Winchester Station rendering

THe Winchester Station rendering looking from Church Street down Waterfield Road. The improvements promise to update the aging Commuter Rail station.

For nearly 10 years, the Town of Winchester and the MBTA have been attempting to rebuild the Winchester Center Commuter Rail Station. The project has finally begun to move forward with the MBTA reaching the 60 percent design phase last month.

It’s been a long and winding road, one not without its bumps. Back in 2009, the town shared concerns about unsafe pedestrian ramps at the station. Then-Town Manager Mel Kleckner, not receiving word from the MBTA (or governor’s office) about the condition of the ramps, expressed his disappointment and frustration.

“I’m concerned the ramp is open again and I haven’t heard it’s safe,” he said.

Kleckner reminded the board about an incident that took place back in February of 2008 where a section of concrete broke loose from the roof of the ramp structure leading to the train platform. At the time, Kleckner praised the MBTA’s intent to make the necessary repairs. However, by 2009 the issues still remained.

At that time, in August of 2009, Kleckner wrote to the MBTA asking for “immediate attention” because the fallen debris could have injured a pedestrian. Eventually, the Select Board had no choice but to close that portion of the ramp.

As time went on, the relationship between the town and MBTA improved. By June of 2011, the two had finally come to terms on the 15 percent design phase of the rebuild. It would have been done in May of that year except some Rangeley Road residents expressed disappointment at not being more involved in the process. (The project will impact them with the track extending more than 700 feet into what they called a historic neighborhood.)

At the time, the MBTA estimated $12M for design, but didn’t budget any money for construction. Today, the MBTA and Select Board announced a budget of approximately $50M, which will come from the transit association’s capital budget. That money will go towards ramp upgrades, lengthening the track and making the station more handicapped accessible.

10 years ago, one Rangeley Road resident wondered if upgrades were even necessary or if any handicapped persons even use the station, which prompted then-Select Board member Roger Berman to remark how they would make these changes even if just one handicapped person used it.

He also noted the station’s current condition: “(It’s) falling apart. It’s at the end of its effective life. We need to put it back to current code.”

By June of 2011, the board voted on seven recommendations from the town’s working group, which they put together to help the town better communicate its wants and desires to the MBTA. Some of those recommendations included:

• concerns about lighting,

• a feasibility study for the Thompson Street tunnel,

• ramp design at Waterfield Road and Aberjona parking lots that would flip the MBTA’s design so that the high point of the ramps is at the Waterfield Road end of the lots. A memo from the MBTA said they “respectfully” state they couldn’t commit to that plan, but would commit to further design efforts to check its feasibility,

• provisions for noise and light pollution, particularly in the Rangeley Road neighborhood,

• a commitment to work on aesthetic issues related to the station design,

• Aberjona and Waterfield Road lot restoration,

• and post-15 percent design input.

By the spring of 2012, the town and MBTA continued to make progress. The MBTA had to make changes to the town’s preferred design due to issues with the high-level platforms not being feasible because high and wide freight trains occasionally operate on the line, as part of a deal between Pan-Am and the MBTA. As a result, the MBTA modified the design to include low-level platforms and mini-high platforms on both the inbound and outbound side.

Two months earlier, the MBTA issued a Request for Qualifications for selection of the engineering and design team to complete the post-15 percent for the station rehabilitation. Project director Jamie Jackson said the town should expect a year for the MBTA to complete the design phase and construction could begin in the fall of 2013. Jackson said work could last up to two years.

This means the original timeline had the station completed four years go. Oops.

What happened

In July of 2014, when, according to Jackson, construction should have started, the town’s working group instead continued meeting with members of the MBTA including project consultant Dennis Carlone. The goal of the discussion, according to Town Engineer Beth Rudolph, a member of the working group, was to further refine the town’s objectives for the station design in light of the zoning changes proposed by the Planning Board as part of the Town Center Initiative.

Rudolph also said that the group discussed with the MBTA the design studies completed by the Select Board and Planning Board since the completion of the 15 percent design phase, which includes a study of redevelopment opportunities at the Waterfield Lot and along the Main Street corridor from Church Street to Skillings Road.

Since this topic last came before the board, some changes have been proposed/required. From the MBTA’s side, they have changed their requirements regarding the use of mini-high platforms. Now station platforms must be “high-level” for the full length to meet current accessibility standards. A hinged steel platform edge will be provided on one track to accommodate the wide freight that is occasionally transported through the corridor.

