Greater City Providence

The Valley Breeze: Woonsocket looks to change zoning to allow train stop on Fairmount Street


Image from Google Maps

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.

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.

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.

Well this is all well and good, but doesn’t Woonsocket have a handsome station downtown already? This burned out mill site probably provides the opportunity for a lot of parking…

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.

Wha? Making an existing station handicapped accessible surely is easier than building a whole new station from scratch, no? But the RIDOT ownership making it less attractive!? Surely RIDOT should be hugely accomodating in turning a little used property back into a transportation oriented asset. Shouldn’t they? Am I crazy? Is the whole world crazy?

Sadly, I don’t actually know Woonsocket that well, I’ve only been there a few times. I’m not sure where the center of population is or where the center of employment (besides CVS) is. The Fairmount location could be more centrally located, someone please chime in on this.

The Fairmount location is not the better location so far as it interacts with RIPTA. It is only served by outbound RIPTA 87 buses, not at all by the 54. All buses in Woonsocket stop at the historic depot which would allow workers and residents access to and from the train, and by extension to and from Providence and Worcester.

I’m sad that RIDOT ownership of the existing depot is seen as such a great hurdle as to make the station unattractive to people developing a commuter rail line. I’m also dissappointed to see connections to RIPTA seemingly not being given too much importance. I hope that RIDOT makes an effort to correct this.

The good thing at least is Woonsocket is making the zoning changes needed to pave the way for this project. And it appears that the powers that be in Woonsocket see the benefit of rail connections to their city.

As a side note, from the air via Google, it appears there is actually plenty of parking at the old station, so that should not be seen as a deterrent.

[alert type=”muted”]See also: Worcester Telegram & Gazette: Worcester-Providence ‘JetBlue of rail commuting’ envisioned[/alert]

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • I agree with your points. Hopefully the new governor and her people will also!

  • I agree with you. The station in Woonsocket is not only nice in an abstract way, but is actually fixed up and right where the buses for RIPTA stop. This other location is inappropriate.

    By the way, Jef, you really should visit Woonsocket. I actually think it gets a bum rap. There are lots of pretty good restaurants at ridiculously cheap prices. Some good museums. The architecture is nice. It needs the usual ped/bike improvements, but I like the fact that it doesn’t have a highway dividing it anywhere, unlike certain cities in Rhode Island. . .

  • I assumed from the beginning that there was a land component to this proposal. Quite honestly, I was naively surprised by Jef’s suggestion that the old Alice Mill site provides a good opportunity for parking. It does. I guess I’ve been exposed to New York way too long where people like to make money and like to construct apartment buildings.

    Woonsocket is a dense urban core city. Much of it is poor, but not all. The city has a great potential for further revival, especially downtown east of the old train station generally around the super block between Social and Clinton Streets. Though the old mill site has great potential as well, as its riverfront and almost an acre.

    Even though the city is small and RI 146 and 99 are nearby, the center of the city is not that easy to access, especially with traffic. It might be a challenge for Boston Surface Rail Company, if they are counting on a substantial number of suburban commuters driving to the station.

    Here are a few examples of commute times by car. Granted times can vary depending on traffic in any direction:

    Manville, Lincoln
    to Fairmount St 10-min; to Dwtn Prov 15-min; to Dwtn Worc 33-min

    Diamond Hill, Cumberland
    to Fairmount St 15-min; to Dwtn Prov 17-min; Dwtn Worc 45-min.

    Sayles Hill Road, N Smithfield
    to Fairmont St 10-min; to Dwtn Prov 17-min; to Dwtn Worc 32-min.

    to Fairmont St 18-min; to Dwtn Prov 29-min; to Dwtn Worc 23-min.

    Couldn’t find the reference, but I remember reading a few months ago that the owners of Boston Surface Rail Company didn’t want to receive any funding from state sources, because, if they excepted money from the state(s), they felt that the state(s) could tell them where to locate stations along the route and what schedules to keep.

    Since RIDOT owns the historic train station, I suspect that Boston Surface Rail Company doesn’t want to use the existing station, because they don’t want to have to answer to RIDOT and also MassDOT, as they’re only stop in MA is Worcester.

  • I’m sad that RIDOT ownership of the existing depot is seen as such a great hurdle as to make the station unattractive to people developing a commuter rail line.

    I’m not. I’m actually pleased by this.

    Remember, this is predominantly a private enterprise seeking to set up their own private railroad operation, and more importantly, a private enterprise that has given numerous indicators that they have absolutely no clue what they’re doing. I said before that I didn’t think there was a way we (meaning the state(s) and transit interests) could actually lose in this deal – it’s all private money so the railroad either fails, struggles and ends up ceded to some other operator who does know how to run a railroad, or becomes a wildly successful venture to be built upon and augmented.

