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Massachusetts Lawmakers Mount Push to Electrify Commuter Rail

Legislation has been filed in both the House and Senate that calls for the MBTA to operate a fully electric commuter rail system by December 2035. Three lines that serve environmental justice populations would be electrified sooner.

SCITUATE MA. - DECEMBER 25: MBTA Commuter Rail train awaits to leave Greenbush station on December 25, 2020 in Scituate, MA. (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
Stuart Cahill/TNS
(TNS) — State lawmakers are making another push for Commuter Rail electrification, now that a new governor is in office.

Legislation was filed in both the House and Senate that calls for the MBTA and its rail contractor, Keolis, to operate a fully electric Commuter Rail system by Dec. 31, 2035, and “ensure sufficient zero-emission infrastructure is in place” to meet that timeline.

Three lines that serve environmental justice populations — Newburyport/ Rockport from North Station to Beverly, Fairmount from South Station to Readville and the entire Providence/ Stoughton Line — would be electrified first, by Dec. 31, 2024.

“These types of projects check the box on a wide range of issues, in terms of ending our reliance on diesel vehicles, helping mobility in environmental justice communities and improving public health,” said state Sen. Brendan Crighton, who filed the Senate version of the proposed bill.

“I think we need to meet this urgency,” he added. “We need to get moving on this as quickly as possible. We can no longer afford to wait.”

The three lines prioritized in the new legislation were also designated for early electrification by the former MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board in November 2019. But there hasn’t been much movement since that time.

COVID-19 hit a couple months later, and last year’s focus was on safety and the Federal Transit Administration’s investigation of the MBTA’s subway system.

But Crighton, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, also noted that “there wasn’t the same sense of urgency felt by the previous administration,” something he expects will be different with Gov. Maura Healey in the corner office.

“I think the time is now and I think we have the support of the administration, municipalities, the federal government, and the Legislature,” Crighton said.

Healey’s press secretary, Karissa Hand, said “the governor has called for electrifying public transportation so that all modes operate on 100% clean power by 2040, starting with school and MBTA buses by 2030.”

“She looks forward to working with the Legislature and other partners to meet these goals,” Hand said. “She will review any legislation that reaches her desk.”

The proposed legislation directs the MBTA and MassDOT to pursue federal funding to accomplish zero-emission infrastructure and electrification. Crighton said the state will also need to have “buy-in,” and mentioned there’s already funds available through President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill.

According to his office, electrifying the Stoughton, Fairmount and entirety of the Newburyport/ Rockport lines would cost roughly $493 million, based on inflation-adjusted Amtrak electrification costs. That figure does not include the cost of new trains.

In a statement, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said that while the agency’s practice is not to comment on pending legislation, “the T is committed to an electrified, regional rail service and will be working with the administration and elected officials to identify funding sources and approaches to accelerate the program.”

Crighton said what Commuter Rail transformation would look like is still under discussion, but added that it would be feasible for certain lines, particularly those in Phase 1, to incorporate the lower-cost hybrid approach that was presented at an MBTA board meeting in June.

According to the presentation, overhead catenary lines would charge battery-electric trains while moving so they can move offline in tunnels and over bridges, where the T deemed it was too expensive to install wiring.

The proposed legislation directs MassDOT to begin construction on the Fairmount corridor and so-called environmental justice corridor of the Newburyport/Rockport Line no later than Nov. 1, 2023 to support the first phase of rail electrification.

The Framingham/Worcester Line would be electrified by Dec. 31, 2026, the Middleborough/Lakeville Line by Dec. 31, 2027, and electric trains would be operating throughout the entire Commuter Rail system by the end of 2035.

The bill also includes deadlines for increased frequency on Commuter Rail lines “to ensure rail electrification meets the standards of a regional rail system,” with trains on all lines operating 15 minutes apart or better by Dec. 31, 2029.

By Dec. 31, 2035, trains would be operating five minutes apart in each direction on the Fairmount Line, Newburyport/ Rockport through Salem station, Providence/Stoughton, and the Worcester Line through Framingham station.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about a more reliable Commuter Rail,” Crighton said. “The electric vehicles are far more reliable than the locomotives that we have. So in the long run, you’re going to save money on fuel and you’re going to save money on the repairs needed.”

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