For travelers in Winchester, Woburn, Stoneham, and Wilmington (or anyone who uses the commuter rail to head south toward Boston or north toward Lowell) expect changes and shutdowns to the Winchester Center MBTA station sometime in the next five months.
According to Winchester Town Manager Lisa Wong via email last week, “My understanding is (the MBTA) hope(s) to get a contractor on board by the end of December or early January.”
Upgrades and repairs to the Winchester Center station are a long time coming. Issues at the station go back more than a decade and include cracking pavement on the platform ramps. The Select Board in Winchester authorized temporary fixes over the years, but the ramps, tracks and entire station need an overhaul.
It’ll be an expensive project, approximately $50M (as of January of this year, though some place the price tag as high as $55M), all paid for by the transit authority (save for some potential “add-ons” the town would have to pay for out of its own pocket should it choose to do so). It only gets more expensive the longer the process lasts (the initial cost started at $12M).
Although the project started a decade ago, it has finally, to be fair, started moving this year (ironically enough when everything else seems to have stopped). Back in 2009, the town first shared its concerns with the transit authority about unsafe pedestrian ramps at the station.
At that time, in August of 2009, then-Town Manager Mel Kleckner wrote to the MBTA asking for “immediate attention” because fallen debris could have injured a pedestrian. Eventually, the Select Board had no choice but to close that portion of the ramp.
Two years later, the town and MBTA came to an agreement on the 15 percent design phase of the rebuild. Had the MBTA finished the project back in 2011 or 2012, it would have cost $12M.
While it took the transit authority forever to seemingly move off the 15 percent design phase, late last year the MBTA suddenly announced it reached the 60 percent design phase, and then in January it hit the 90 percent design phase. If time really is money, the transit authority sure wanted to save some cash (in a manner of speaking, since the price already increased more than four times from when the project began).
In total, the project consists of reconstructing the ramp and installing a new stair on Laraway Road; installing a new stair and elevator on the inbound side at the Waterfield Lot; installing a new elevator, stair and ramp on the outbound side at the Aberjona Lot; and installing a new stair and elevator on MBTA-owned property behind the buildings on Laraway Road.
For “add-ons,” as mentioned above, the Select Board in July approved sending a cost-sharing agreement letter to the MBTA that includes painting the pedestrian tunnel for $17,500 (though Town Engineer Beth Rudolph said she hopes to convince the MBTA to include it as part of the overall construction project), adding granite cladding at the abutment for $70,000 (in two places: the Quill Rotary and the Waterfield Lot side of the station) and salvaging stone at Laraway Road for $80,000.
Rudolph called that last add-on, “money well spent.”
The town also discussed paying for solar panels, or at least paying to have the canopies solar-ready. Either way, regardless of what the Select Board decides, Town Meeting makes the final decision, as that body appropriates the money for projects such as this.
Once the T eventually chooses a contractor later this year or early next, they should be ready to get moving, as they’ve already outlined some of their proposed working hours. This includes normal workday hours for fixing the ramps and platforms, 7 a.m. - 5 p.m., plus overnight hours for track work (1– 4 a.m. when they’re working on one track, and then 1– 6 a.m. when they’re working on both).
This would last for the entirety of the project, which is now scheduled to run 29 months (the town previously stated construction would last 28 months, but this extra month may include additional work the town seeks to have the MBTA perform on the town’s own dime).
Rudolph proposed a “more robust” discussion with the MBTA for a future meeting sometime in August, but that never materialized. Wong said the town set up a meeting with the MBTA and neighbors for Aug. 24, but the transit authority “was unable to make the meeting.”
Instead, “we reviewed the hours proposed by the T but couldn’t answer a lot of the questions for the T. There were a lot of questions about the overnight hours,” she noted, adding she’s still trying to get those answers.
There had been talk of keeping some of the station available to commuters, but ultimately, the transit authority decided to close the entire station so work could finish quicker. Commuters will have to use the Wedgemere Commuter Rail Station. The town also tossed around the idea of the MBTA providing a shuttle to transport riders from the Winchester Center station to the Wedgemere station, but cost restrictions shut down that idea.
Now in the final stages, it could be said it’s been a chore to get this far. Even members of the Select Board expressed frustration at the MBTA. In fact, Select Board Chair Michael Bettencourt (who at the time was vice-chair) said earlier this year the MBTA has been “impossible to deal with” by not giving the town much freedom.
It is technically their project and they’re footing the bill, which he noted.
Still, the board’s frustration or annoyance with the transit authority shows just how badly the town wants these repairs and upgrades done to the Winchester Center Commuter Rail Station. And, although the process nears the final stage before construction, residents and users of the station still have nearly three years to wait until completion.