Photo by Ryan Mooney
Officials with the MBTA expect to find out by the end of the month whether they must complete an Environmental Impact Report in regards to the planned 715-space parking garage at the Salem commuter rail station, according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.
The MBTA filed a waiver with the Secretary of Environmental Affairs to avoid the EIR when it filed an expanded Environmental Notification Form. Construction is set to begin next spring if the waiver is granted, but the start could be delayed by 12-15 months if the EIR is required.
The waiver request has the support of Salem’s Historic Commission, Conservation Commission, the Salem Partnership, the Salem Chamber of Commerce, state Representative John Keenan, and Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry of Peabody.
Now it has the official endorsement of the Salem City Council as well, after support for the request was won by a vote of 10-1 at Thursday night’s meeting.
State officials take public comment into consideration when making their decision regarding the waiver, and though it may not change anything, it amplifies the message that the city wants this project done sooner rather than later.
“This statement …does not guarantee that a waiver will be granted, it’s merely a letter of support,” said Ward 5 Councilor Josh Turiel. “It’s just one more arrow being sent to try to encourage this waiver being granted.”
The Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency requires an EIR on the $39 million project – essentially a complete overhaul of the current train station, including the new garage, an indoor waiting area, elevated track, and other amenities – because it abuts the North River.
But the consensus on the council is that the expanded ENF adequately addressed the same issues the EIR would, including not just environmental impacts, but also historic preservation, traffic, and pedestrian access.
One of the strongest supporters of the waiver request has been Mayor Kim Driscoll, who argues that the largest obstacle facing the project now is time.
“We’ve seen far too often if you don’t start a project on time – especially one with state funding, and this has $35 million in state resources that are being brought to bear here – it could go away, it could disappear, it could go another direction, it could fund another project,” Driscoll said while speaking to the council on Thursday.
But the waiver request is not without its detractors, who believe that too many issues – pedestrian access from North Salem and traffic concerns chief among them – are not being addressed at all.
“The ENF is silent on improvement of pedestrian movement to and from North Salem,” said Jim Treadwell, a Salem resident and member of the Mack Park Neighborhood Association. “That is why I would support further analysis.”
Ward 2 Councilor Michael Sosnowski, who represented the only dissenting vote, takes particular issue with the future of Bridge Street, which is already a highly congested area at certain times of day.
“They have a great plan for once you’re inside the station, but they don’t have any plan for all that increased traffic,” Sosnowski said.
The current plans include only one entrance/exit point, and traffic experts have said that this is enough to handle the more than 47 percent increase in parking volume proposed at the site.
But as a resident of Salem who drives the city’s roads everyday, Sosnowski is not buying it.
“In my opinion traffic experts’ credibility has gone down the tubes, and I don’t believe them, it’s just as simple as that,” Sosnowski said.
Opponents also say that an EIR does not necessarily have to delay the project for so long, but Driscoll assured the council that the environmental review is a long and costly process that could jettison the project into bureaucratic purgatory.
The desire to renovate the station has been on the table for the better part of two decades, and supporters say that now is the time to finally break ground and make it happen.
“To delay it any further would be an injustice,” Councilor-at-large Tom Furey said.
“I look at the costs associated with the EIR … I don’t see the benefit that could come from it given the risk of the delay,” said Councilor-at-large Kevin Carr. “My preference would be to move forward with this.”
Ryan Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.