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Vote set on T link to R.I. airport

Train service would make it 75-minute trip

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 10, 2009

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The MBTA board is set to vote today on a long-awaited contract to extend Boston’s commuter rail service to the T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island - which should make it easier for Massachusetts travelers to use the popular alternative to Logan International Airport.

The agreement calls for service to begin in 2011, expanding the line that now runs between South Station and Providence. Tentative schedules show some one-way trips of about an hour and 15 minutes from South Station to T.F. Green in Warwick. To make the fastest times, the T would have to skip certain intermediate stops on some runs.

Once at Green, passengers would take a 1,500-foot moving sidewalk - now under construction and set to open next year - to the airline ticket counters. Rhode Island officials say they believe no rail line comes closer to an airport in the United States.

But the rail extension will also go beyond the airport, adding a total of 20 miles of commuter service in Rhode Island, culminating in North Kingstown. Rhode Island officials are spending a total of $336 million to upgrade existing tracks owned by Amtrak and to build two new stations, along with parking garages, a rental car facility, and the moving sidewalk, with the goal of transforming the state’s commuting patterns. The state will also pay $3 million a year to Amtrak for use of the tracks.

“This allows our citizens to have another option for commuting to work, or possibly even farther,’’ said Charles St. Martin, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.

Massachusetts will not pay any of the direct costs, but will continue to pay operating expenses on the Providence/Stoughton Line as part of its larger commuter rail system. The two states have operated under a similar deal for the past two decades, since commuter rail service to Providence began.

The MBTA keeps all ticket revenue and the state of Rhode Island contributes additionally to the T by absorbing costs on rail-related construction projects and rail cars. Over the past eight years, Rhode Island has contributed $11 million in project costs to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, St. Martin said.

James A. Aloisi Jr., the Massachusetts transportation secretary, said the newest expansion is an example of a broader effort to connect rail service throughout New England, which has been a recent focus as leaders from the states work on a regional rail plan that also includes high speed expansion. Connecting major cities and their airports by rail will change the way the region is viewed, he said. “Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we’ll be doing the same thing in Manchester and Concord, New Hampshire,’’ Aloisi said.

Amtrak’s Downeaster service linking Boston with Portland, Maine, has been popular, leading the nation in passenger growth last summer during the spike in gasoline prices. And the Providence/Stoughton line has consistently ranked as the MBTA’s busiest commuter line, with 2,000 people boarding daily in Providence alone, according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

The new convenience in getting to T.F. Green Airport could come at the expense of Logan Airport, which has been in heavy competition with the Rhode Island airport for low-cost passenger traffic. T.F. Green became more popular after an upgrade in 1996, which brought flights from Southwest Airlines to New England for the first time.

But Southwest added flights from Logan last month and the airport says it has more discount seats available than any airport in the region.

“It takes 10 minutes to go from South Station on the Silver Line to any terminal at Logan, versus more than an hour via commuter rail to T.F. Green,’’ said Matthew Brelis, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan.

Aloisi said he views the airport system as a regional one - including both Green and the airport in Manchester - and does not believe Logan will be hurt by the added rail connection to Rhode Island.

“It’s a good thing to have these choices for people,’’ he said. “I don’t see it as anything but a positive outcome.’’

Patti Goldstein, vice president of public affairs and air service marketing for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, said travelers choose an airport primarily based on the flights available to their destination. The rail connection would probably be a factor only for passengers choosing between similar options at both airports, she said.

The extension to T.F. Green has been talked about for more than a decade and was added in 2000 to Massachusetts’ Big Dig-related environmental requirements. Costs had held the project back in the past, said Peter Shelley, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, which used the threat of Big Dig lawsuits to force several transit projects but did not push for the Rhode Island extension.

“It’s great that they sorted out how to do it,’’ Shelley said. “It’s saving those trips and the traffic congestion around the airport for the local community.’’

Though the project depends on tracks owned by Amtrak, trains between New York and Boston will not stop at Green, according to Amtrak spokesman Clifford Cole . At this point, the connection to Green has no overhead electric wires, which Amtrak needs to power its trains, he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.