Primer: What to Know about Waverley Station’s Past, Present and Future

Photo: Waverley Station (Wikipedia)

The public meeting being held Monday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Beech Street Center is advertised as representatives from the MBTA and the state’s Department of Transportation updating Belmont residents and commuters on a series of “options” to bring the Waverley commuter rail station up to code with the Americans with Disability Act.

But to Sue Bass of the Belmont Citizens Forum – the community organization seeking to maintain the small-town atmosphere of Belmont by preserving its natural and historical resources, limiting traffic growth, and enhancing pedestrian safety – the meeting isn’t likely to result in a Chinese menu of choices and alternatives for residents to select from. Rather, “hovering over the event” is whether Belmont can retain its “walkable” stations or will the future bring a new, parking dependent facility.

Bass’ Should Waverley Station Close?, written for the Forum’s November/December newsletter, is a history and primer on the issues facing the state, public transportation agency and Belmont concerning the station.

Below is Bass’ analysis, with permission from the Belmont Citizens Forum:

Should Belmont continue to have two commuter rail stations that people can walk to? Or is it better to have just one station with a parking garage that people can drive to? That’s not officially the topic of the MBTA commuter rail presentation on November 16, but it’s the question hovering over the event.

Formally, the meeting is about the T’s need to spend $15 million or more on a station that serves only 117 daily riders—or to close the station entirely. This issue arises because, several years ago, the MBTA spent $353,281 repaving the platform. That was more than 30 percent of the station’s value. In addition, the repaving did not raise the platforms to the level of the trains. Either violation alone—the spending or the failure to raise the platforms—  required that the station is made accessible for handicapped people, with an elevator or ramps, according to the state’s Architectural Access Board. Appeals have failed. The conclusion seems unassailable—make it accessible or close it. (State Sen.Will Brownsberger did what he called “a deep dive” on the issue, available at willbrownsberger.com/waverley-upgrade-obligation/.)

For the T, this situation either adds millions to its billion-dollar bill for system-wide repairs and upgrades—or it offers an opportunity to speed up commuter rail service on the Fitchburg line by eliminating a station that draws relatively few riders. In fact, it dangles the chance to replace two stations with low ridership by a single station in the middle, along South Pleasant Street, with a parking garage that could increase the total ridership. Daily ridership at the Belmont Center station was only 168 in April 2013, according to the latest data readily available, from the MBTA’s fascinating Ridership and Service Statistics, 2014, nicknamed the Blue Book, which is available at www.mbta.com/bluebook.  The average for the Fitchburg line is 361 boardings per station

For Belmont, sadly, this situation threatens the loss of one or both walkable stations and their possible substitution by a new station to which few could walk—plus a garage that would draw even more traffic to Pleasant Street at rush hours, when it is already jammed.

It’s time for us to do what we do so badly and infrequently: try to look ahead and make wise choices about our future.

To start, why is ridership on the commuter rail so low? From Waverley, the train offers a trip of 10 minutes or less to Porter Square and 20 minutes or less to North Station in Boston. It’s two minutes quicker from Belmont Center.

Parking might be one reason. The MBTA’s Blue Book reports no auto spaces at Waverley, though there are 12 bicycle spaces. It reports 115 auto commuter spaces at Belmont Center, but, in fact, the police department’s traffic office says only 20 spaces are available, at $90 a month—and only a handful of those are spoken for.

Is the price too high, compared with parking downtown? Are people unaware that spaces are available? Would ridership go up if the long-discussed Community Path brings cyclists to the Waverley Square and Belmont Center train stations? Or is the commuter rail service too unreliable, or too infrequent? Do too few people work downtown these days?

Demographically, Belmont should be using more public transportation. “We’re seeing a general trend where the inner core—within [Route] 128—is growing faster than the outer suburbs,” said Eric Bourassa, transportation director for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “Part of it is because people do want to be closer to transit and commute in that way.”

Of course, Waverley Square has one of the busiest bus routes in the state, 73, with 6,424 daily boardings along the whole route and 753 at Waverley Station.

At the last meeting between MBTA officials and the Belmont Board of Selectmen, on Sept. 28, T officials said part of the challenge in making the two Belmont stations accessible is that both are on curves. The bend in the tracks makes it much more difficult and more expensive to provide roll-on service to the trains. The straight track along Pleasant Street between Waverley and Belmont Center appealed to the T for that reason.

Several in the audience suggested that a small shift in the location of the stop—a dozen feet or so—might solve that problem, at least at Waverley. Is that true? Would other simple solutions shave millions off the price tags for making Waverley accessible? It’s time to find out.

Sue Bass, director emerita

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Comments

  1. Jim Williams says

    Last night’s “Le Grande Charrette” should put an end to the ill advised idea of combining the existing Belmont’s train stations into a single inaccessible hub model on Pleasant Street. Instead, the loud and clear message from those in attendance including neighbors from Watertown ( Waverley is their only station) and Waltham) is keep both stations open and make them both handicap accessible. There are, of course, many considerations, but here are just a few in favor of doing just that. First the cost estimate of $30 million includes a 9 car high platform whereas the mini high with 6 car low platform is $15 million. A Sunday drive to Fitchburg and visits to the stations thru Littleton as Melissa and I did yesterday would reveal that both Fitchburg and North Leominster have enormous garages, but mini high platforms. So an easy cost savings for both Waverley and Belmont is mini high platforms. Importantly, this conclusion takes out the new station idea as no new station can be built for $15 million. Also, an analysis of dividing the current ridership at Waverley by the now reduced cost of $15 million is still the incorrect question as access is a civil right, not a choice. So, another way to look at it, is to ask what is the useful life of the access improvements (?) and that answer is 30 years at a minimum. So now we have a cost of $500,000 per annum and can ask what price access (?) with the obvious answer being priceless.

  2. Ellen Sugarman says

    Has there been a traffic study to see what adding a large parking garage at a new station on Pleasant Street would do? From the east there’s no way to get to Pleasant Street except through Belmont Center.

  3. John Bowe says

    Replacing just Waverley, at $34M, and without considering station maintenance, would mean subsidizing each of those 117 daily riders about $20 per round-trip – that’s even spreading the $34M out over 50 years. That’s $50,000 per rider over a period of 10 years. Even if I lived near one of the stations, I’d have a hard time justifying that state expense.

    A “walkable station” is not the same as a “walked-to station”. How many of the 117 walk, vs drive/park or get dropped off or take a bus? 2/3? Even those within a short walk from Waverley may choose the bus because of schedule and cost. For such small numbers, the bus (though it takes much more time) is a solution that has zero additional cost.

    Would moving to one station reduce Belmont’s MBTA assessmemnt? (currently at around $1.6M)

  4. says

    Does the number of riders boarding in Belmont Center account for the 50+ kids that board every morning and ride two or three stops to Concord and Weston? They don’t charge these kids, and therefore may not be counting them.
    Also, if Belmont wants to keep a station at all, it may be smart to allow a station on Pleasant Street with parking. It would make parking easier in the center for shoppers and retain access to Belmont via rail.

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