Monday, February 27, 2017

Auburndale is broken. Here's a way to fix it.

Recently the author of this page attended a public meeting about the Auburndale Commuter Rail station and found the process completely broken. Local advocates and lawmakers had obtained earmarked funds to build an accessible station—a necessary and laudable project—and gone to the MBTA for a design. The MBTA—mostly through the sheer incompetence of its project management team—had returned with an overpriced design which is likely unusable and should not see the light of day.

The design could have the effect of creating a single-track railroad at rush hour at Auburndale in order to maintain peak-hour service to and from Boston (see Dave's blog post for more). This may not even be possible, since before 9 a.m. there are 19 trains passing through Auburndale in both directions, and two tracks are needed. There was no evidence presented at the meeting that MBTA Railroad Operations has modeled the operations, and it's quite possible that if the current design is built, it will result in the elimination of peak-hour service to and from Boston at the Auburndale station (in order to avoid the "single track" operation). If this happens, the Federal Transit Authority could (and may likely, see Cleveland) demand to be repaid for the federal portion of the money since the FTA (rightly) does not like to be in the business of reducing transit service.

The long and short of this discussion is that, as currently designed, it would be a mistake to build the station. At best, it will be a monumental misappropriation of several million dollars, and a shining example of government waste and incompetence. At worst, it will result in reduced transit options for hundreds of commuters—or potentially degrade service for the 16,000 daily riders on the Worcester Line—and the real potential that the FTA would force the MBTA to pay back funds for the project, costing the state even more.

There is, however, a logical way to fix it. In my last post I posited that, for the same price as the Auburndale Station, high-level platforms could be built at all three Newton Stations. This, however, still creates operational issues with trains crossing over between tracks at rush hour, and also sets a poor precedent: no two-track railroad should have a platform built only on one side.

Before the Turnpike, there was a crossing under the railroad
between Auburn Street and Woodland Road.
So in this post, I'll explore how, instead of building a single platform and a crossover for $11.5 million, you could easily build a full, two-platform station for the same price. In addition, I believe that there is the potential to significantly improve accessibility and connectivity in Auburndale for mobility-impaired users as well as pedestrians and students. By leveraging the construction of the station, Auburndale can build a more cohesive walking network between the two sides of the village. (There's some precedent for this: the original pre-Turnpike station had an underpass near Melrose Street.)

Let's remember the numbers. The total cost of the project is $11.5 million, in the same ballpark as South Acton ($9.5 million) and Yawkey ($13.5 million), both of which are recently constructed two-platform stations with an overpass. According to the current Auburndale plan, the cost of the high level platform is $1.7m, the station canopy $810k, station systems $180k, site work $436k and parking modifications $1.6m. The rest—$6.7m—is for the new interlocking that a two-track station would not need. My proposal is as follows (a diagram is included further down this post):

  • Platforms would be built adjacent to both tracks. The track 1 (north side, adjacent to Auburn Street) platform would be built generally as currently designed. The track 2 platform (south side, adjacent to the Turnpike) would be built along the eastern portion of the current station and under Auburn Street. This allows the platform on this side of the tracks to avoid having a platform on the inside of a curve. High level platforms on the inside of a curve require a larger gap between the platform and the door of the train: a more dangerous "mind the gap" distance. The main station canopy would be shifted to track 2 where the bulk of boardings and alightings (inbound during the morning peak, outbound during the evening peak) occur. [See Note 1]
  • Access to track 1 would be much as currently designed, with a ramp accessing the platform from the parking area and another, shorter ramp (and stairs) providing access from near Melrose Street. Access to track 2 would be via a new pedestrian overpass built near Melrose Street. Access to the overpass would use a ramp from near the parking lot (which is already located about 10 feet above the railroad, mitigating the need for a particularly lengthy ramp) and from a set of stairs near Melrose Street. It is important to note that a new overpass over the railroad is required, rather than an accessible ramp or access to the track 2 side from the existing Auburn Street bridge. The Auburn Street bridge is too steep to meet design guidelines for access. [See Note 2]
  • On the track 2 side of the new pedestrian overpass, a stairway and elevators would provide vertical circulation from the overpass to the platform. This would be a bit of a mirror image of the setup at Yawkey Station, except the overpass would span both tracks. Neither track would need to be moved during construction. A separate stairway would provide secondary access and egress at Auburn Street (similar to the existing stairway there).
  • The new pedestrian overpass over the railroad tracks would align with Hancock Street on the south side of the Turnpike, both vertically and horizontally. This would allow a pedestrian bridge to be easily installed across the Turnpike between Hancock Street and the rail overpass. Most of the cost of such bridges is the cost of ramps, landings and abutments (the actual steel for the pedestrian bridge is relatively cheap, although a more attractive bridge—which might pay homage to the original HH Richardson design—may increase costs). By taking advantage of the elevation of Hancock Street and the need for an overpass to cross over the railroad for the station, these elements would be almost entirely in place. This would also obviate the need to build a walkway to Woodland Road as passengers desiring to access the station from Woodland Road could walk along Central Street or Auburn Street to access the station.

