By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — Boston’s South Station is becoming a “choke point in the system and an obstacle to expanded service,” according to state Transportation Secretary Rich Davey, who asked lawmakers Thursday for help with a “stuck” deal that could lead to the station’s expansion.
The MBTA is seeking to expand from 13 to 20 tracks, but must first acquire property that hosts a major facility owned by the U.S. Postal Service, which sits on tracks from the 1940s and 1950s.
Talks have been occurring for years over the postal service land, which is critical to plans to expand commuter rail service to the South Coast and efforts to keep trains running in and out of South Station without delays at peak travel periods.
Davey said the two sides “have yet to strike a deal,” and he asked the Transportation Committee’s chairmen, Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn) and Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett), for help.
Davey also said the transportation secretariat is eyeing an expansion of capacity at North Station by acquiring property that was once a parking lot for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, which has moved to Charlestown.
The property would allow for two new tracks with a center platform, and while they have had “fruitful” discussions with the owner, Partners HealthCare, the MBTA filed a preemptive order of taking earlier this year, Davey said. He added that the service could expand to include Worcester Line trips and diesel-powered North Shore commuter rail routes.
A mile away, South Station is “booming” and a “vital cog,” but at capacity, Davey said.
Davey said the Patrick administration re-engaged after the April signing of a transportation bond bill in negotiations with the Postal Service and offered to build a $350 million mailing facility in the Boston’s Seaport District on Massport-owned land. “Frankly, we’re a little stuck,” he said. “We’ve made a number of different proposals that we thought were compelling, that made the Post Office whole.”
Davey said the Postal Service is concerned that if the federal agency attempts to turn around and sell the land currently owned by Massport, it would not be worth as much.
“It’s frustrating because this isn’t a real estate deal,” Davey told the News Service. “It’s about helping the citizens of the Commonwealth, getting their mail delivered, expanding South Station, keeping blue collar jobs in the waterfront district, and I think we can get there. But we need a willing partner.”
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has won a $32.5 million federal grant that allows for environmental reviews, preliminary engineering and civic engagement in connection with the expansion project. A draft environmental impact report will be released in November, according to Davey.
A spokeswoman for the Postal Service said the agency has spent “millions of its limited funds” in attempting to move the project forward. The postal service signed a memorandum of understanding with MassDOT on the transaction in 2011, and would rather honor that arrangement, the spokeswoman, Maureen Marion, said in an emailed statement.
“The Postal Service has carefully evaluated the new transaction proposed by MassDOT and has determined that the assumptions of value used by MassDOT do not comport with the Postal Service’s required accounting practices,” she wrote.
At the legislative oversight hearing on Thursday, Davey was pressed by Rep. Jerald Parisella (D-Beverly) about an underground link between North Station and South Station, a proposal backed by former Gov. Michael Dukakis and former state Rep. John Businger. Parisella noted that this year’s transportation bond bill included a call for a study of the project.
“It’s just not on our radar at this point,” Davey said, acknowledging that the Patrick’s administration’s 10-year transportation plan released in 2013 did not include the proposed link. “I have remained unconvinced from an operational perspective it is necessary.”
Significant federal support would be needed for the project, he added.
While the purpose of the Transportation Committee’s oversight hearing was to review the first few months of Keolis’s operation of the commuter rail, Davey also talked up other projects, including a drawbridge in Beverly built in 1886.
The first phase is in design, with advertisement for a $2.5 million concrete pile repair bid set for December 2014 and 12 months of construction scheduled to start in the spring. Replacement of the bridge’s swing spans, costing $15 million, is still in the design phase, with bids expected to be advertised in the summer of 2015. Construction is expected to last 24 months.
The $46 million replacement of a Gloucester drawbridge, built in 1911, is set to start in fall 2015 and last 48 months, according to Davey.
“These bridges are in many respects one of the main reasons why we have delays up the Rockport/Newburyport line,” Davey told the committee.
Steve Townsend, the president and CEO of Keolis America, said the commuter rail is at 92 percent on-time system-wide.
In August, the company launched a customer service center at its headquarters, two blocks away from South Station, he added. Staffers have fielded 10,575 calls in three months, mostly asking for information about the system.
Asked about fare evasion issues, Townsend said they are currently understaffed and they are hoping to have enough assistant conductors “to get through a train.”
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA advisory board, said the delays hit the Rockport line and the Fitchburg Line, which is undergoing track and signal improvements. “It seems Keolis is off to a good start but that it is still very early,” he said.
“I think overall things are moving in the right direction,” said Sen. Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat and co-chair of the committee.
Keolis came in for criticism from Thomas Murray, president of Transport Workers Union Local 2054, who said that while his union already has contract with Keolis, there is a “leadership vacuum.” Murray, whose union includes inspectors, mechanics and cleaners, said he first met the general manager earlier this month.
After the hearing, Townsend said his managers have an “open door” policy but he could not specifically speak to Murray’s issue.