Monday, February 27, 2017

Auburndale is broken. Here's a way to fix it.

Recently the author of this page attended a public meeting about the Auburndale Commuter Rail station and found the process completely broken. Local advocates and lawmakers had obtained earmarked funds to build an accessible station—a necessary and laudable project—and gone to the MBTA for a design. The MBTA—mostly through the sheer incompetence of its project management team—had returned with an overpriced design which is likely unusable and should not see the light of day.

The design could have the effect of creating a single-track railroad at rush hour at Auburndale in order to maintain peak-hour service to and from Boston (see Dave's blog post for more). This may not even be possible, since before 9 a.m. there are 19 trains passing through Auburndale in both directions, and two tracks are needed. There was no evidence presented at the meeting that MBTA Railroad Operations has modeled the operations, and it's quite possible that if the current design is built, it will result in the elimination of peak-hour service to and from Boston at the Auburndale station (in order to avoid the "single track" operation). If this happens, the Federal Transit Authority could (and may likely, see Cleveland) demand to be repaid for the federal portion of the money since the FTA (rightly) does not like to be in the business of reducing transit service.

The long and short of this discussion is that, as currently designed, it would be a mistake to build the station. At best, it will be a monumental misappropriation of several million dollars, and a shining example of government waste and incompetence. At worst, it will result in reduced transit options for hundreds of commuters—or potentially degrade service for the 16,000 daily riders on the Worcester Line—and the real potential that the FTA would force the MBTA to pay back funds for the project, costing the state even more.

There is, however, a logical way to fix it. In my last post I posited that, for the same price as the Auburndale Station, high-level platforms could be built at all three Newton Stations. This, however, still creates operational issues with trains crossing over between tracks at rush hour, and also sets a poor precedent: no two-track railroad should have a platform built only on one side.

Before the Turnpike, there was a crossing under the railroad
between Auburn Street and Woodland Road.
So in this post, I'll explore how, instead of building a single platform and a crossover for $11.5 million, you could easily build a full, two-platform station for the same price. In addition, I believe that there is the potential to significantly improve accessibility and connectivity in Auburndale for mobility-impaired users as well as pedestrians and students. By leveraging the construction of the station, Auburndale can build a more cohesive walking network between the two sides of the village. (There's some precedent for this: the original pre-Turnpike station had an underpass near Melrose Street.)

Let's remember the numbers. The total cost of the project is $11.5 million, in the same ballpark as South Acton ($9.5 million) and Yawkey ($13.5 million), both of which are recently constructed two-platform stations with an overpass. According to the current Auburndale plan, the cost of the high level platform is $1.7m, the station canopy $810k, station systems $180k, site work $436k and parking modifications $1.6m. The rest—$6.7m—is for the new interlocking that a two-track station would not need. My proposal is as follows (a diagram is included further down this post):


  • Platforms would be built adjacent to both tracks. The track 1 (north side, adjacent to Auburn Street) platform would be built generally as currently designed. The track 2 platform (south side, adjacent to the Turnpike) would be built along the eastern portion of the current station and under Auburn Street. This allows the platform on this side of the tracks to avoid having a platform on the inside of a curve. High level platforms on the inside of a curve require a larger gap between the platform and the door of the train: a more dangerous "mind the gap" distance. The main station canopy would be shifted to track 2 where the bulk of boardings and alightings (inbound during the morning peak, outbound during the evening peak) occur. [See Note 1]
  • Access to track 1 would be much as currently designed, with a ramp accessing the platform from the parking area and another, shorter ramp (and stairs) providing access from near Melrose Street. Access to track 2 would be via a new pedestrian overpass built near Melrose Street. Access to the overpass would use a ramp from near the parking lot (which is already located about 10 feet above the railroad, mitigating the need for a particularly lengthy ramp) and from a set of stairs near Melrose Street. It is important to note that a new overpass over the railroad is required, rather than an accessible ramp or access to the track 2 side from the existing Auburn Street bridge. The Auburn Street bridge is too steep to meet design guidelines for access. [See Note 2]
  • On the track 2 side of the new pedestrian overpass, a stairway and elevators would provide vertical circulation from the overpass to the platform. This would be a bit of a mirror image of the setup at Yawkey Station, except the overpass would span both tracks. Neither track would need to be moved during construction. A separate stairway would provide secondary access and egress at Auburn Street (similar to the existing stairway there).
  • The new pedestrian overpass over the railroad tracks would align with Hancock Street on the south side of the Turnpike, both vertically and horizontally. This would allow a pedestrian bridge to be easily installed across the Turnpike between Hancock Street and the rail overpass. Most of the cost of such bridges is the cost of ramps, landings and abutments (the actual steel for the pedestrian bridge is relatively cheap, although a more attractive bridge—which might pay homage to the original HH Richardson design—may increase costs). By taking advantage of the elevation of Hancock Street and the need for an overpass to cross over the railroad for the station, these elements would be almost entirely in place. This would also obviate the need to build a walkway to Woodland Road as passengers desiring to access the station from Woodland Road could walk along Central Street or Auburn Street to access the station.