It's this last point which, I think, really makes the case for this plan for Auburndale Station because it not only improves conditions for the several hundred passengers who use Auburndale every day, but also provides better conditions for the rest of the neighborhood. It would provide:

  • An accessible pedestrian crossing between the business district to the north and the neighborhood to the south, something which none of the 1960s-era automobile-centric bridges provide.
  • Better access for many commuters since most anyone living south of the Turnpike would have a shorter walk to the station. [Note 3]
  • Much better and safer access to the Williams School from Auburndale Square; anywhere north of Commonwealth Avenue is in the Williams district. Students who currently walk along Auburn and Grove Streets or Auburn Street and Woodland Road—busier roads with dangerous intersections—would instead be able to cross over the Turnpike and walk up the much-quieter Hancock Street to access the school.
  • A more-connected neighborhood. Today, the distance between each crossing of the Turnpike in Auburndale is about 1500 feet. [Note 4] This is not a problem if you're in a car, but makes the neighborhood much less walkable. Adding a pedestrian connection would better connect the neighborhood's business district to nearby residences.

The marginal cost of this bridge would likely be about $300,000 (since most of it would be necessary for the construction of the station), or 3% of the total cost of the project, yet would have dramatic benefits beyond the Commuter Rail station.

The rest of the station could probably be built for the same cost as the now unneeded interlocking in the original/current design. Let's first assume that the need for a separate stand-alone canopy for track 1 would be obviated since the station would be partially covered by the overpass (and most passengers would board on track 2). Let's next assume that a platform on the south side costs the same as one on the north side: $3.2 million including a platform, canopy, station systems and site work. This leaves $4.3 million for the overpass, ramps and elevators (I am basing these estimates partially on the cost estimates for the Winchester Station project):

  • Ramps should cost about what an overpass costs, since a ramp is basically an inclined overpass. There new ramp would need to gain approximately 10 feet and would probably cost about $300k. (This seems to be in line with the costs of the much-more-extensive ramps at Winchester, which rise about 24 feet and cost about double.)
  • Each stairwell probably costs about two-thirds of a ramp (since stairwells are shorter and thus require less roofing and can be easily pre-fabricated). There are three stairways, one at Auburn Street and one on each side of the overpass: $600k, although it's possible the Auburn Street stairs could be reused.
  • The overpass over the railroad would likely cost double the cost of the overpass over the highway, or approximately $500,000.
  • Elevators are expensive, and you need two of them for redundancy. They cost about $1m each (which is why, if you can get away with not-very-long ramps on the north side, it makes both financial sense and accessibility sense to design a solution which doesn't require an elevator).
  • To allow wide freight passage, it might be necessary to install a "gauntlet track" to allow freight to move away from the platform. The cost for this in Winchester is $825k. (Considering how infrequently this would be used—a few times per year, at most—it could be built, like Winchester, with hand-thrown switches, and, when in use and if necessary, could block both tracks without major detriments to the schedule outside of rush hour.)

So the total cost of these elements would be just about $4.2m, leaving $100k for an overpass to Hancock Street (I swear I didn't add these numbers up to try to equal that number, it just happens that that is the case). There'd likely be some contingency, but several MBTA Commuter Rail bids have come in below estimates (Blue Hill Ave, for example), so it's possible it could actually cost less. In any case, the extra $200,000 for, say, a bridge to Hancock Street could be funded by the City, or perhaps even a Safe Routes to School-type grant.

Here's the drawing of how this could be implemented:

It is imperative that we get Auburndale Station "right." In its current configuration, the station woefully underserves the village and the surrounding neighborhood. The new station, as currently proposed, may be worse. We need Auburndale Station to be built with the operation—current and future—of the whole line in mind. If Auburndale Station can be built to provide better connectivity to the neighborhood, that's a large bonus. And if the station here can be upgraded within this budget, it will set a blueprint towards the eventual similar upgrades of West Newton and Newtonville, both of which have the same similar accessibility problems as Auburndale. As such, they need to be future-proofed.


Note 1: The Worcester Line is left-running in the evening both to serve the one-platform Newtons as well as stations in Wellesley and Natick where it helps minimize the number of passengers who have to cross the tracks. Dave has an excellent blog post detailing this here.

Note 2: The bridges were designed in the early 1960s, well before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. The grade issues are both the overall grade as well as the cross-slope of the corners. If this is confusing, just imagine getting up from Auburndale Square to the top of the Auburn Street bridge in a wheelchair.

Note 3:  At the most extreme, it would shorten the walk to the station for someone living on Hancock Street by a quarter mile, although may residents who live south of the tracks would have a shorter walk to the station and Auburndale Square in general.

