Pattison-Gordon
MBTA approves Foxborough pilot
MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board members Brian Lang, Joseph Aiello and Monica Tibbits-Nutt during Monday’s meeting. The FMBC voted 4 to 1 to enact the Foxborough extension pilot.

Advocates continuing a long-running bid to bring rapid, frequent service to transit-starved, low-income areas along the Fairmount Line fear that the MBTA may undermine planned improvements in favor of providing more options to suburbanites, starting in 2019. A Baker administration-supported pilot program to extend weekday commuter rail service to Foxborough would direct eight trains from the Fairmount Line to start their route in the far-flung suburb, before proceeding on to serve their original passengers in Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park.

On Monday, MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board officials voted 4-1 in favor of the pilot, with Monica Tibbits-Nutt opposing.

Mela Miles of the Fairmount Indigo Transit Coalition and Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation spoke with the Banner in separate conversations in the days before the vote. Miles and Mares said that while they do not begrudge any neighborhood getting better transit options, this pilot plan jeopardizes current service and long-promised upgrades to communities dependent on public transit, and favors towns with more options.

“The people in the Fairmount corridor, many of them have no other options,” Miles said. “The median income of the Fairmount Indigo corridor is less than $40,000. We have the lowest per capita auto ownership in the city. This is a transit-dependent community. This is not people who have the option to get out of their cars and get onto a train. … We just want the [MBTA] to keep their commitment and not leave us aside and prioritize the needs of the suburbs over the needs of the urban community.”

The MBTA has stated that a Foxborough extension will not impact the current level of service on the Fairmount and that the additional commuters will fill only some of the seats that currently remain vacant. Transit advocates, however, remain skeptical.

Vanishing seats, vanishing trains?

Under an MBTA proposal, empty trains would travel down the Fairmount Line onto the Franklin Line, then head off onto the short stretch of the Framingham Secondary Line, which leads to Gillette Stadium. In the morning, the train would pick up Foxborough passengers, then continue on through the Fairmount corridor, picking up riders en route to South Station. Eight current Fairmount trains and one Franklin train would be directed to extend their run out to Foxborough.

The plans unleashed concerns that any mishap on the Foxborough-to-Boston stretch will spell delays or loss of service for the original Fairmount riders before any even have a chance to board. For Fairmount Line passengers, the wait between trains is 40 minutes to an hour — and that’s if they run on time. Because there is only a single-lane track running to Foxborough, if a train breaks down or is delayed, there’s no ability to run a second train, so those delays would be passed on up the line, Mares and Miles said. If a train breaks down, most Fairmount riders would have to find buses or be stranded, Miles said. She also said delays are likely, given that trains on the Franklin Line have exhibited less reliability than those on the Fairmount.

Another objection is that train seats may fill up before they reach the Fairmount stretch, thus pushing original riders to stand in the aisles while counterparts from mostly white neighborhoods sit. The MBTA officials asserted in a Monday presentation that the anticipated additional 150 riders per weekday boarding at Foxboro Station would fill only a portion of the seats that currently go vacant. However, these projections do not account for planned Fairmount improvements to make the line more appealing and tenable to local riders, including the completion of the Blue Hill Avenue station. At the Monday meeting, FMCB officials voted to monitor crowding and reliability of trains during the pilot.

While the pilot has been billed as economic stimulation, connecting to job opportunities around Foxborough, proposed scheduling is shaped around bringing Foxborough commuters to work in Boston, not the other way around, Tibbits-Nutt, the dissenting voter, said. Trains would run empty to Foxborough before starting their day’s trips. Only one ride serves those trying to reach Foxborough in the morning, departing from South Station at 6:24 a.m. and arriving at Foxboro Station at 7:30 a.m. Additionally, while workers could leave South Station at 3:30 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. to go home, the last train leaving Foxborough departs at 1:25 p.m.

“I’m confused about who we’re trying to serve here,” Tibbits-Nutt said at the meeting.

Promises deferred?

While advocates are raising their voices to defend current Fairmount service, they also have long stated that operations at present are insufficient. Advocates have sought rapid-transit-level frequency with trains arriving every 15 minutes and the ability to pay fares using Charlie Cards — and thus utilize monthly and weekly link passes and enjoy free transfers. Improving payment services means providing Charlie Card readers to conductors or other train staff, and increasing frequency means introducing shorter trains that can stop and start more quickly. But if more riders are expected, given the extension, shorter trains may fall out of favor, Mares said.

“There is a risk to that vision of having shorter trains, which was pretty close to being accomplished,” Mares said. “The current proposals being considered by the [MBTA] Fiscal Management and Control Board pose significant risks and potential damages both to the current service of the Fairmount Line and the greater vision.”

Footing the bill

The Foxborough pilot is slated to begin in spring 2019 and run for 11.5 months. It is anticipated to cost $1.2 million, and bring in $459,000 from new ticket sales and parking revenue. The Kraft Group will provide up to $217,000 in assistance as well as 500 parking spaces at Gillette Stadium, from which the T could collect revenue. This leaves the T’s net cost at $524,000.

In a recent blog post, Mares proposed the Foxborough pilot include a requirement that improvements such as frequency and fare-paying be implemented on the Fairmount line, benefitting both sets of riders.