THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION and officials representing New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft pushed the MBTA’s oversight board on Monday to approve a pilot project extending weekday commuter rail service to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough that would attract an estimated 110 new riders a day.
Members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board took no action on the Foxborough pilot project, and raised a host of questions about both the proposal itself and how proposed service expansions should be evaluated. The board members are worried about expanding T service at a time when the transit agency is struggling to provide existing service. In addition to the Foxborough project, the T is also reviewing pilot projects for overnight service, commuter rail to Bourne, and ferry service to Lynn.
Jay Ash, the governor’s secretary of housing and economic development, testified in support of the Foxborough project, predicting weekday commuter rail service to the municipality southwest of Boston would open about 24 parcels to development along the Route 1 corridor from Walpole to Wrentham to Plainville. “I see tremendous opportunity for growth,” he said, while acknowledging no definitive project is currently pending.
Ash said he has held discussions with officials from the Kraft Group about potential development projects near Gillette Stadium that could include office, lab, retail, or housing. But he denied the pilot commuter rail service is being pursued to primarily benefit the Kraft Group, which owns Patriot Place and Gillette Stadium.
To entice the state to launch the pilot project, the Kraft Group has offered 500 parking spaces at Gillette Stadium for the commuter rail station and would allow the T to pocket any parking revenue collected from commuters. Kraft has also offered an operating subsidy of up to $200,000 during the life of the nearly year-long pilot.
Dan Krantz, the vice president for construction and development at the Kraft Group, said the project was not being driven exclusively by his company. “This is a program for people of the area and the region, not a single entity,” he said. Krantz declined additional comment and did not return phone calls.
Brian Earley, general manager of Patriot Place, said new development in the area would “absolutely require” bringing people from Boston out to Foxborough doing what planners call a reverse commute. Earley said 54 businesses at Patriot Place employ 3,400 people, but he said 130 of those jobs are unfilled right now.
As service expansions go at the T, the Foxborough pilot has a lot going for it. The MBTA already owns the track, the trains, and the commuter rail station that would be needed. Kraft would provide the T with parking spaces and help cover any losses for at least a year.
The MBTA currently runs passenger service to an existing commuter rail station at Gillette Stadium that is used when the New England Patriots are playing. The proposed pilot service would expand that service to weekdays, with three trains in the morning, three in the evening, and an undetermined number in the middle part of the day.
The service would operate out of South Station, running along the route of the Fairmount Line to Readville and then on the Franklin Line to Walpole, where it would head south to Foxborough. The proposal pilot service would stop at all the Fairmount Line stops, but it is unclear whether it will stop at any of the Franklin Line stations. The route between Walpole and Foxborough would run along track used by freight trains that is currently being upgraded.
Kate Fichter, a top aide to state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, said the weekday service to Foxborough would attract an estimated 190 passengers, but only 110 would be new to the system, with the rest coming over from other commuter rail lines.
T officials estimate the service would attract 59,400 new riders annually at a cost of $950,000, primarily for fuel and additional labor. After collecting fares and parking revenue from new passengers, the T estimates the service would run a deficit of $539,000, or about $9.07 per passenger. The Kraft Group has agreed to pay any difference between the per-passenger subsidy on the Foxborough route and the average overall commuter rail subsidy of $6.56 per passenger. Using current projections, Kraft’s subsidy would be $149,000 a year, but the company has said it will cover up to $200,000 in losses.
Even though only an estimated 80 passengers would be diverted from other commuter rail lines, Fichter said the pilot could ease pressure on parking spots at nearby commuter rail stations in Walpole, Franklin, Norfolk, and Sharon.
Foxborough supports the pilot project, while Walpole opposes it. A number of regional business groups voiced support for the pilot project on Monday, saying it would spur development in the area. Fichter, in her presentation to the board, said Schneider Electric, Foxborough’s second-largest employer, believes commuter rail service is crucial as it seeks to recruit employees to fill 500 to 700 job slots opening over the next decade due to retirements.
Joseph Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, and other board members asked Fichter for a lot more information on the Foxborough proposal and brainstormed about how proposals for service expansion should be evaluated. “I am quite paranoid about our ability to sustain added serviced over the long term,” Aiello said.
Brian Lang, a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said a vote in favor of the Foxborough pilot would be tough for him, given the projections of relatively few new riders and the absence of any development project on the horizon. “If it’s just for 110 rides a day, I don’t think it would fly,” he said.
Transportation Secretary Pollack didn’t come out and endorse the Foxborough pilot, but she came pretty close. She said it takes time for commuter rail stations to catch on with riders and even longer to attract economic development. She cited Yawkey Station as a station that had few riders initially but is now very busy.
“We need to look at all of the costs and all of the benefits. But we are in the subsidizing travel business and we are in the economic development business here at the MBTA and at MassDOT,” she said. “I don’t think it is realistic to say that while we spend the next 10 to 15 years to 20 years fixing the core system we can completely ignore people’s travel needs.”