Note 4: This is significantly longer than similar distances between bridges in West Newton and Newtonville.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Good intentions, bad plans, and $7 million wasted

The Auburndale Station is a mess. It is planned for a rebuild, which it sorely needs. But thanks to the MBTA's planning process (which ignored little things like rail operations), that's a bloated mess. There have been two public meetings four years apart, and during that time a plan has been put forward which bakes in bad design and pays no mind to any larger-scale issues on the Worcester Line. It's the T's planning process at its worst, which is saying something.

The villages of Newton developed in the mid-1800s along railroad lines; the concept of the commuter—the term, indeed!—began with the Boston and Albany's "commuted" season fares in the early 1840s. If anyone can lay claim to commuters, it's Newton, even if they now enjoy some of the worst Commuter Rail service in the region. In the 1960s, when the Turnpike was planned, Newton fought a losing battle against it (way too much background here). The old stations were replaced with rickety stairs and narrow platforms, and by the early 1970s, there was minimal train service on the line. Since then, however, the number of passengers on the Worcester Line has grown many-fold (from 600 in 1972 to 16,000 today), yet the line infrastructure generally still dates to the 1960s. With dozens of steps to the platform, these rail stations were inaccessible for anyone with mobility needs, and inhospitable to others. And the single platforms were only accessible by these stairs from a bridge, cut off from the portions of the village centers not cut off by the Turnpike.

Several years ago, the local state representative, Kay Khan, worked with then-Congressman Barney Frank to earmark federal money to build an accessible station at Auburndale. While this goal is laudable and the need is clear,  due to a combination of and overall lack of vision for the line and possibly some incompetence, the team retained by the MBTA specified a project which provides few benefits with a high cost. The Worcester Line should not be fixed piecemeal, but needs an overarching vision, which is currently lacking. Still, this should not be an excuse for the lack of understanding which has led to the current state of this project.

The Newton stations are the only ones on the Worcester Line—and on pretty much any Commuter Rail line in Boston—with single platform on one side of double tracks (on the south side, which is Track 2). As such, the stations have no reverse-peak service: there's enough traffic on the line that trains can't run in and out on the same track at rush hour, so, for instance, there's no inbound train leaving Auburndale between 1:12 and 7:31 in the afternoon. The obvious—and best—solution would be to build a new facility with platforms on both sides of the tracks, although such projects—like the recent station in South Acton—cost about $10 million each.

Building a single platform in situ on the south side would not be much cheaper, since it would still require ADA accessibility which, in the case of Auburndale, would require an overpass and redundant vertical circulation, and elevators cost about $1 million each. The actual platform only costs about $2 million, but getting there costs significantly more. It may be possible to build elevators from the current bridges, but the current sidewalks leading to the bridges are too steep to meet ADA requirements, so additional bridge work would be required. In any case, it makes sense to build a platform on both sides. (There's also the question of building a gauntlet track to allow infrequent wide freight trains to bypass the platform.)

A somewhat cheaper option in Auburndale is to build a single platform on the north side of the railroad (adjacent to Track 1); this is what is proposed. This would be significantly less expensive because it is adjacent to the local street and requires minimal vertical circulation: just a couple of small ramps instead of elevators since the platform would lie only about three feet vertically below the sidewalk. It doesn't solve the reverse-peak issue and still only provides one platform for service, but it at least puts that platform in a much more accessible location. If you only have money for one platform, this makes a lot of sense, with one major caveat: you have to rebuild West Newton and Newtonville on that side as well. If you don't, it's nearly impossible to serve platforms on Track 2 at Auburndale and Track 1 at the other Newtons, and even if you can, it requires an expensive interlocking and signal changes to do so. Without an interlocking, Auburndale would lose all peak commuter service, which is used by 325 passengers per day (the busiest of the Newton stations). With an interlocking, the cost of building the station triples.

So what did the MBTA do? They, of course, proposed to rebuild Auburndale on the north side, and to install an interlocking east of the station—just a mile east of the current CP 11 (see Weston Switch at Dave's glossary)—to allow trains to move from one track to another. Setting aside the operational difficulties of having two interlockings a mile apart and switching trains frequently back and forth, the interlocking—and associated signal changes—costs a lot of money. Here's the cost breakdown they presented:

Site Work 436,138
High Platform 1,733,094
Station Canopies $810,000
Parking Lot Modifications $1,685,750
Track and Interlocking $6,685,750
Station Electrical $179,156

Now, let's break this down in to three parts. The station itself (site work, platform and canopies) costs $3.16 million. The parking lot modifications to create ADA accessible spaces costs another $1.69 million. This accounts for 42% of the total cost of the project. The rest, 58%, is for the interlocking and track and signal work associated with it. This work is entirely unnecessary. First of all, there is already a perfectly good (or at least good enough) interlocking one mile west, so this won't have any operational efficiencies for the rest of the line (and will likely cause operational issues; the project team admitted that they have not modeled the schedule impact of this). Second, the line is likely to need new signals within the next decade, so this would likely be good money thrown after bad: the signals would have to be coordinated with that project, or replaced, and the interlocking is in a sub-optimal location so close to the current switch at CP 11.

