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.

Grand Junction Public Meeting December 8th

Please see the invite below for information about an upcoming meeting that will be held to update residents on the Grand Junction commuter rail ridership and feasibility study:

Grand Junction Commuter Rail Feasibility Study — Public Meeting

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is pleased to announce a community meeting to discuss progress on the Grand Junction Commuter Rail Feasibility Study.

This meeting will be held:

Thursday, December 8, 6:30pm-8:00pm

Kennedy-Longfellow School – Auditorium

158 Spring Street, Cambridge

The purpose of this meeting is to discuss an ongoing study of the potential use of the Grand Junction Railroad for supplemental MBTA Commuter Rail service to Cambridge and North Station. At this meeting, MassDOT staff members will discuss results of a ridership analysis and traffic impact analysis, as well as overall study findings, and next steps. This meeting follows up on a community meeting held last June. For more information on prior meetings, see out study website at: http://massdot.state.ma.us/planning/GrandJunctionTransportationStudy.aspx.

All are welcome at the meeting, and please feel free to share this notice. For more information, or to request alternative language or other special accommodations, please contact Matthew Ciborowski at matthew.ciborowski@state.ma.us, or (617) 973-7180.

Please join us on December 8th!

Op-Ed: Grand Junction Proposal Bad for Cambridge and Somerville

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has proposed a new transportation project that is drastic, unnecessary, and should it be implemented, will hurt the cities of Cambridge and Somerville.

The Grand Junction Railroad, an 8.5 mile-long stretch of rail that runs through Cambridgeport, Kendall Square, East Cambridge, and the Brickbottom area of Somerville, was purchased from CSX by MassDOT roughly one year ago. Just months after purchasing the track as a part of a much larger deal with CSX, MassDOT began studying a proposal that would bring as many as 24 Commuter Rail trains per day through Cambridge and Somerville, with the goal of allowing passengers to ride the Worcester line directly to and from North Station. 

Grand Junction intersects six different roadways in Cambridge and Somerville at street-level: Mass Ave, Broadway, Main Street, Binney Street, Cambridge Street, and Medford Street. The rush-hour congestion on these streets will only be made worse when cars, bicycles, and pedestrians are forced to yield to rush-hour train traffic. Air quality will be degraded by idling cars and diesel exhaust from the trains themselves, and noise and vibrations will relentlessly bombard the thousands who live and work near the railroad. 

MassDOT’s proposal would also deal a major blow to those who wish to see Grand Junction become a useful space for our communities. Open space opportunities in Cambridge and Somerville are rare, and the Grand Junction Rail Trail concept offers a unique chance to connect residents to open space.  A multi-use path would connect existing parks and public facilities throughout the corridor and act as an urban necklace, connecting densely populated neighborhoods to open space; however, instead of benefitting and building our communities, the state’s proposal would erode the quality of life in Cambridge and Somerville. 

Beyond the impact to Cambridge and Somerville residents, the proposed project fails to fulfill any significant public need.  The Worcester Line is currently operating within its capacity, and the 8% of riders along the line with a final destination near North Station can already easily access the area via the Orange Line from Back Bay Station.     

While many residents have joined me in vocal opposition to this misguided proposal, some City Councillors have suggested that we are powerless to stop it from happening and that Cambridge should simply seek mitigation.  This is naive and irresponsible.  It is our duty as elected officials to do everything in our ability to fight on behalf of the people who we represent, and stepping aside to let this destructive proposal move forward unopposed would be an abandonment of that duty. 

The history of another destructive transportation proposal illustrates the importance of unified community opposition and the potential dangers of inaction and defeatism.
In 1948, the Massachusetts Department of Public Works proposed the construction of I-695, better known as the Inner Belt Expressway. The Inner Belt was designed to route traffic around downtown Boston and alleviate congestion on the city’s maze of historic roadways, a popular solution in a time when highways seemed to spring up out of the ground like weeds.

In order to construct the Inner Belt, 7,000 residents of Somerville, Cambridge, Roxbury and the South End would have to be displaced. Those who were not forced to move from their homes and chose to remain would live in neighborhoods that were irreparably scarred and forever changed. Instead of being connected by a natural web of streets and sidewalks, friends, neighbors, and whole communities of people would be divided by a massive six-lane highway. The route of the Inner Belt would have effectively amputated East Cambridge from the rest of the city, and Area IV and Cambridgeport would have been torn in two. Elm Street and Brookline Street would have been entirely demolished.

When demolitions for the project began in the 1960s, however, a committed group of activists fought the project tooth and nail, and in 1971, after years of intense community protest, the Inner Belt project was officially cancelled.

Among those who formed neighborhood groups in response to the Inner Belt project were a group of young professionals who called themselves the “ad hoc committee on the Inner Belt.” Their philosophy was that because the project was “inevitable,” it would be in the city’s best interests to work with the state rather than outright oppose the project. Fortunately, the City Council of the day rejected this approach and opposed the Inner Belt.  Yet we are left with a haunting question: what would have happened if they had adopted the ad hoc committee’s suggestions?

Like the Inner Belt before it, Grand Junction is a project that deserves united and unapologetic opposition. And like the Inner Belt before it, there are some who believe that we are powerless to stop this project from happening.

