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Monday, May 10, 2010

Economic impact of CSXT's planned yard expansion in Worcester, Mass.

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A planned $100-million expansion of CSX Transportation's freight rail facilities near Franklin Street in Worcester, Mass., has been heralded by state and local officials as a major boon for economic development, the Worcester Business Journal reports. But just how many jobs the expansion will create, and what the impact on the local neighborhood will be, remains to be seen.

One unabashed supporter of the project is Worcester City Manager Michael V. O'Brien, who calls the development "an absolute game-changer for the local economy."

The biggest boost to local jobs will come during the two-year construction phase - slated to begin in late 2012. An estimated 376 construction workers will be needed. But once the yard is established, the permanent jobs will be a more modest 42, according to CSXT.

The height of bridges is being raised along the railroad line between Interstate 495 and the New York line to accommodate double-stack freight trains, freeing up tracks, which will make room for additional commuter trains. The state will take responsibility for raising highway bridges, while CSXT will lower the tracks. Work on the double-stacking will add an estimated 464 construction jobs, according to CSXT.

CSXT's decision to move forward with the Worcester expansion has garnered attention in the rail industry, according to Tom Judge, editor of the Chicago-based trade journal Railway Track & Structures.

"It's being talked about in the industry," Judge said, explaining that his readers - many of them engineers for large contractors - would likely be enlisted to help build out the Worcester yard.

Judge also said that CSXT is not alone in its decision to move forward with a large-scale expansion. There are several sizeable projects across the country in the planning stages.

"They're building capacity projects now so that when traffic does come back they can handle it," Judge said.

Indeed, freight has slowed right along with the overall economy. According to the most recent statistics from the Association of American Railroads, railroad freight traffic was up 1.4 percent for the week ending Feb. 6 when compared with the same week in 2009. But that number is still well below - 14.7 percent - traffic during that week in 2008.

The real boon, according to O'Brien, is the possibility of more commuter trains, which will encourage both employees and businesses to relocate to Worcester, where property and commercial costs run significantly lower than in Boston and the surrounding areas.

But not everyone shares O'Brien's rosy outlook. Neighborhood groups have raised concerns about potential added traffic and pollution.

The freight yard project is just part of a multi-year rail transportation plan between the state and CSX. Officials hope the plan will expand commuter options with the addition of 20 trains on the Worcester-Boston line by 2012.

In response to neighborhood concerns, CSXT has offered to alter its original access plan so that traffic could move directly onto an Interstate 290 exit ramp rather than travel along Grafton Street, which neighborhood groups had opposed.

O'Brien said CSX continues to work to make modifications to the project in response to neighbors' concerns.

"There's a clear recognition they want to be good neighbors," he said. "I'm very optimistic we will continue to bring these issues forward."

Expanding the CSXT freight yard on the city's East Side from 28 to 51 acres serves as one aspect of the statewide project. The expansion also includes moving CSXT freight operations from Allston to Worcester and modernizing and expanding the intermodal terminal in Worcester.

CSXT officials have said the freight yard work would include replacing some older structures at the site. CSXT also plans to upgrade stormwater management, landscaping and lighting.

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