    At the time I wasn’t considering the fourth possible option, which is that it succeeds just enough to discourage public investment into the corridor but isn’t successful enough to actually serve as a functioning transit option. Related to that, one of the signs that this was mutating from a probably-harmless private enterprise into something with horrible implications for transit expansion in the state would be and is if the state was ceding control of its own properties to this private enterprise. As long as RIDOT isn’t happy to sell the station, it’s a good thing in my eyes.

    Remember, the ultimate goal of the so-called Boston Surface Rail Company is to establish a train with “business class” amenities that runs just three round trips a day and which fails to compete with expected travel times along 146 even in heavy traffic. Their priorities are in entirely the wrong place and while I’m not inclined to oppose private enterprise lighting its own money on fire, I don’t expect this train to last long or go down in history as anything other than a sterling example of how not to run a railroad.

    Now, since the Worcester and Providence stations are both in active use by other interested parties, they’re effectively untouchable. The rails themselves, owned by P&W, are also untouchable. The only piece of property that could be ceded to Boston Surface Rail Company for them to do whatever with is the station site in Woonsocket. Presumably, since their ultimate goal is making money, they’d want to purchase whatever property it is they ultimately use for their train station. That, in turn, means there’s a property in Woonsocket nominally in use as a private rail station which would be the first thing up for sale when this venture folds.

    If they want to build their own station on Fairmount Street so that it can be torn down and sold later, much like with the rest of this, I’m happy to say “let them waste their own money.” But I don’t want them acquiring property from the state that could potentially be sold off to other private enterprises later – and the less ability they have to disrupt legitimate transit, the better.

  • I understand what you’re saying as far as it goes, Ryan, but I feel like making Woonsocket station ADA compliant and allowing it to be used for a train station would be (very) low risk to RI. The station is already renovated, and probably just needs inproved ramps, and in my opinion it would be nice as an indoor congregation point for bus users regardless.

    In my opinion, the advantage of the Woonsocket station (as is) is that it’s the only of the three stations that’s (relatively) ped friendly. Worcester station and to a lesser but significant extent Providence station are both ped/bike unfriendly. Woonsocket should balance that in its column, alongside the fact that $8 from Woonsocket is already a tad expensive either direction and only makes sense to non-drivers. No one is going to park and ride this, especially in the Worcester direction (there’s zero traffic on 122 northbound, even if 146 is a mess).

    Also, let’s hope Worcester & Providence see how parking fits into this. A parking tax w/ a refund to businesses would make this train waaay more likely to succeed.

    And I’m not sure how to coordinate this w/o agreement from the company, but RIPTA should consider offering the operational cost of the 54 to this train to increase frequency and/or lower cost. I haven’t seen the numbers on this yet, but my feeling is that the 54 is a super inefficient trip with all its suburban detours, and I wonder if the $ would be better spent on this route. I mean, even at $4-6 a trip one-way, a double-fast train would help commuters more than the hour-long bus trip we currently have. What is the operational cost of getting half-hour frequency instead of 3x/day? I mean, there must be weird shift arrangements with such peaked service. Even 1x/hour each way would be doable with the more direct service this offers, especially if CF got a stop when the new station opens. I’d swallow the money for that.

  • Correct me if I am wrong, but there is single line track from just south of Worcester to the Central Falls line. The other track was removed for the Blackstone River Bikeway (which also crosses the tracks at grade along with numerous surface streets). Add in the freight traffic that already uses the line and you would end up with incredibly long headway.

  • I’m not aware thr bikr path, often on the old canal towpath, took away any tracks from the single track P&W line, I’d be surprised it the rr company would have agreed to that unless they wanted to abandon a 2nd track section anyway. Perhaps the bikr path makes adding another trak m n hour from downtown Woonsicket, ab54ore difficult.

    To clarify, Ripta does have a 59X express 3 times/day each direction with stops in Slatersville (43 min to downtown PVD,) Park Square Woonsocket, 31 minutes to PVD, and Lincoln Mall, 22 min to PVD. The 54 local, 37 trips/day each weekday, 25 on Saturday, 19 on Sunday, does take about an hour from downtown Woonsocket, 54 minutes from Park Square. It connects to a 51 local at CCRI. Fare just $2 for now.

    I don’t yet take this proposed rail service as a serious prospect, but its best to keep an open mind.

    Anyone know about Peter Pan Worcester-Providence bus service?

  • Anything that helps connect Woonsocket with the outside world is an improvement, especially if it can be done without state funding. I’m a little dubious of the need for a Worcester/Pvd commuter rail, but I don’t see how it could be a negative thing for Woonsocket. There are so many empty lots in the city from burned out Mills that there should be absolutely no problem using the Alice site for parking. I left Woonsocket when I graduated from High School in ’93 and it has been on a steady downward spiral since then. It’s an incredibly depressing place. Anything to give them a boost should be welcomed with open arms.

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