On the town’s side, Rudolph said the working group recommended eliminating ramps at the southern portion of the station and installing elevators instead. Due to new fire code regulations, the ramps would have needed to be significantly altered at the Waterfield and Aberjona lots as compared to what the town approved in the 15 percent design phase. Those ramps would have been pushed further south into the parking lot and away from Waterfield Road. They also preclude the expansion of the pedestrian tunnel into a vehicular one.

The transit authority also unintentionally made a humorous comment when they suggested how happy they’d be to make the station compatible with the town’s future plans for the area; they wanted to make sure the work was completed in a timely manner.

By the fall of 2015, some of the patchwork fixes completed by the MBTA at the station had begun to fail. Rudolph called it a “critical time frame,” as she said the station needs more than a bandaid to fix the problems that exist there.

By this time, with the MBTA still working on the 15 percent design phase and the town not having much of a say in said design because the project would be on the MBTA’s dime, it could only sit back and wait for the transit authority to finish.

During the phase, the MBTA’s design parameters included an 800-foot long, high-level platform with a retractable edge, no stairs without a corresponding ramp or elevator (which the MBTA will provide, pay for and maintain on the south side) and two fire code requirements: no point on the platform can be more than 325-feet from an access point and no access point can be more than 82-feet from the end of the platform. It should also be noted that all elevators must be redundant.

Several months later, at the end of January 2016, word got around the MBTA could begin construction soon. That never happened. Some changes to the plan did happen, however, including reducing the size of the platform to 724 feet. The platform panels will consist of precast High Performance Concrete (HPC), which includes additives to the cement concrete to make the panels more resistant to deicing salt. An alternative would be fiberglass panels; however, it must conform to the Mass. Building Code and National Fire Protection Association Code and also requires the approval of Mass. Department of Public Safety.

The project will include 200 feet of steel canopies on both the inbound and outbound platforms, 42-inch high safety railings in areas where the back of the platform will be more than 30 inches above grade, a total renovation of the lighting system that will provide security, comfort and visibility, new porcelain signage, and amenities including benches, schedule cases, trash cans, bike racks, a maintenance shed, a PA system, an emergency police callback system, and landscaping.

The project also includes site improvements on the lower portion of the Waterfield lot, the northernmost portion of the Aberjona lot and Laraway Road. Included in the improvements will be: resetting granite curbing, milling and overlay of the bituminous pavement parking areas, and reconstruction of the concrete sidewalks.

By this time, the cost had risen to nearly $30M/ As members of the Select Board usually note, the longer you put something off, the more expensive it gets, and the MBTA continued to push back the Winchester Center Commuter Rail Station plans.

But the transit authority remained undeterred and in early 2016 said construction could begin in 2017. For the record, it’s 2019 and the design phase hasn’t even been completed yet, so clearly construction never started in 2017.

Today and tomorrow

Finally, last month, the MBTA and town held a public meeting at the high school featuring Senator Jason Lewis who represents half of Winchester. The Senator noted how important the project is to the future of the community. He called the station a hub for the town and region. (The town, of course, also has the Wedgemere Commuter Rail Station not far away.)

The benefits of rebuilding the station, Sen. Lewis said, are they expect it to increase ridership, take more cars off the road to help ease congestion and improve the environment and public health. He also mentioned the amount of time it has taken to get from the beginning to where the project is now.

He said the town now has full funding of approximately $50M to rebuild the station, which is programmed in the MBTA’s capital budget. He reported this project is a high priority project for the MBTA.

Sen. Lewis revealed the goal is to complete design and begin construction next year (which is, as has been outlined in this article, a goal the MBTA can never seem to reach). He added there are still several decisions to be made including whether to shut down the station completely during construction or partially and what to do about parking both during and after construction.

It would take a little more than two years to finish with a complete shutdown and approximately three if left partially open.

Nathan Rae, MBTA Project Manager, stated the main goals in this project are safety, accessibility, sustainability, resiliency, and operations. As far as funding for this project, Rae echoed Sen. Lewis stating that to date the Winchester station is in the books for approximately $50M. The MBTA spent some money in 2010 at the Wedgemere station. They spent about $2.2 million applying two new mini-high platforms and two accessible ramps. In total, the MBTA has invested $52.8 million in the Town of Winchester.

Rae also noted the project reached the 60 percent design phase and will hit 100 percent next month. Once they hit 100 percent, they will hold another public meeting, then advertise the project for construction in February. Construction could begin by next spring.

Town Manager Lisa Wong stated the public’s input is very important to this project. She explained, “there’s no such thing as too much communication on this project because of its importance and because of the accelerated timeline.”

This project will impact the town for the next 50-100 years so Wong stated the town wants to make sure that it’s done right.

(Michelle Visco contributed to this report)

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