Downtown reconstruction update: Easement progress; another wrinkle in project at train tracks (Updated)

by beth on March 4, 2021

Post image for Downtown reconstruction update: Easement progress; another wrinkle in project at train tracks (Updated)

Above: Extended curbed sidewalks might not be the only addition to downtown Main Street through the Town’s reconstruction project. It appears that a CSX requirement may lead to a crossing gate at the tracks. (image cropped from photo posted to flickr by Kevin Baird)

The Chair of the Board of Selectmen gave fellow members good news on progress over easement issues related to the downtown reconstruction project. It was followed by a project update that left the Board unsettled about another element of the project.

Property Dispute Update

According to the Chair, the property dispute between the owner of Mauro’s Village Cafe and the railroad company won’t stand in the way of the infrastructure project. He recapped a “very good” conversation he had with the property owner. He ended with his plan to move ahead with easements while staying out of the private dispute.

Chair Marty Healey explained that Shawn Mauro, owner of the Cafe, is in favor of the planned downtown improvements. (In addition to fixing streets and installing sidewalks to bring more area pedestrians downtown, the project includes fixes to drainage problems. In the past, Mauro has publicly spoken about his upset over drainage problems causing street flooding in the area.)

CSX Transportation has made demands in exchange for easements the Town has sough for needed work. They included two that impact the Cafe’s property. The first was that the Town install curbing to the end of its property line along new sidewalks in front of the restaurant – 33 feet from the center of the tracks. According to Healey, Mauro was fine with that. He purportedly felt that the curbing wouldn’t impede access for his parking lot. It could even improve the handicap parking area.

As for the second requirement by CSX, it would be objected to by Mauro. CSX instructed the Town that they would need to install barriers along the railroad’s property line as part of the project.

downtown CSX crossing (from Google Maps)As I previously posted, that would cut into part of the area the restaurant uses for parking. CSX and Mauro’s disagree over an area of land that his family has used and maintained for years.

While Healey wasn’t sure that the restaurant has a legal standing, he said that he didn’t believe the Town should be in the middle of a private dispute. He indicated the Town would be willing to help the parties mediate a solution. But he wouldn’t have the Town install a barrier on the private property.

Other selectmen nodded in agreement. Healey instructed Public Works Superintendent Karen Galligan that she was now free to pursue an easement agreement with CSX. (No one indicated concern that CSX might push back over the Town not installing barriers.)

Sidewalks complication

A subsequent update from Galligan raised an issue related to sidewalks, but not the curbing. This one relates to an unanticipated expense selectmen were not happy to learn about.

The DPW chief sought feedback from the Board on an unanticipated cost based on a CSX demand. According to Galligan, if the Town installs sidewalks that properly cross the train tracks, CSX requires that the Town replace the crossing signal with a crossing gate.

The requirement is a safety measure by the railroad company to protect pedestrians from crossing when a train is coming. She referred to the train only crossing about twice per week.*

The cost would be approximately $300K. Selectmen appeared startled by the news. Upon questioning, Galligan explained the requirement wasn’t new. Selectmen were just hearing about it because she hadn’t initially realized how expensive the equipment was. 

The Town could avoid the cost by keeping sidewalks from crossing the tracks. Sidewalks would instead end in ADA compliant ramps that allow pedestrians to cross to the sidewalk on the other side of the road. It would effectively be similar to the current layout where pedestrians cross the tracks by walking directly on the road. 

Galligan asked if she should pursue funding the crossing gate through the state’s transportation bond bill.

This winter, the Governor signed into law a bill that included $500K for Southborough “in authorizations aimed at improving local pedestrian and bicycle travel”. However, at the time that I shared that news, it included a qualifier from State Representative Carolyn Dykema. She explained that the Governor would need to release capital authorizations before they become available to the town.

On Tuesday, Town Administrator Mark Purple cast doubt on that happening. He told the Board that he spoke about the issue with Dykema. He reported that she was doubtful the capital request would rise to the level necessary to get the Governor to release the funding.

Alternatively, Galligan said she might be able to cover the cost through Chapter 90 funds.**

Selectmen were clearly unhappy with the additional cost. However, they were also against investing in the infrastructure project without doing it properly. Referring to a resident who lives at Colonial Gardens and travels to and from downtown by wheelchair, Healey said that wheelchairs crossing the railroad weren’t just hypothetical. Galligan was encouraged to look at whatever funding options were available.

*I used to live closer to the tracks. Unless the situation has changed, I believe that twice per week likely refers to daytime crossings. I recall the train also crossing at 10:00 pm at night. Perhaps a reader who lives close to the tracks can comment on the actual frequency.

**Chapter 90 funds are apportioned to the Town by the state to reimburse expenses for approved projects such as “Capital Improvement Projects for Highway Construction, Preservation and Improvement Projects that create or extend the life of Capital Facilities”.

Updated (3/5/21 9:10 am): I incorrectly referred to Steve Mauro instead of Shawn Mauro as the property owner that Marty Healey spoke with. My apologies.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kevin March 4, 2021 at 3:12 PM

As suggested by one of the footnotes to this report, the DPW superintendent is, indeed, incorrect in thinking that CSX trains only pass through the town center twice a week. There are regular nightly trains (still around 10 p.m.) as well as trains that pass through during daylight hours on a variable basis. In any case, whether there were trains twice a week, twice a day, or only twice a year, a downtown revitalization plan lacking an ADA-compliant pedestrian railroad crossing–given that the railroad cuts right through the heart of the proposed district–is inconceivable. Unanticipated cost to the town: $300,000. The reaction of the Board of Selectman to the revelation struck this observer as something more than “startled” (and rightly so!), but folks can review the exchange for themselves at the three hour and forty-nine minute mark of the video on YouTube. In all, the episode appears to be still another sign that the downtown initiative is being rushed toward a vote at town meeting without an acceptable consideration of its full impact on residents and taxpayers. While I respect the work that town officials have done until this point, should it come to it, voters need to be prepared to apply the brakes themselves.

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2 Peter March 4, 2021 at 9:26 PM

I have lived a block away from the train tracks for 60 years and I can assure you the train passes through twice a day. It goes up during the day and back down at night. (Used to be morning and late afternoon, but the tracks are in such bad shape they have to travel slowly and the trip to Fitchburg and back takes much longer)

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3 Kris March 5, 2021 at 8:22 AM

I can assure you it’s not because the track is in bad shape. I would say they are in good shape for the line as a whole. It has to do with the signal crossings on the line and where the sensors are related to speed. The sensors are placed to accommodate 10 MPH. Anything more would need a whole revamp and new infrastructure.

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4 John March 5, 2021 at 9:54 AM

Kris, the line IS in that bad shape – FRA (Federal Railway Administration) Class 1 track (not to exceed 10 MPH). The track circuits for the crossing lights used to be much further down the line, but they were shortened as CSXT has no intention on bringing the line up to a higher speed standard (FRA Class II – 25 MPH).

Conrail was mandated to bring the line up to Class II standards in the 1970s because the train hauled a lot of hazardous materials through town (propane and vinyl chloride for the chemical/plastic plants in Fitchburg). Once the chemical/plastics plants closed, and Suburban Propane stopped receiving shipments by rail, Conrail and CSXT let the line fall into the current state. CSXT had to do some track work in the past few years replacing ties and bad joint bars in order to maintain the FRA Class I minimums.

The train currently runs up to Leominster (now the end of the line) where a new recycling customer just cam on line, and back Sunday through Thursday, and either Friday or Saturday depending on crew availability. The line is not a through line, and is used only to serve a handful of customers along the line in Marlborough, Northborough, Lancaster, and Leominster.

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