Friday, November 20, 2009

Ashland, Framingham, Mass., officials air concerns about rail purchase

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Ashland, Framingham, Mass., officials air concerns about rail purchase | Railway Track & Structures

State and town officials from Ashland and Framingham, Mass., met with the state's new transportation chief last night for a conversation about the state's purchase of CSX Transportation rail lines and what can be done to ensure that increased rail traffic won't further cripple their downtowns, MetroWest Daily News reports.

"We have been in and around these issues of grade crossings and freight movements in Ashland and Framingham for quite a while," said Jeff Mullan, who began his new job as secretary of the newly consolidated Department of Transportation at the beginning of the month. Mullan previously served as the executive director of the Turnpike Authority, which was rolled into the DOT during the consolidation.

Also attending the meeting were state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, who organized the meeting, state Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland, and selectmen and town managers from both towns.

Mullan said negotiations on the $100-million deal between the state and rail giant CSX Corp. are progressing, and he expects the state to take control of the Fall River/New Bedford and Allston-to-Boston lines by May 15. The next step of the deal, he said, would be to try to relocate the Beacon Park Freight Yard in Allston to central Massachusetts, which would reduce the number of freight trains rolling through MetroWest.

Eventually, the state will take control of the Framingham-to-Worcester line, Mullan said. While the state aims to run more commuter trains, state officials will be more receptive to the needs of individual towns.

"We can control our destiny in places we own the track. We can't where we don't," he said. "I want to get a dialogue going about your concerns and about the extent of your concerns."

While the nine at-grade crossings in Framingham cause more problems in the heavily populated downtown area than the two in Ashland, Sannicandro said the two towns face many of the same issues.

"Framingham has been struggling with this problem for 100 years," he said. "Ashland hasn't grown as fast, but eventually the problem in Framingham will become the problem in Ashland."

Ashland Town Manager John Petrin said the three imperative issues that need to be addressed in the town are public safety, public health and economic development.

The public safety aspect relates to the inability of fire and police vehicles to respond during emergencies, he said.

"When any train comes through, it cuts this town in half," he said. "Some freight trains take 15 minutes."

The issue is similar in Framingham, where downtown street traffic is blocked due to train crossings for an average of two-and-a-half hours every day, said Town Manager Julian Suso.

Officials from both towns also agreed that frequent railroad crossings are not only threatening the health of their residents, but the health of their economies as well.

"Framingham is choking," said Selectman Laurie Lee. "Nobody is coming downtown, and our economy is dying. Framingham is dependent on economic development. We are the engine for this region, which is the second largest engine for the state," she said. "The downtown will not survive if we don't develop it."

While not the most cost-efficient solution, the two towns agreed that, in an ideal world, they would have the tracks sunk or partially sunk to free up their respective downtowns and eliminate safety concerns

Mullan said he would be meeting this morning with Lisa Mancini, vice president of strategic infrastructure initiatives at CSXT, and he would pass on the sentiments of the town officials. He also encouraged the towns to complete studies to examine problems created by train crossings and draft possible solutions.

Ashland, through a $500,000 grant from the state, has begun a study of the downtown area. Framingham is awaiting funding so it can begin a second leg of its study, which will examine the downtown railway corridor.

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