MBTA officials gave the green light Thursday to begin the work of acquiring a 24-acre plot of land in Boston, where they hope to build a commuter rail layover facility that will be "foundational" to future expansions and service improvements.
The MBTA Board voted unanimously in favor of launching negotiations to take control of a Widett Circle parcel, tucked up against Interstate 93 about one mile south of South Station, for potentially more than $100 million.
That land has a long list of upsides for the MBTA, officials said at a board meeting, including its location so close to a major commuter rail hub and directly adjacent to an existing T service and inspection facility.
If the acquisition is successful, the MBTA would use the plot to construct a new location to store trains during midday layovers, which chief real estate officer Richard Henderson said would scale back the use of South Station platforms by idling trains, increase capacity on the network, and reduce congestion on the Fairmount Line.
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Existing commuter rail facilities are already "at or beyond capacity," Henderson said.
Henderson said the MBTA is seeking to acquire a 19.4-acre parcel owned by the New Boston Food Mart Corporation and a 4.8-acre parcel that was formerly a cold storage facility. The T will work to provide relocation services to holdover licensees.
The T and state Department of Transportation have had their eyes on parcels near Widett Circle for "decades," according to MBTA Chief Administrative Officer David Panagore. Officials believe the site would serve as a linchpin for planned changes to the commuter rail network, which include a long-term transition to electrified trains and more frequent service.
"This is a foundational element for a lot of the ideas and a lot of the thinking about the future of commuter rail," said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak. "They are not creating new land in downtown Boston, and this is the opportunity to secure this parcel once and for all. For many of us, this has been a quest that has spanned across multiple years, perhaps multiple administrations, and we are now in a position to get it done."
"There's tremendous amount of interest and work to do for the future of rail. There is no scenario that does not depend on this central site," added Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler. "This has truly been decades in the making."
It's not yet clear how much the MBTA will spend on the project. MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the cost to acquire the land "is to be determined based on negotiations with the current owners, followed by concurrence by the Federal Transit Administration."
During Thursday's meeting, Henderson said a previous interagency services agreement between MBTA and MassDOT authorized $100 million in state funding for the transaction. The board's vote on Thursday increased that amount to $155 million.
"We're able to move this forward with no needed help from any additional T resources other than those already programmed and planned," Tesler said.
MBTA negotiations are not targeting city of Boston roads and a Boston Planning and Development Agency parcel, and T officials will communicate with city leaders about the future of Boston assets in the area, Henderson said.
The MBTA included plans for a rail yard at Widett Circle when it filed documents for its South Station Expansion project, and both state and federal agencies approved permits for the rail yard through that process.