It's this last point which, I think, really makes the case for this plan for Auburndale Station because it not only improves conditions for the several hundred passengers who use Auburndale every day, but also provides better conditions for the rest of the neighborhood. It would provide:


  • An accessible pedestrian crossing between the business district to the north and the neighborhood to the south, something which none of the 1960s-era automobile-centric bridges provide.
  • Better access for many commuters since most anyone living south of the Turnpike would have a shorter walk to the station. [Note 3]
  • Much better and safer access to the Williams School from Auburndale Square; anywhere north of Commonwealth Avenue is in the Williams district. Students who currently walk along Auburn and Grove Streets or Auburn Street and Woodland Road—busier roads with dangerous intersections—would instead be able to cross over the Turnpike and walk up the much-quieter Hancock Street to access the school.
  • A more-connected neighborhood. Today, the distance between each crossing of the Turnpike in Auburndale is about 1500 feet. [Note 4] This is not a problem if you're in a car, but makes the neighborhood much less walkable. Adding a pedestrian connection would better connect the neighborhood's business district to nearby residences.


The marginal cost of this bridge would likely be about $300,000 (since most of it would be necessary for the construction of the station), or 3% of the total cost of the project, yet would have dramatic benefits beyond the Commuter Rail station.


The rest of the station could probably be built for the same cost as the now unneeded interlocking in the original/current design. Let's first assume that the need for a separate stand-alone canopy for track 1 would be obviated since the station would be partially covered by the overpass (and most passengers would board on track 2). Let's next assume that a platform on the south side costs the same as one on the north side: $3.2 million including a platform, canopy, station systems and site work. This leaves $4.3 million for the overpass, ramps and elevators (I am basing these estimates partially on the cost estimates for the Winchester Station project):


  • Ramps should cost about what an overpass costs, since a ramp is basically an inclined overpass. There new ramp would need to gain approximately 10 feet and would probably cost about $300k. (This seems to be in line with the costs of the much-more-extensive ramps at Winchester, which rise about 24 feet and cost about double.)
  • Each stairwell probably costs about two-thirds of a ramp (since stairwells are shorter and thus require less roofing and can be easily pre-fabricated). There are three stairways, one at Auburn Street and one on each side of the overpass: $600k, although it's possible the Auburn Street stairs could be reused.
  • The overpass over the railroad would likely cost double the cost of the overpass over the highway, or approximately $500,000.
  • Elevators are expensive, and you need two of them for redundancy. They cost about $1m each (which is why, if you can get away with not-very-long ramps on the north side, it makes both financial sense and accessibility sense to design a solution which doesn't require an elevator).
  • To allow wide freight passage, it might be necessary to install a "gauntlet track" to allow freight to move away from the platform. The cost for this in Winchester is $825k. (Considering how infrequently this would be used—a few times per year, at most—it could be built, like Winchester, with hand-thrown switches, and, when in use and if necessary, could block both tracks without major detriments to the schedule outside of rush hour.)

So the total cost of these elements would be just about $4.2m, leaving $100k for an overpass to Hancock Street (I swear I didn't add these numbers up to try to equal that number, it just happens that that is the case). There'd likely be some contingency, but several MBTA Commuter Rail bids have come in below estimates (Blue Hill Ave, for example), so it's possible it could actually cost less. In any case, the extra $200,000 for, say, a bridge to Hancock Street could be funded by the City, or perhaps even a Safe Routes to School-type grant.

Here's the drawing of how this could be implemented:




It is imperative that we get Auburndale Station "right." In its current configuration, the station woefully underserves the village and the surrounding neighborhood. The new station, as currently proposed, may be worse. We need Auburndale Station to be built with the operation—current and future—of the whole line in mind. If Auburndale Station can be built to provide better connectivity to the neighborhood, that's a large bonus. And if the station here can be upgraded within this budget, it will set a blueprint towards the eventual similar upgrades of West Newton and Newtonville, both of which have the same similar accessibility problems as Auburndale. As such, they need to be future-proofed.


Notes:

Note 1: The Worcester Line is left-running in the evening both to serve the one-platform Newtons as well as stations in Wellesley and Natick where it helps minimize the number of passengers who have to cross the tracks. Dave has an excellent blog post detailing this here.

Note 2: The bridges were designed in the early 1960s, well before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. The grade issues are both the overall grade as well as the cross-slope of the corners. If this is confusing, just imagine getting up from Auburndale Square to the top of the Auburn Street bridge in a wheelchair.

Note 3:  At the most extreme, it would shorten the walk to the station for someone living on Hancock Street by a quarter mile, although may residents who live south of the tracks would have a shorter walk to the station and Auburndale Square in general.

Note 4: This is significantly longer than similar distances between bridges in West Newton and Newtonville.

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