Courtesy https://www.milesonthembta.com/2016/04/auburndale.html

Writing on a West Newton online forum, Councilor Emily Norton suggests that Mayor Ruthanne Fuller may be putting MBTA funding at risk by suggesting that developers would pay to upgrade Newton’s three commuter rail stations. 

“[W]hen MassDOT signals that they will pay for new stations, the smart thing for local officials to do is to continue to remind them of that offer, not make public statements implying we don’t want or need the money,” Norton wrote. “I am seriously concerned that Newton will jeopardize $26M that we are in a very strong position to receive.”

Norton says that during a November 2018 meeting with Mayor Fuller and city councilors, a representative from the Department of Transportation said that MassDOT would pay for rebuilding the commuter rail stations in Auburndale, West Newton, and Newtonville.

“We don’t need funding from development to upgrade the commuter rail stations. In the last meeting we had with MassDOT they said MassDOT will pay for the upgrades,” she wrote. 

Here is the timeline she laid out: “At a Nov 2018 meeting at Newton City Hall, an MBTA representative told Mayor Fuller and a group of councilors that to build 3 commuter rail stops would cost $46M, but that $20M was already budgeted for it. The mayor asked, ‘where will the other 26M come from?’ The MBTA representative said, ‘We’ll request it this year.’ Then he said ‘I think MBTA is going to fund this.'”

To be clear, this is for what is being called “Alternative 1”, which Transit Matters criticized in May 2018. At that time the T said it had $21.5 million of the $46 million needed for that particular project, but it would take two years before moving forward. At that point, Mayor Fuller said the city would contribute funds, but didn’t say how much. 

On Feb. 15, Representative Kay Khan sent this letter to the MBTA noting that the city needs not just Auburndale updated, but all three stations and that while there is currently $20 million allocated, the cost for alternative 1 across the three stations would be $55 million. The much-preferred alternative 2, which involves a much fuller upgrade and access to both the north and south tracks, boosts the prices to $135 million.

“I strongly believe that Alternative 2 represents the ideal configuration of a commuter rail station, providing the greatest degree of accessibility for all riders. It also provides the ability to have reverse peak service and expands service by reducing the need to switch trains between tracks,” Khan wrote in her note to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. 

Also on the same message board Councilor Susan Albright noted that Norton may not be entirely correct and that the state couldn’t guarantee any sort of timeline. “We haven’t had another meeting since the last one where Emily and I  heard a staffer say the State would make up the difference in what was already in the kitty ($20 million) and what is needed (another $30 million) to get to Option 1.  Subsequent to that meeting the T had conversations with the Mayor and Rep Khan and they made it clear that if we want the T to pay for the upgrades it won’t happen for a very long time….The Secretary promised another meeting in January and they haven’t called to set it up yet.  This is one of the reasons that Rep. Khan sent that letter.  We need to light a fire and get this conversation moving again,” Albright wrote.

Even if the conversation gets moving again, where does the money come from? In Allston, New Balance helped fund the commuter rail station that stops right in front of its shiny new boat-like HQ, but that’s a massive project with budgets that dwarf what is even being considered in West Newton. In fact, much of the discussion on the board (and around the village) is concern over the idea that the new zoning could allow for much taller office towers to be built. 

“The amount of money we can collect from development along Washington st in Newton is not enough to pay for the improvements – not nearly enough. The New Balance project was huge by comparison to any project proposal that I’ve heard about.   If we create a fund and then wait for more development until there is enough money in the kitty to rebuild the stations we may be waiting a very long time.  The prior Mayor would not consider this idea – but we could do what Natick has done and bond the improvements,” said Albright.

The truth is, development on Washington Street will eventually require infrastructure improvements for public transportation, and given the 20 year timelines it will be important to get this right. Allston is clamoring for West Station to emerge out of the graveyard of the CSX switching area, and there has long been talk about using the Commuter Rail tracks for regional rail. All of this will only help our community. Of course, like everything, it comes down to money.