Woonsocket looks to change zoning to allow train stop on Fairmount Street

Woonsocket looks to change zoning to allow train stop on Fairmount Street

WOONSOCKET - If a passenger train is coming through the Blackstone Valley, Planning Director N. David Bouley wants Woonsocket to be ready.

Boston Surface Rail Company has proposed establishing commuter rail service between Worcester and Providence, but still needs to conquer a few regulatory hurdles and negotiations with some involved parties.

If they're successful in establishing the new passenger lines, Woonsocket would be home to the train's only additional stop between Worcester's Union Station and Providence's Station Building starting in 2016.

BSRC, a private Massachusetts-based firm, plans to work in collaboration with Providence and Worcester lines, the company that owns and operates the targeted tracks with freight service. The passenger line would run three times a day and would cost around $16 each way, possibly with discounts for regular commuters.

This week, the City Council took a first step toward preparing Woonsocket for the possibility, receiving an ordinance that would adjust zoning laws to allow passenger terminals to be operated in non-residential zones.

The ordinance would permit train stations in areas designated C-1,C-2, MU-2, I-1 and I-2, and in MU-1 zones with a special use permit.

While the change authorizes terminals throughout the city, Bouley said it is prompted by BSRC's hope to create a stop at 85 Fairmount St., the property that held the Alice Mill building before it was obliterated by a massive fire in 2011. The building had been purchased by Steve Triedman in 2010 in hopes of establishing a wood pellet manufacturing business.

Now, Triedman is reportedly in talks with BSRC General Manager Vincent Bono about establishing a station in the Fairmount neighborhood.

"They're expecting to be in place in 18 months," Bouley explained.

A website for BSRC, a new entity for which Bono is the largest shareholder, gives few details about the company's plans, but dubs it "The next frontier in commuter transportation." The project is expected to cost about $3 million to set up and operate, with the rail line rented from P&W.

The trains would also potentially use P&W engineers, with BSRC employees acting as ushers and serving food and alcohol.

Tickets for the weekday service would be purchased online and would come with assigned seating.

According to a December report in the Worcester-based Telegram and Gazette, a recent test run along the line took one hour and 45 minutes, but Bono's goal is around a 70-minute trip time.

A study is underway to look at improvements and upgrades that could make the trip more efficient and shorten the time.

Inevitably, the trains would move faster than the current freight lines that can occasionally be spotted chugging past city streets and alongside the Blackstone Valley Bikeway. The federal government mandates speed limits of 40 miles per hour for freight and 60 miles per hour for passenger service.

The project must still obtain approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.

According to Bouley, the company faces an additional hurdle in working with Amtrak to complete the last leg of the journey. Currently, he said P&W tracks fall 45 feet short of BSRC's proposed destination on the Providence side, so the trains could need to use Amtrak lines.

From city officials' perspective, commuter rail service is considered an asset, granting Woonsocket residents greater access to jobs in the two larger neighboring cities, and city companies access to a larger pool of potential employees.

New legislation, passed along to the Planning Board this week for recommendation, explains.

"Currently, construction of a passenger terminal/station is not a permitted use under the zoning ordinance of the city. This ordinance would correct that deficiency and assist in permitting the development of this desirable community asset."

At the City Council meeting this week, Councilor Garrett Mancieri said he wanted to make sure the new ordinance also addresses the train depot on Main Street.

Currently, the Polar Express is stationed at the depot, offering holiday entertainment aboard trains during weekends in November and December.

Bouley said he does not believe the weekday service would have a great effect on the holiday-themed rides, operated by the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.

"My understanding is it would be negligible," the planning director said.

Bouley said that the Main Street station is not handicap accessible and is owned by the state Department of Transportation, creating more regulatory hurdles that make it less attractive to the investor.

City administrators have indicated they will do all they can to help the deal go through.

"We are trying to stay active with this potential investor," said Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt. "This is the location he's looking at and it's on the rail."

A public hearing on the zone change is set for Monday, Feb. 2.