April 27, 2012
HYANNIS, Mass. — Summer on the Cape means beaches, boating and sun. It's a boon for Cape businesses — but a hassle for everyone getting there, with traffic from Braintree to Bourne and beyond. An influx of tourists each summer doubles the Cape's population to 215,000.
Transportation officials expected to launch a new weekend train service from Boston to the Cape this summer to help ease that congestion. But with the MBTA facing its most significant budget crises in its history, the service is now on hold — and not because it would cost the MBTA money. It wouldn't. But with fare hikes and budget cuts on the table, launching a new train service to the Cape could be a political blunder.
A man, a plan
The plan was to spare weekend visitors from traffic by having a commuter rail train leave South Station bound for Hyannis on Friday evenings, Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. Passing through Middleboro Station, it would travel over Cape Cod's most-forgotten bridge: a railroad bridge in Bourne. Today, it's used only a few times a week by a seasonal dinner train, as well as by what's called the "trash train," because it hauls away the Cape's garbage.
This new service is known informally as the "tourist train." It would travel along state-owned tracks before arriving at the Hyannis Train Station and Transportation Center, where buses idle in the parking lot before heading to Boston … in the same traffic as cars.
On an upper floor of the transportation center is the office of Tom Cahir, the head of Cape Cod's transit authority and the person who first proposed the tourist train. He said a recent study concluded there's a demand for rail to the Cape. With the bridges handling 130,000 vehicles per day, people are looking for a car-free option.
"Quite frankly," Cahir said, "our plan was to have the plan commence Memorial Day weekend this year, 2012, and we told the folks doing the study that was our objective. And the guys came back to us with a report saying we could perhaps meet that objective."
All the necessary maintenance and repairs could be completed to meet the deadline and run the train safely this summer. But the report raised concerns about the MBTA's financial troubles — concerns Cahir shared.
"It does appear as though this service ... would be an expansion of the MBTA," he said, "at least that's how I would look at it, and I think the citizens of Massachusetts would look at it: ''What is the MBTA going to Cape Cod for when they haven't gone to Fall River and New Bedford yet, and they have all this debt and are raising fares?'"
To spare the MBTA any public perception problems, Cahir decided to put off the tourist train until next year, and in the interim to move forward with the maintenance issues the study identified.
"I should be very clear," Cahir said. "The MBTA never said, 'Tom, this might appear like expansion.' This is just from my knowledge, and I don't want to create any further headaches for them."
Politically, launching a weekend service during the MBTA's budget crises could be a mistake. But the irony is … the tourist train wouldn't cost the cash-strapped agency any money. Cape transit officials said no new equipment would be needed, and they estimated the train would attract more than 16,000 riders each summer at a fare of $20 each way. Combine that with parking revenue along the route and some federal dollars, and Cahir said the service will pay for itself.
"So it really would be a windfall for the MBTA rather than an expense," Cahir said.
Acting MBTA general manager Jonathan Davis said he relied on the judgment of Cape Cod officials as to when to begin the service. "However, we have the reality of having a budget deficit and we need to concentrate on what we're providing today. But I also think we should look at providing ways to expand service," he said.
Try again next year
Cahir was optimistic the tourist train will begin Memorial Day weekend 2013. But still, with projections indicating the service will bring more than $1 million in new tourist spending to the Cape, Chamber of Commerce director Wendy Northcross told WGBH News that she was disappointed with the delay.
"It is doubling frustrating when you look at the delays we're potentially suffering from bridge construction and bridge repairs and Massachusetts Department of Transportation repairs," she said. "It would just be nice to have that alternative to put up for the people, that you can get here without your car."
Cape transportation officials also are considering launching service between Hyannis to New York City in the coming years. By easing traffic congestion and including bicycle transportation on the trains, both plans are designed with the environment in mind. With train service, supporters say, there's no reason for a Cape Cod vacation to begin and end in traffic.
WGBH NEWS FOCUS: THE MBTA
John commented on 05.03.12
A summer time train from Boston to Cape Cod makes great sense: 1. The tourist business would stimulate the economy of the Cape. 2. A train, loaded with passengers, would keep a lot of cars off the bridges and highways to the Cape. (We have had a train to Gloucester for perhaps a century!)
Judith commented on 05.03.12
As a resident of Cape Cod for the last 19 years I have seen the traffic increase dramatically. In April, for example, I tried to carpool to Boston on a Sunday morning, but was held up more than half an hour waiting to get over the Sagamore Bridge, and so missed my ride! If it's like this in the spring, what will summer bring? We desperately need more public transportation to and from the Cape. It is unconscionable to delay the train, which is expected to pay for itself.
Albert commented on 04.27.12
I also want to add that with gasoline prices the way they are, why should the state support rail service to the Cape. The state has a good thing going collecting the tax on the gasoline sold on the Cape which is higher than the rest of Massachusetts.
Albert commented on 04.27.12
The delay is not so much surprising as it is disappointing. I am beginning to question Tom Cahir's so-called support of rail service to Cape Cod as the state scuttled previous plans for rail service which would have been run under the auspices of Cape Cod Central Railroad, and Mr. Cahir and other officials refused to step up to the plate. I think that Mr. Cahir and the state would have come up with another excuse had the MBTA not had a defecit. The rail lines on the Cape were renovated with millions of tax dollars in the 1980's but this low-cost o[ption is still being ignored. It's funny how the state and Mr. Cahir says the rail service would be a 'political blunder' with the so-called money problems in this state. Yet, there is money to continue the work on the Sagamore Bridge and the highways on the Cape. The rail service would have provided a traffic-free alternative to the gridlocked highway and Flyover. Yet this so-called 'progressive' state seems to be intent on protecting the bus monopoly and other vested interests, as well as catering to those folks who chose, of their own free will, to buy or rent houses next to the rail lines that have been in place and active for over 150 years. Actions speak louder than words, and by its actions, the state has shown contempt for the residents and visitors of the Cape, and kow-towed to the will of the oil, highway, and auto lobbies to keep Cape residents in traffic and air pollution in order to cater to them. Delaying this train again is more politically expedient than is a remedy to 'save money.' It's time for the people to speak up and demand that the state do a little 'housecleaning' in its transportation committees. Both on the Cape and in Boston.
James commented on 04.27.12
Both of the transit officials quoted in this story refuse to take responsibility for the delayed Boston/Hyannis service, which is sad but not unexpected. It is this kind of backward, conservative mindset that has allowed MBTA debt and deficits to grow out of control because of cronyism and concern about one's own political career, when officials should be pursuing what's best for the system - and the state. I didn't hear any real justification for delaying the new route but the message was clear: nobody in a position of authority at the MBTA has the guts to stand up and say (about this or any other issue), "We're doing this because it makes sense, end of story." I commend WGBH on its coverage of the MBTA this week and would encourage the station to make it part of an ongoing series. Perhaps some of the Authority's underlying issues - such as nepotism and entitled unions - might be exposed so there would be pressure for real change.