New Lechmere Station Design Progressing, Concerns Linger About McGrath Crossing, Bus Routes

On the evening of Wednesday, December 14th, residents, activists, representatives from NorthPoint developer HYM, and architects and planners from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation gathered at the Kennedy-Longfellow school to discuss the latest changes and developments in the design of the new Lechmere Station.

From the changes that have been made as the station design has evolved, it is clear that the public design process has produced a station design much more in line with the community’s vision of an ideal Lechmere station. The station entrance has been moved to a location more equally accessible by East Cambridge residents. What was a narrow space between the station and McGrath has been widened to 30 feet, a change enabled by alterations to the path of First Street. The design of the station has been altered to promote a more even flow of pedestrians coming from all directions, and a more direct route to the Lechmere bus stop when crossing from East Cambridge.

While these changes are strong steps forward, it is clear from the questions and comments directed toward MassDOT at the end of the meeting that a number of concerns about pedestrian safety and access have not yet been assuaged by station designers. There is still a long pedestrian crosswalk that must traverse a busy section of the McGrath Highway/Boulevard. Developer HYM has made a number of suggestions to MassDOT about how this crossing can be approached in a way that maximizes pedestrian safety and comfort. Their suggestions include using different lighting and paving elements at the intersection of McGrath and First Street to encourage drivers to slow down and eliminating the right hand turn lane from the inbound side of McGrath. I am looking forward to seeing what MassDOT puts forward in reaction to these suggested improvements.

Another concern that was voiced by several members of the meeting’s audience was that bus access to East Cambridge will be diminished by the relocation of the station. Moving Lechmere across McGrath will require buses to turn off of Cambridge Street at Third Street, and reroute buses away from destinations like the Courthouse. Access to buses, particularly for the elderly and disabled, is a primary concern of mine, and I am interested to see how these concerns will be addressed.

As a final part of the meeting, MassDOT officials briefly discussed the potential for phased construction of the Green Line Extension and what that will mean for Lechmere’s completion date. Because of Lechmere’s placement in an early construction phase, the new station could be open in early 2017, well ahead of the projected 2019 date for the completion of the entire extension. This is very exciting news, and I will be pushing for a commitment from MassDOT to begin phased construction as soon as possible.

MassDOT has also announced that there will be a number of meetings coming up in the near future. Be on the lookout for Washington Street and Union Square station design meetings in late January, and meetings about the Maintenance Facility and Community Path in early April. I will post more detailed meeting information on my community blog as soon as it is available.

MassDOT Shelves Grand Junction Proposal

On the evening of Thursday, December 8th, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) held a public meeting to discuss their plans for the future of the Grand Junction Railroad. After purchasing Grand Junction from the freight operator CSX, MassDOT began exploring the line’s potential use as a connector between the Worcester Commuter Rail line and North Station. Because of the Grand Junction Railroad’s close proximity to residential neighborhoods in Cambridge, many people took notice of this proposal and it was met with a large amount of community opposition.

At tonight’s meeting, MassDOT announced that it does not intend to pursue plans for Commuter Rail service on Grand Junction at this time.

This decision was arrived at through the execution of a feasibility analysis that included a ridership study. If the addition of Commuter Rail service from Worcester direct to North Station had been found to increase ridership by a significant level, MassDOT may have ruled favorably on its feasibility. However, the agency’s ridership study found that implementing Grand Junction service would only increase the line’s ridership by 300 people from now until 2035. While there would be regional air quality benefits from the diversion of 250 cars per day due to the small increase in utilization of the Commuter Rail, MassDOT’s feasibility study has conceded that there would be real negative impacts for the city of Cambridge in the areas of traffic, air quality, noise, and vibration.

MassDOT’s announcement did come with one caveat: if the required level of funding for a renovation of South Station cannot be secured, the agency would be forced to examine other alternatives for alleviating congestion. At the top of that list would likely be Grand Junction. I will be closely following the South Station expansion’s progress and working with my colleagues in the state legislature to facilitate funding for the project. Expanding South Station will have far reaching benefits for the transit system as a whole, and will keep rail traffic on Grand Junction down.

As a final note, I would like to point out that MassDOT will be undertaking a number of rail improvement projects along the Grand Junction over the next couple of years. These improvements are designed to reduce noise and vibration coming from existing rail traffic and to enhance safety. You may see construction crews working on the rails, but they are not a sign that MassDOT has reverted to their original proposal. Any change in plans would need to go through a public process just as the original proposal did, and would require an environmental review.

I was given the opportunity to speak briefly at the meeting in order to thank the community for its attention to and involvement in this very important issue.
I would like to thank the many talented and committed individuals who eloquently articulated our community’s concerns and opposition to this project over the course of the last year. I see this result as a resounding victory for the Cambridge and Somerville neighborhoods that would have been negatively impacted by this proposal, and also a victory for the public proposal process. MassDOT deserves credit for keeping this process open to the community and taking our concerns seriously. Community feedback does indeed matter, and this issue is an excellent example of what kind of results that feedback can help achieve.