BOSTON — The MBTA has adopted plans to modernize the commuter rail system over the next two decades, but questions remain about how the upgrades would be funded.
On Monday, the T's Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a plan that lays the groundwork to eventually electrify the 400-mile network. Initial plans calls for pursuing pilot projects to upgrade Boston’s Fairmount Line, the Boston-Providence line, and the Newburyport/Rockport line through Chelsea, Revere and Lynn, which already have electrified lines.
The plans also call for creating a regional rail/urban rail "transformation office" to oversee the efforts and collaboration with lawmakers to secure additional state funding.
The five-member board weighed six alternatives, ranging from providing more frequent service on the existing system to a complete transformation into a subway-like electric rail with trains that runs every 15 minutes in each direction. The options range in costs from $1.7 billion for a basic upgrade to more than $28.9 billion for electrified rail.
Ultimately, the board decided to accept four recommendations from Chairman Joseph Aiello that would gradually move toward a regional, high-speed, electrified rail system.
Aiello acknowledged that the plan for modernizing the system is "aspirational" and might change, but he said the state can't afford to wait.
"If we keep studying and studying, and don't commit ourselves to implementation, we'll still be here in 20 years at the same point," he told the board.
A 25-member advisory committee for the MBTA's Rail Vision project -- which included Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and Lynn Mayor Tom McGee -- recommended the boldest, and most expensive, of the six options.
Gov. Charlie Baker has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrades on the commuter rail since the brutal winter of 2015 crippled much of the system. His administration plans to spend $8 billion over the next five years to upgrade locomotives, tracks, signals, switches and other infrastructure on the commuter rail, subway and bus systems.
Baker said he isn't opposed to moving toward a high-speed electric rail system, but he said there are a number of issues to be worked out beforehand. Among them are the need for enough power in the regional grid to run the trains, and whether the state would see a reduction in emissions from transforming its fleet of diesel-powered trains.
"There's a lot of work that has to be done to figure out which pieces, and when, would be pursued," he told reporters on Monday. "But in the short-term our primary focus is going to be on what it's been on, namely investing in the core system."
The board didn't set a timeframe for the upgrades or discuss how they would be funded. None of the proposals suggested raising fares, which increased on the commuter rail by 6% in July.
Former Gov. Mike Dukakis recently threw support behind the fully electric option, citing the inclusion of a plan to link the north and south commuter rail networks.
Environmentalists say electrifying the network would help reduce congestion and lower vehicle emissions that scientists say contribute to climate change.
"The region clearly needs people to ditch their cars and get onto trains before our highways turn into parking lots," said Staci Rubin, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. "Fares must also be affordable for all so that riding the rails is a cheaper alternative to getting in the car."
Transit advocates urged the control board to "go big" as it considered plans to upgrade the aging system.
Joseph Anton Aiello, northeast field coordinator for the Rail Passengers Association, who is unrelated to the chairman of the control board, told its members at Monday's meeting "not to be scared of the price tag."
"If we wait another 10 years to come up with a plan, it will be triple that, because costs are going to go up," he said. "This is the price we pay to have a world-class system."
More information about the T's rail plans can be found online at: www.mbta.com/projects/rail-vision
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com