By Alana Melanson
FITCHBURG -- Officials celebrated the groundbreaking Monday morning of not just a commuter-rail station, but the promise it brings of greater economic development to the region.
State Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey was joined by other state and local officials for the groundbreaking ceremony for the new West Fitchburg Wachusett Commuter Rail Station, expected to be complete in late 2014. The Wachusett extension project will extend the Fitchburg line 4 1/2 miles west, close to Route 2 at Route 31.
Mohammed Khan, administrator of the Montachusett Regional Transportation Authority, said the commuter-rail station is just one of several line improvements that are coming, thanks to more than $200 million in federal and state funding.
The rail improvements are expected to shorten the train ride to Boston to one hour.
"That's going to open the Boston job market to a whole new set of communities which previously had felt left out," said retired U.S. Rep. John Olver, who was instrumental in securing the federal funding for the project.
He said it will also lead to freight-rail availability for area companies, helping them to grow and create more jobs. Increased train use to Boston will also, hopefully, reduce congestion on Route 2, he said.
"All of us who are involved in transportation policy and planning look forward to the day when reverse commute will actually occur and workers from Boston who may be needed out here in jobs in this area, and students who want to come from the Boston area to go to Fitchburg State University will be able to reverse-commute from that area to this area," Olver said.
Khan said there will also be more transportation opportunities for those farther west of Fitchburg to move back and forth. He said MART will increase bus service to Gardner, Athol and Orange once the station is complete.
Mayor Lisa Wong said the project may seem small, but it means enormous growth for the area, which, in its distance from Boston, has the challenge of creating its own economic engines. She said creating the commuter-rail extension, as well as an entire smart-growth plan around it, are the first steps toward that goal.
"I'm looking forward to not only the groundbreaking of this project, but the groundbreaking of a big economic engine for West Fitchburg and for the entire region," Wong said.
The project also includes a layover facility in Westminster, where trains will be kept overnight.
Davey said the current layover station in Fitchburg is the worst in the train system, and that the new facility will allow trains to be maintained properly and operating on time, ensuring reliable and consistent service on the line.
Westminster Selectman Heather Billings said she's not looking forward to the layover station coming to her town, but that she has accepted it as inevitable.
"I just want to make sure we're good neighbors, that they're good neighbors with our neighbors, and we're working out noise issues with the MBTA so that the neighbors in Westminster are not affected or affected minimally," she said.
Billings said she is looking forward to a more positive working relationship with the MBTA, and hopes the commuter-rail station will bring economic development to Westminster.
In the recent past, the town has fought against the layover station over noise concerns and allegations that town officials were misled regarding the benefits the facility would provide, such as freight-rail access.
Davey said he understands Westminster officials were working to make sure their constituents were protected from any potential negative impacts, and that they are working together to mitigate any that may come.
"We've put down our fight about jurisdictions and whatnot, and really focused on the real issue, which is, how do we make this a great service for the people in the north county?" he said.
Melanson at facebook.com/alanasentinel or on Twitter @alanamelanson.