BOSTON — As the MBTA plans an all-electric regional rail system, state and local leaders say the agency’s short-term shopping list that includes more than two dozen diesel locomotives is a “step in the wrong direction.”
Last year, the MBTA's Fiscal Management and Control Board adopted plans to transform the 400-mile commuter rail network over the next two decades into a subway-like electric rail. A new system would mean lower emissions and more frequent trains.
But the MBTA's list of capital purchases over the next fiscal year calls for 25 diesel-powered locomotives for the commuter rail.
Lynn Mayor Tom McGee and other North Shore leaders are criticizing the agency's priorities, saying the MBTA has "taken little action to date” to cut pollution that has an outsize impact on low-income, minority communities.
“This is a step in the wrong direction for achieving electrification, which in turn will provide affordable, frequent and reliable public transportation to our constituents …,” McGee wrote in a letter to the T's board.
Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed a transportation bond bill that authorizes $550 million for electrification of the MBTA’s rail system. That includes money for a new pilot project to test electric trains on a section of the Newburyport/Rockport line between Boston and Beverly.
McGee said the state also needs to fulfill its obligations to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which he said must include an electrified rail system.
"With the recent passage of climate change legislation, the MBTA's diesel fleet will almost certainly need to be eliminated by 2040 in order to meet our climate goals," he wrote. "Failure by the MBTA to act now jeopardizes that possibility."
The April 9 letter was also signed by Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill, as well as town administrators in Swampscott and Marblehead.
State lawmakers from communities along the commuter rail line are also upset about the decision to continue investing in diesel trains.
During a hearing Monday, Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, said lawmakers want the MBTA to purchase electric locomotives and begin testing the system.
"The time to act on this is now," he told the T's board. "We can no longer afford to sit around."
MBTA officials said Monday several test projects are still in the planning stages, and they won't actually be testing electrified trains for another year to 18 months.
Alistair Sawers, the T's director of rail transformation, told the board there are logistical and regulatory issues that need to be worked out for the pilot projects to begin. He said cost estimates aren't available yet.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the MBTA's board is considering a one-year capital plan instead of the regular five-year prospectus. Lawmakers and municipal officials have also called on the board to adopt a five-year plan to provide more certainty on rail electrification and other major investments.
"We believe that electrification of Phase 1, including up to Beverly along the Newburyport-Rockport line, is possible by 2024, but short-term (capital purchases) will not allow the MBTA to make sufficient progress toward achieving this goal," McGee wrote in the letter to T officials.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.