T contract at odds with earlier statements by Pollack, Poftak
Agency moves ahead with initial design of commuter rail facility
ON MONDAY, at the tail end of a four-hour meeting, the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board quickly approved a nearly $9 million contract to begin initial design work on a commuter rail maintenance and layover facility in Readville in the southeast corner of Boston.
The vote attracted little attention, but the accompanying briefing materials raised eyebrows because they cast doubt on the veracity of statements made last year by MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and former transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack in the midst of ongoing discussions on how to design the $1 billion-plus Allston I-90 project.
In a statement, an MBTA spokesman did not specifically address the accuracy of the statements made by Pollack and Poftak last year. The spokesman did say the need for a south side commuter rail maintenance facility is being driven in part by the Allston I-90 project and partly by long-term commuter rail planning.
The Allston project has stirred enormous controversy because of the difficulty in reaching consensus on how to rebuild all of the transportation elements (the Turnpike, commuter rail tracks, and Soldiers Field Road) on a narrow stretch of land called the throat running between Boston University and the Charles River.
In comparing the options, Pollack, who is now a member of President Biden’s transportation team, repeatedly pointed out in documents and public statements that the all-at-grade approach (as well as the less popular elevated Soldiers Field Road design) would cost about $300 million more because it would require the construction of a maintenance and layover facility south of the Turnpike to serve the southern half of the commuter rail system.
She said the all-at-grade and elevated Soldiers Field Road options, as opposed to rebuilding the transportation elements where they are, would require shutting down a rail spur called the Grand Junction, which allows commuter rail trains serving areas south of Boston to travel to repair facilities in Somerville. With the Grand Junction spur closed, a maintenance facility would be needed south of the Pike.
At an October 19, 2020, joint meeting of the MassDOT and Fiscal and Management Control Boards, Pollack underscored the need for a new $300 million south side maintenance facility if the all-at-grade option was selected. She said the south-side repair facility “is not currently part of the MBTA’s plans and would not be unless the Allston multimodal project requires the long-term shutdown of the Grand Junction Bridge.”
She asked Poftak to confirm that. “Yes, just to clarify, there’s a great deal of long-term planning going on related to commuter rail, much of which has plenty of room to run. We would not be in a position in the short and medium term of constructing a south side maintenance facility unless we were required to do so under two of the three alternatives that are currently being considered,” Poftak responded.
The T general manager confirmed some “preliminary design money” for the maintenance facility was included in the transit authority’s current capital budget, but he indicated the funds would only be used if the all-at-grade or the elevated Soldiers Field Road options were selected for the throat section of the Allston I-90 project.
“We would not be expending the money to design this south side maintenance facility, at least in the five-year life of the CIP [capital investment plan], but for the selection of one of the two alternatives,” he said.
Both Pollack and Poftak said the $300 million cost of the south side maintenance facility would not be borne by the T, meaning the cost would have to be included in the I-90 Allston project as mitigation. In simple terms, the south side maintenance facility’s cost put the all-at-grade option at a financial disadvantage relative to the as-is option featuring an elevated Turnpike and the other elements at grade.
The briefing materials prepared for the vote indicated the selection process for a designer began prior to June 2020 and the finalists were presented to the T in September – one month before Poftak stated there was no plan to hire a designer unless the all-at-grade option was selected. The designer was selected by the T in December and, after the contract was negotiated, the deal was approved on Monday.
Poftak on Monday made no mention of his earlier statements and the briefing materials made no mention of the I-90 Allston project. Indeed, the briefing materials made it appear the south side maintenance facility was needed regardless of what throat design state transportation officials selected for the I-90 Allston project.T spokesman Joe Pesaturo issued a statement providing clarification. “The need for a south side commuter rail maintenance facility was, in part, driven by the I-90 Allston Multimodal project,” he said. “Two of the three proposed alternatives for the Allston project involved cutting off access to the Grand Junction, which the MBTA uses to move commuter rail rolling stock from the south side to the Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility (Boston Engine Terminal) located in Somerville. If one of these alternatives is ultimately chosen, then MassDOT would fund the construction of a south side maintenance facility as mitigation for the Allston project. However, if the selected Allston alternative does not affect the Grand Junction, then no mitigation would be necessary, and MassDOT would not fund the south side maintenance facility.”
Pesaturo said the maintenance facility will probably be needed eventually no matter what happens in Allston. “Separate from the potential short-term needs resulting from the Allston project, the MBTA has identified the eventual long-term need for a south side maintenance facility as part of its future state as envisioned by the Rail Vision and Rail Transformation projects,” he said. “The future urban/regional rail system contemplated by Rail Vision would include an expanded fleet, electric vehicles, and increased service frequency, all of which would support the need for a south side maintenance facility. In this scenario, the funding for a future south side facility would be subject to the MBTA capital investment planning process and would have to be weighed against other capital budget priorities.”