Chandler prioritizes expansion of housing, modern rail system

Chandler prioritizes expansion of housing, modern rail system
Frequent subway-style service between Worcester and Boston should be on the table, Massachusetts Senate leader says
By Matthew Tota, Correspondent WORCESTER – The Senate version of the state budget will emphasize housing and transportation, with plans to expand affordable housing across Massachusetts and modernize the state’s rail system, according to Senate President Harriette L. Chandler.

Speaking at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce annual breakfast meeting Monday, Ms. Chandler detailed two of the Senate’s priorities as it begins crafting its version of the fiscal 2019 budget.

Fifteen Regional Transit Authorities across the state are short a total of $8 million for fiscal 2019, according to numbers released by Gov. Charlie Baker in his appropriations bill. Justin Lawson, a WRTA driver and member of the Funding for Public Transit Committee, said the states RTAs have expected $2 million funding increases each year over the past four years, but instead the transit agencies have been level-funded.

The Worcester Democrat – who will remain Senate president for the rest of the year – said the budget process will require “tough and frank” conversations on issues such as housing and transportation.

“The weekend service is going to be the biggest cut to Worcester County. That also includes ADA service, because our vans go where our buses go,” Lawson said. “Our elderly, its basically their freedom to move so with no bus service they dont get to out at all. They take our buses and our vans, without that theyd basically just stay home. Some of our van drivers have told me theyre the only people they see in a day.”

Rising housing costs, Ms. Chandler said, “threaten our innovation economy, our ability to retain middle class families and graduating college students, our capacity to attract top talent from other parts of the country and our ability to ensure every family has an affordable place to live.”

The Senate budget, expected in May, will go further than Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal in addressing the shortage of affordable housing in the state, Ms. Chandler said.

In addition to the elderly, Lawson said WRTA buses are also the cheapest mode of transportation for those who work in the city. Among the proposed cuts are community runs. Lawson said he called a cab company and was told it would cost $50 to take a cab from Southbridge to Worcester.

Part of the Senate’s plan, she said, will focus on updating out-of-date state and local zoning laws that make it harder for local officials and developers to maintain housing costs.

Several state legislators are expected to speak during the March 20 rally, including Senate President Harriet Chandler and Sen. Anne Gobi, as well as Reps. Dan Donahue, Mary Keefe, James ODay, Natalie Higgins, Carmine Gentile and John Mahoney.

“One of our top priorities is a more comprehensive housing effort that would lower housing costs overall, allowing municipalities to acquire affordable housing as part of every housing development and provide stronger tools to prevent housing discrimination,” Ms. Chandler said.

The WRTA Advisory Board will hold public hearings before any changes are made. The first will be held Monday, March 12, at 6:30 p.m. at the Jacob Edwards Library: Pioppi Meeting Room, 236 Main St., Southbridge.

Transportation improvements will also feature prominently in the Senate’s budget. For one, the state’s commuter rail system will need a “bold re-imagining,” Ms. Chandler said, as an electrified, rapid regional rail system.

Unhappy about this years proposed level-funding and potential cuts, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 22 will hold its first Rally to Save Public Transit on March 20 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Worcester City Hall.

“Currently, we are settling for a model of service conceived in the mid-20th century, built for suburban workers on a 9-to-5 schedule,” Ms. Chandler said. “That simply does not reflect the reality of today’s workforce, or the reality of Central Massachusetts as an economic center, attracting its own workforce.”

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority, facing a $900,000 deficit, is considering eliminating weekend service, reducing a number of weekday routes to hourly service only and nixing some runs completely.

The state must invest in an electrified rail system with new, self-powered electric train cars to allow faster travel to Worcester and other cities, Ms. Chandler said.

Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty is also listed as a speaker, as well as Gubernatorial Candidate Setti Warren, Worcester City Councilor Sarai Rivera and Tim Murray, CEO of the Worcester Chamber of Commerce.

To that end, Ms. Chandler said she will call on the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to submit by early 2019 a plan for the first stage of an electrified regional rail system – to be completed by 2022.

“Imagine frequent service between Worcester and Boston in under an hour throughout the day,” she said. “Imagine what that means for our citizens, for our businesses. This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea.”

Route 29 travels to Worcester, Southbridge and Charlton; Route 33 travels from Union Station to Leicester, Spencer and East Brookfield; and Route 42 travels to Worcester, Oxford and Webster.

Locally, Ms. Chandler hopes to secure more funds in the fiscal 2019 budget for the Worcester Regional Transit Authority.

“Were hoping at the end they fully fund transportation in the state,” Lawson said. “Its a state problem we want to fix and were going to advocate for that.”

“I’ll note that the governor is proposing to once again level-fund the WRTA this year, leaving the organization exactly where it was in 2015 despite increasing fuel costs, health insurance costs, and other commitments,” Ms. Chandler said. “That’s no way to run a growing business. It’s no way to run a transit system.”

Before going into her plans for the budget, Ms. Chandler ticked off the reasons  Worcester has become “the heart and engine of the commonwealth,” including all the new construction across the city and its thriving arts and culture scene.

High-impact proposals include reducing service on Routes 1, 4, 7 and 15; eliminating Routes 29, 33 and 42; and eliminating weekend service.

“This is truly a seminal, pivotal time for Worcester,” she said. “We are no longer the gritty mill city in the newspaper; rather, we are now the exciting destination.”

This years proposed cuts, which are not final until voted by the WRTA Advisory Board, would go into effect this summer.

Creating frequent “subway-type” service between Worcester and Boston should be under consideration, according to a top state leader.

Massachusetts Senate President Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, said Monday she backs an electrification of the states rail infrastructure and an investment in new self-powered electric train cars that would allow for faster service between Worcester and the states capital.

“Imagine frequent service between Worcester and Boston, in under an hour, throughout the day,” Chandler said in a speech to the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, according to her prepared remarks.

The MBTA runs a Worcester-to-Boston train that gets into the Boston area in about an hour, skipping over most stops. The “Heart to Hub” train runs twice a day, one trip in the morning and one trip in the evening, on the Framingham-Worcester commuter rail line.

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TransitMatters, a transportation advocacy group, is pushing for electrification of the system to create a “regional rail” system, with commuter rail trains running every 15 minutes or up to every 30 minutes, depending on the location.

Chandler said she has spoken to Gov. Charlie Baker and his state transportation chief about the issue.

“Theyre looking into it, and Im heartened by that,” she told reporters on Monday.

In her speech to Worcester business leaders, Chandler said she is asking the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to submit by early next year a plan for completing the first stage of electrified regional rail by 2022.

But Worcester has to take a “holistic” look at transportation and the city becoming the regional transportation hub “it should be,” she added.

In order for that to occur,” heavy” investments must happen in the commuter rail, the regional transit authorities and roads and bridges, according to Chandler.

“We need to be creative, whether that means expanded fees from AirBnb or ride hailing services; or new fees from sports betting; or taxes on online sales, allowing local businesses to compete on an equal playing field with their international online competitors,” Chandler said.

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