WOONSOCKET — In a city desperate for a jolt of economic euphoria, almost nothing makes civic heads swoon like the notion of commuter rail. Just look what it did for nearby Franklin, one of the fastest-growing towns in Massachusetts during the 1990s.
The idea gained traction after a preliminary study several years ago, but it, along with many other great ideas, crashed into the Great Recession.
Now State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket) has a plan for putting commuter rail back on track. She says the state could finance the endeavor with a piece of the $2.4 billion in federal transportation funds rejected by the state of Florida.
In a letter to U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Baldelli-Hunt urged him to seek the funding on behalf of the state so that it could be funneled into a rail link to Providence, a project she says would ease rush-hour gridlock on Route 146, benefit the environment and perk up the local downtown.
“In addition to putting existing resources to better use, taking cars off a congested route and better enabling northern Rhode Islanders to access employment and other opportunities in Providence, a commuter rail would undoubtedly have a positive impact on Main Street, bringing commuters who will be looking for the convenience of nearby shopping, dining and other services.”
Baldelli-Hunt sent a copy of the letter to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who has pledged to help the state's Main Streets rebuild after the economic drubbing they've endured in recent times.
Baldelli-Hunt says this wouldn't be the first time she and Reed, along with city officials, have broached the notion of resurrecting commuter rail, once a staple of a vibrant system of mass transit in the region. Not long ago, the senator took part in a roundtable discussion on the topic at the onetime Providence & Worcester train station here known as One Depot Square.
The use of P&W lines – they move freight through the city every day, but not people – is an integral part of Baldelli-Hunt's vision for restoring commuter rail service in the city.
Baldelli-Hunt's enthusiasm for the idea resurfaced amid news that Providence is considering a two-mile-long streetcar system at a cost of $76 million.
A Providence-to-Woonsocket rail link is a far more practical concept, Baldelli-Hunt says.
“Starting a commuter rail line on existing track connecting the urban core of Woonsocket to Providence, where many area residents work, would be a far more effective use of transportation funding than a short and expensive new streetcar route in an area already well-served by public transportation,” she said.
The lawmaker wants Reed to secure at least a share of the $2.4 billion that Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected in February for high-speed rail expansion in his state. Actually, Reed and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse announced weeks ago they intended to go after the money, making Rhode Island one of at least a dozen states vying for the Florida pie, according to a recent tally.
Baldelli-Hunt said a commuter link between Woonsocket and Providence would require “just a fraction” of the pot to get established.
With sufficient demand, she said, the service could be extended to Worcester, since the tracks already go there. In Providence, passengers could make connections to T.F. Green Airport, RIPTA buses or additional train lines operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and Amtrak.
While rush-hour traffic on overburdened Route 146 points up the need for the project, skyrocketing gas prices add a new element of urgency, Baldelli-Hunt says.
City Planner Jane Talbot says a 2009 feasibility study commissioned by the city confirmed that sufficient demand for a commuter link between Providence and Woonsocket already exists. The study urged the city to persuade the state Department of Transportation to add the proposal to its list of long-range capital improvements for statewide travel, but that never happened.
“It was left that there just wasn't any funding for it,” said Talbot. “If we could get funding that would be awesome.”