BY PATRICK ANDERSON
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Supporters of restoring commuter rail service to Pawtucket and Central Falls say a decade of planning work has brought them “halfway there” to the goal of a new train station serving the two cities.
“We are at the halfway point … and we understand that it seems like a snail’s pace,” said Natasha Velickovic, project manager with consultants VHB at a recent information session at the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center. “But that is just the federal process, and we have to get through it.”
If all goes well, state, Pawtucket and Central Falls leaders believe a new station could be ready to host trains in five years, which would represent a surge of progress from the current pace.
But they acknowledge the project has no dedicated financing once VHB’s contract for preliminary planning runs out this summer and competition for federal and state transportation dollars will be intense.
“We need to identify funds and go after them, while also keeping costs down,” said Dave Martone, project manager for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, who described the likely financing mix involving federal rail funds and transportation grants matched by some level of state support and whatever local and private money becomes available.
In the late spring or early summer, the state and VHB expect to submit the work they’ve done so far to federal officials for environmental review and hopefully a spot in line for funding.
So what would a new Pawtucket-Central Falls station look like if it is built and where would it be?
According to the preliminary design presented in January, the station would be located between Dexter and Conant streets on a straight stretch of tracks near a Providence and Worcester Railroad train yard.
Structurally, it would be minimal, including a pedestrian bridge over the tracks with stairs and ramps acting as canopies over two platforms. There would be no fully enclosed structure or full-time personnel.
Velickovic said community groups have requested a design that visually incorporates both modern elements and historical touches reflective of the area.
The station would involve building two new sets of tracks so that MBTA or other commuter trains, which now pass by, can stop without getting in the way of Amtrak intercity trains or Providence and Worcester freight trains.
Unlike South Attleboro station a few miles away, planners don’t envision the Pawtucket Station as primarily a suburban “park-n-ride” facility accessed by cars, but an urban station many would get to by foot, bike or bus. Plans call for 207 parking spaces to be built and maintained by the owners of the Union Wadding apartment complex next door.
Estimates suggest the new station would serve 1,500 to 1,900 riders per day and Pawtucket Planning Director Barney Heath said they would likely be a mix of Boston commuters who now get on the train in Providence or Attleboro, people who live near the station and work in Boston or Providence, and, hopefully, residents of those cities taking advantage of the inexpensive commercial space to work nearby.
Local political leaders in both cities see the station as a potential economic development catalyst for the numerous old mills and underutilized properties in the vicinity.
Early discussions of restoring commuter rail service to the area focused on the 1916 train station on the Pawtucket-Central Falls line, which now sits derelict under private ownership after trains last stopped there in 1959. But in addition to the potentially steep cost of restoring the building, its location on a curve makes it less than ideal, planners said.
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Photo credit RIDOT