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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

City of Worcester, CSXT reach $23-million rail yard agreement

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Massachusetts and Worcester, Mass., officials have reached a tentative agreement with CSX Corp. on a $23-million traffic improvement and neighborhood mitigation package that would accompany expansion of the company's freight yards between Shrewsbury and Franklin streets, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports.

Sources familiar with the agreement, which involves company and state funds, said it provides for the realignment and upgrade of several intersections around the freight yards to reduce congestion and creates a new access for trucks to Interstate 290 at Grafton Street.

It also would invest millions in streetscape improvements in three surrounding business districts and improvements to the Cristoforo Colombo Park pool area, Holmes Field and the Harrington Way recreation fields.

In addition, the company would set up a community improvement fund to collect a $1 assessment for each freight container shipped through the facility. The company has estimated that would generate about $4.2 million for projects in surrounding neighborhoods over the next 22 years.

Principals involved in talks that produced the agreement, which included Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray, City Manager Michael V. O'Brien, and state and local transportation and public works officials, said they were unable to find a viable solution to the elimination of the Putnam Lane shortcut through the freight yard area between Shrewsbury and Franklin streets. Steep grades needed to bridge the two roadways, officials said, would exceed 10 percent - far more than allowed by state and federal safety standards.

While the agreement calls for the project to go forward with the closing of the Putnam Lane shortcut, state Rep. Vincent A. Pedone, D-Worcester, who was involved in some of the talks, said he will use campaign funds to retain an engineering firm to continue studying the Putnam Lane situation for an alternative that would link the two streets. Pedone said while he still wants to see a link to replace Putnam Lane, he is supporting the mitigation plans.

"I've seen the difficulties this rail yard has had over the past 40 years and I see an opportunity to make this rail yard better, to make it quieter, to make it greener and at the same time invest in the neighborhoods that surround it in an unprecedented way," he said.

"When this is all said and done, I believe this is going to be a great win for our neighborhood and will be a benefit for our region and the entire commonwealth," Pedone said.

Murray said that the agreement came after dozens of meetings and conference calls among those involved, and it incorporates many of the recommendations from a joint City Council committee reviewing the project.

Murray said the group worked hard to put together a package to allow the project, which is needed for the state to increase commuter rail service to up to 25 trains per day running between Worcester and Boston starting in 2012. He said it would also bring unprecedented benefits to the surrounding neighborhoods "for years to come."

"The parties have all worked diligently. Everyone has given here. We have pushed as hard as we can," Murray said, adding that the package would ultimately have to be approved by the City Council.

The project is critical to state efforts to expand commuter rail service between Worcester and Boston and is being undertaken with a project to raise bridges between Worcester and the New York line to allow double-stacked freight trains.

To free up track for more commuter trains, CSXT will relocate many of its freight operations from its Boston freight yards to freight handling and transfer terminals in Westboro and Worcester, where the freight yard would be expanded from 28 to 51 acres.

The mitigation package would include a $5-million neighborhood fund with $1 million dedicated to open space improvements, and $4 million for park and streetscape improvements in surrounding neighborhoods. That would include a $3 million upgrade of the park and pool facilities at Cristoforo Colombo Park and Holmes Field and $330,000 in streetscape improvements in each of three nearby business districts - the Shrewsbury Street, Canal and Grafton Street business districts.

As part of the project, CSX would also clean possible contamination and debris on properties being acquired for the expansion, install natural sound barriers at key locations and undertake extensive beautification improvements on its properties. The company would also pay for reconstruction and reinforcement of a long retaining wall along Franklin Street.

A key change in the new plans calls for relocation of the truck exit from the freight yard to Grafton Street. Instead of coming out to Grafton Street from a paper street that also serves as the entrance to a now-closed supermarket off lower Grafton Street, the entrance would be moved opposite the ramps on Grafton Street that access I-290.

A four-way interchange would be established there, so that instead of driving on Grafton Street for a limited distance to get to I-290 eastbound, trucks would simply cross Grafton Street to get directly onto the ramp.

Those improvements would come in addition to $10 million worth of streetscape improvements being undertaken on Belmont Street, leading to Plantation Street. Traffic improvements would also be undertaken at Belmont and Plantation streets and the Amorello Bridge on Plantation Street would be widened.

Murray said in all, the project would create 376 jobs over a two-year period. When fully operational, the expanded freight yard would generate about 50 permanent jobs with CSX.

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