Photo: The meeting on Waverley Square station.
After hearing a ten-minute presentation on the future of Belmont’s two commuter rail stations in Belmont Center and Waverley Square, Board of Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady got down to brass tacks.
“Am I hearing … that both stations would be closed, and there would be one central station possibly on Pleasant Street?” Baghdady asked interim MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola, who was leading the initial community meeting held at Town Hall on Monday night, Sept. 28.
“The short answer to that is ‘yes’,” said DePaola.
“What we’d like to talk about is where’s the best investment that has the best return not only for the MBTA but also the town,” said DePaola.
An overflow audience of residents attended Monday’s Selectmen’s meeting to hear the first details from the MBTA on the future of the Waverley Square station – one of the least populated stops with only 117 passengers using the train each weekday – which for the past two years has been out of compliance with federal and state accessibility laws which would allow physically challenged riders and the elderly access to the trains.
The state review was triggered when the MBTA performed significant work on the Waverley Square platform in 2012.
With an order from the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board [AAB] mandating the MBTA to show progress towards a solution, and then either re-engineer the site with higher platforms, a series of ramps and elevators or have the state shut down the facility.
The MBTA has developed two plans for Waverley; one a comprehensive redesign and remodeling with a price tag of $30.3 million, and a cheaper alternative of $15.7 million. The high construction cost for the complete blueprint is due to the need to keep the towering retaining walls in place and building an elevator shaft on the site.
Depaola told those in attendance that the “cheaper” plan is unlikely to meet the requirements set forth by the AAB, which appears determined that the station is either revamped or closed, said DePaola.
While not included in the handout distributed to the Selectmen, the MBTA’s preferred option is the construction of a new, accessible station on a straight portion of the commuter rail line.
As Baghdady and others urged the MBTA to come to future meetings with only proposals to redesign and upgrade the 80-year-old stop, DePaola said he would prefer to locate a modern station in Belmont along the tracks near to the existing site.
“The current location is down in a deep cut so if we could move a little distance either way and have less vertical distance so it might be able to allow us to avoid the construction of an elevator,” DePaola said.
He pointed to a new station being constructed in South Acton, which cost $20 million including land acquisition. DePaola noted the MBTA has land rights along stretches to the east and west of the Waverley Square station that could be used.
Questions of accessibility at Belmont Center
While much of the discussion concerned Waverley Square, the MBTA noted that the Belmont commuter rail station in Belmont Center has accessibility issues, particularly its location on a curved section of the track making it “nearly impossible” to build an elevated platform to service the trains, said DePaola.
“So the idea of having two fully accessible stations … would probably not be able to happen because of the physical constraints at Belmont Center,” said DePaola.
If Waverley is upgraded, the likely scenario is to close Belmont Center shortly and build another station near that site, he said.
While the overwhelming sentiment of those residents who filled the Selectmen’s Room (many who came at the urging of Precinct 4 resident Judith Sarno) is to renovate the existing below-grade stop at the intersection of Church Street and Trapelo Road, that solution may not meet the MBTA’s own criteria.
Speaking to the Belmontonian after the meeting, DePaola said the MBTA does not view the Waverley Square station as a single location, rather, as a “project [that] is being evaluated in conjunction with other transit projects in the district.”
DePaola the MBTA proposes all new capital projects in January, a deadline he would like to see an agreement with the Board of Selectmen.
An important part of the evaluation benchmark for moving a project forward is the cost efficientness of making large renovations at the current location.
“As we’re looking at several competing projects, it’s more likely we will spend money making a site accessible or building a new station that has 420 daily riders than one with 117 [at Waverley],” DePaola said.
DePaola noted the MBTA has a $7 billion capital budget backlog for projects “so there are more than enough projects in need of funding.”
When asked if the MBTA would close the Waverley stop if the high cost of revamping the current site does not result in a significant increase in service and daily passengers, DePaola said “that maybe where we’re forced to go if we can’t identify the funds to upgrade it.”
“But at this point its too early to go to any conclusions. We want to seek an alternative that we can advance it into the mix of projects seeking capital funds,” DePaola told the Belmontonian.
The Board of Selectmen and many neighbors expressed that “at a minimum, we need at least one station that’s handicapped accessible … and certainly that’s Waverley,” said Baghdady.
The MBTA will return in the next few week to Belmont to conduct a “design charrette” allowing the public to view plans and give their input to the process.
But Baghdady made it clear that “the consensus you’re hearing tonight is we’d like the station to remain in its current location, … rather than, honestly, wasting time looking at other locations in town.”