As a whole, the City Council has so far failed to articulate its opposition to MassDOT’s proposal with the same strength and clarity that the residents of Cambridge have. Some City Councillors have echoed the sentiment of the ad hoc committee of the 1960s, and would even go as far as to suggest that the city is better off begging for mitigation than putting up a real fight. This is the wrong approach to an idea that is as reckless and unneeded as a highway running through the heart of our city. MassDOT’s Grand Junction proposal will almost certainly erode the quality of life in our neighborhoods, and as a representative of those neighborhoods, I see little room for compromise. 

Despite the rapid progress of MassDOT’s proposal over the past year, I am hopeful that the project can be stopped. If we are divided in our opposition, however, we will almost certainly fail.  The lessons of the past have taught us that if we are to have any chance at changing the state’s mind about Grand Junction, Cambridge residents and elected officials must speak out against it in one voice.

Residents Speak Out about Grand Junction

As many of you know, the state’s potential expansion of commuter rail service from Worcester to North Station via the Grand Junction Railroad has raised a large amount of concern in our community. I share many of the same worries that my neighbors have expressed about the potential impact of more trains coming through East Cambridge and East Somerville. While it appears that expanded use of the Grand Junction Railroad could bring additional noise, pollution, traffic, and safety problems with it, it is not clear whether the proposed expansion would bring any added benefit to the community.

With that said, I am very pleased to see that so many members of our neighborhood have spoken out about this. It sends a strong message that the residents of Cambridge and Somerville are engaged, informed, and ready to take a stand on the important issues that will directly effect their community and quality of life.


Image credit: Mike Goralski (C)2007

Two East Cambridge residents, Jai Chawla and Peter Zaroulis, have developed web-based software that they have used to create an online petition for residents to sign, comment on, and view. The petition can be accessed at petition.paperwork.pro.

In addition to Jai and Peter’s electronic petition, residents have collected dozens signatures from their neighbors on old-fashioned paper petitions, have written letters, made phone calls, and attended meetings. Thank you to everyone who has reached out with your concerns and ideas about this issue in any way.

Representing the interests of East Cambridge and East Somerville residents in this process is a top priority of mine, and I have been in close contact with senior Department of Transportation officials since the State’s initial purchase of Grand Junction. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me or my office (617-722-2380) if you wish to voice your concerns about this project, or if you have questions that you would like answered.

Brickbottom Residents Discuss Grand Junction

Brickbottom Artists Association, Somerville – map

On Wednesday, December 15th, Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials hosted a meeting at the Brickbottom Artist Building to discuss the state’s recent purchase of the Grand Junction tract of railroad. The meeting, which was well attended by residents of the Brickbottom Artist Building and the surrounding community, served as a forum for residents to voice their concerns about potential increases in usage of the Grand Junction Railroad by MBTA Commuter Rail trains.

For those not familiar, Grand Junction Railroad is an 8.5 mile long stretch of rail that runs from Boston, over the Charles via a rail bridge that runs under the BU Bridge, through MIT’s campus to East Cambridge, East Somerville, Chelsea, and finally East Boston. Along this route, trains make a number of crossings at street level, including crossings at Mass Ave, Main Street, Broadway, Cambridge Street, and Medford Street. Prior to its purchase by the State this summer, it was owned by CSX Transportation. Grand Junction is currently used by freight trains servicing the Chelsea Produce Market, and by trains being transferred for maintenance by the MBTA and Amtrak.


Jamey Tesler of MassDOT answers questions

The state’s purchase of Grand Junction Railroad opens up the possibility of the line being used for proposed commuter rail service between North Station and Worcester. I share the concerns that many members of our community have expressed about the impact increased rail traffic could have for East Cambridge and East Somerville, and I cannot support any project that will have drastic negative impacts for my constituents. I see potential safety, environmental, and quality of life issues arising from this proposal, and it is very important to me that these concerns are addressed before the future of this project is discussed any further.

With any public transportation project, our number one concern should always be safety. Although I strongly believe that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is committed to the safety of drivers, pedestrians, passengers, and employees in the planning, construction, and maintenance of all of its projects, I am nevertheless concerned about trains moving at faster speeds through Cambridge and Somerville while using Grand Junction Railroad. In anticipation of increased rail traffic on Grand Junction, improvements will be made to the tracks and intersections that will permit trains to travel at increased speeds. I believe that this will create an increased risk to pedestrians and motorists at the busy Cambridge Street and Broadway rail crossings.


Grand Junction crosses under the BU Bridge

Additionally, I am concerned that expanded use of the Grand Junction Railroad will bring new problems to densely populated areas in Cambridge and Somerville. Train noise, reduced air quality from diesel train engines, and increased congestion at crossings all negatively impact the quality of life for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. Should MassDOT move forward with this proposal, I believe that an environmental review should be undertaken to ensure that quality of life impacts are mitigated and that the well-being of our neighborhoods and our environment are protected. Residents should have a chance to comment about what kind of projects are undertaken in their communities, and I believe that environmental review offers a necessary opportunity for the public to have a voice in the planning of public projects.

My staff and I are closely monitoring this project, and I have been in touch with both senior administration officials to discuss my concerns about using the Grand Junction Railroad to expand commuter rail service. The meeting on December 15th was one of a series of meetings that will be held regarding Grand Junction, so please check back for the dates of upcoming events. The next meeting about Grand Junction will be held by the East Cambridge Planning Team at East End House on Wednesday, January 19th at 7:30 PM.

I invite you to contact my office if you have comments or questions about this issue by phone (617-722-2380) or by email (timothy DOT toomey AT mahouse DOT gov). I am committed to making your voice heard at what is a pivotal time for this project’s future.