DANVERS — A proposed $25 million commuter rail stop in South Salem could get students out of their cars and onto the train while spurring development along Canal and Jefferson streets, Salem officials say.
However, a discussion about the proposed station during a North Shore Chamber of Commerce meeting with Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Salem State University President John Keenan turned into a broader discussion about how traffic congestion and a lack of public transportation infrastructure can stymie economic growth.
"There is no doubt that traffic congestion is having an impact on the ability to get development happening within any community, I think, but particularly, in ... the heart of the North Shore," Driscoll said during the meeting at the chamber's Danvers headquarters on Cherry Hill Drive.
People can tell when Salem State is in session just by looking at the traffic on Route 1A, she said.
In the end, the chamber's board of directors voted to endorse a South Salem stop amid the city's Castle Hill neighborhood to make it easier to get to the school and Salem Hospital.
The city's top employer, North Shore Medical Center, is expanding its Salem Hospital campus and consolidating its Union Hospital campus in Lynn to Highland Avenue. Salem State University is the city's second-largest employer, and its president has plans to grow the university.
Keenan, the former Salem state representative, said the South Salem stop "makes sense on so many levels," not only for transportation, but for a chance to create more housing and grow the university.
Lynn, Keenan said, is the top feeder community to Salem State.
Of the university's 9,000 students, Keenan said, 3,000 live along the commuter rail, and about a third of those students live in Lynn. Many students also come from Boston. The problem is the downtown Salem commuter rail station on Bridge Street is 1.5 miles from campus, and it has proven inconvenient for students to get back and forth, even with shuttles, Keenan said. That's why many students and staff still drive to campus, which Keenan said will never have enough parking.
Keenan's goal is to grow Salem State by an additional 2,000 students in the next decade.
"The only way that I can do that, really, is to be able to get them there without being in a car all the time," Keenan said. "The mayor's absolutely right, we have traffic issues in South Salem. We want to be a good neighbor, but to be successful and sustainable, we need to grow, and the commuter rail is a way that we can do it."
Former Salem Mayor Stanley Usovicz, a regional director in external affairs with Verizon, said the area and location for the stop is "perfect in terms of what you are trying to do. In addition, it brings about the ability to retain as well expand economic opportunity."
Business and education leaders also spoke about the need to improve the North Shore's transportation network.
Salem attorney Bill Tinti said the system is designed to move commuters in and out of Boston, and that has been the focus of state investment. The problem is the last mile gap to school or work.
Tinti said plans have to encompass ways to get to pockets of employment, such as the Cummings Center in Beverly, Centennial Park in Peabody and Cherry Hill Industrial Park in Danvers and Beverly, plus Salem State, North Shore Community College in Danvers and Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, among others.
"This train stop, which is very, very important for the city of Salem, is very important for this region, as well," Tinti said.
Commuters, however, may object to the new station because it might add a couple of minutes to their commute, Tinti said.
Driscoll said some neighbors closest to the station are concerned about diesel locomotives stopping and starting near their homes, so the proposed location of the platforms has been moved to make sure it will not be built in the heart of the neighborhood.
Nuts and bolts
The proposed South Salem stop would built as a neighborhood "kiss-and-ride," station, with about 50 parking spaces.
Planning work is already being done on the project, including an engineering study and a feasibility analysis, Driscoll said.
The city has hired an engineering firm called AECOM to do some of this work. An economic analysis is being worked on by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
The city has been working with the Salem Partnership to 'tease out" what the station might mean in terms of engineering and cost. Driscoll said the station is estimated to cost $25 million.
Rob Lutts, president of Cabot Wealth Management on Essex Street in downtown Salem, asked how the station would be financed.
Driscoll told him that "$25 million is a manageable number" when it comes to transportation projects.
The hope is the state would pay for the bulk it, she said, while the city leverages North Shore Medical Center and Salem State as partners in the project. There's an expectation the city would pay for a portion of the station.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.