Now remember: a north side station works if the other two Newton stations also had north side platforms. And the actual cost to build a platform here costs only $3 million (this is about the right ballpark: at stations like South Acton, for instance, each platform costs $3 million and the vertical circulation costs another $4 million). If you build all three stations, you save $6.7 million by not rebuilding the interlocking, and using CP 6 in Brighton and CP 11 in Weston to move trains back and forth as needed. You also have trains on a long-enough section of track that others can pass without encountering suboptimal signal aspects. (In other words: think of passing a tractor on a country road. If there's a long straightaway with good sightlines, you can easily keep up your speed, change lanes, and make the pass. If there's just a short section, you have to slow down, make sure there is enough room, the tractor may pull to the side of the road, and you pass at a lower speed. This is what a mile between interlockings would entail.)

$6.7 million should be enough to build a north-side platform at West Newton and Newtonville. Newtonville is easy: there's actually an old, low-level platform on the north side which would provide a suitable base for a high level platform, which could be connected to the sidewalk by stairs and short ramps. There is 35 feet between the sidewalk and the edge of the track, plenty for a platform and vertical circulation. West Newton is a bit more difficult: it's only about 700 feet between bridge abutments, and the T prefers to build high level platforms 800 feet long (although an eight-car train is only 680 feet long, and Yawkey Station is that length, with tapered platform ends to accommodate the site). In addition, some excavation would be required to remove the granite blocks on the north side (these were the original supports for Washington Street which, before the Turnpike was built, crossed diagonally) although these might provide a suitable base for a high level platform. But the parking lot already has accessible parking, and there is ample room to build ramps and a platform.

The issue is not that we don't have the money, it's that we're going to spend it in about the most wasteful way possible. The question is how to—and whether we can—reallocate this money. The Auburndale Station has about $3 million of federal dollars earmarked for it, so that likely could not be reallocated. Much of the rest of the money is included in the state's five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP), a document released by the state. That money could, theoretically, be reallocated, although it would be a political process, and there is, apparently, no guarantee that the money would be reallocated to the other Newton stations (which are not in the current CIP). But here's the rub. There are three ways you can spend $11 million on the Auburndale Station:
  1. Spend ~$4 million on the Auburndale Station, and $7 million on an interlocking which has not yet been modeled and may overall degrade service on the Worcester Line and no guarantee you could provide even the current level of service.
  2. Spend ~$4 million on the Auburndale Station, and the remaining $7 million on similar improvements to West Newton and Newtonville. This would actually improve service on the line (local trains serving high-level platforms would have shorter dwell times, improving accessibility, service speed and reliability) and you could certainly provide the current level of service.
  3. Spend $11 million on the Auburndale Station, but instead of building an interlocking, build platforms on both sides with ADA accessibility. 
The first is wasteful. Either of the other two is a good start towards better service and accessibility in Newton.

Making this cahnge would require the cooperation of MassDOT and the politicians in Newton and elsewhere. There would have to be promises made—perhaps even legislation passed—reallocating the $6.7 million from the interlocking specifically to the West Newton and Newtonville stations. If you build Auburndale and build the interlocking, you waste $6.7 million on the interlocking to build a $4 million station. But if you build Auburndale without the interlocking, you waste $4 million on a barely-usable station. Unless you build two platforms, Auburndale, West Newton and Newtonville are joined at the hip. You can spend $11 million and get an attractive, accessible station at Auburndale, or spend the same $11 million and get three stations for the price of one. 

This process should have never gotten to this point, of course. The project management team is mostly to blame: they ran amok with a design which has become far too expensive and provides little, if any, benefit. In addition, the fact that the MBTA lacks any long-term vision for Commuter Rail or the Worcester Line leads to these piecemeal, wasteful approaches like this. The corridor needs a long-term vision, which is something which should be in the wheelhouse of the Worcester Line Working Group.

Coming back to Auburndale, however, there are two preferable solutions: a two-platform station, or improvements to West Newton and Newtonville. The costs are about the same, and the benefits are much higher than an interlocking you don't need. Mistakes were made. We can either double down on the mistakes—and waste $7 million taxpayer dollars—or we can make the best of the situation, spend the same amount of money, and come away with a lot more to show for it: either a two-platform Auburndale or accessible stations throughout Newton.

This has gone from being an engineering issue to a political one: and this is why we elect political officials.  As we say in Patriots Nation: Do Your Job.