State Rep: Pawtucket commuter rail good ‘Plan B’ if PawSox leave

Artist's rendering of the proposed Pawtucket Commuter Rail stop.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed Pawtucket Commuter Rail stop.

By Kim Kalunian, WPRO News

The city of Pawtucket looks poised to lose the Pawtucket Red Sox, but one state rep is hoping to fast-track a plan to fill the void.

Freshman state Rep. Carlos Tobon, a Pawtucket Democrat, has introduced a bill that would provide the city with $20 million to develop a commuter rail stop near the Central Falls border.

With the conversation as of late so heavily focused on the PawSox and their potential move to Providence, Tobon says it’s time to start crafting a Plan B for the city. He thinks the commuter rail could be just that.

“I’m fighting hard to make sure the Red Sox have a chance in Pawtucket,” said Tobon in an interview with WPRO News. “But then I think that the conversation has to shift. I’ve been talking about how Plan A and Plan B have to be simultaneous: Plan A is keep them in Pawtucket, Plan B has to be, ‘What if?’ What are we going to do to substitute whatever losses we may have?”

Tobon said the commuter rail could be the boost that the city needs. He thinks it could stimulate the local economy, and encourage people from Massachusetts to relocate to Pawtucket or nearby Central Falls.

“Besides our identity in Pawtucket taking a hit and our culture of the Red Sox and the financial part of it, the other end of it is that, you know what, let’s not let this be our demise,” Tobon said. “Let’s not let this bring us down, we can reinvent ourselves…. I think this could be a big game changer.”

The plan for a Pawtucket commuter rail stop is nothing new – it’s been in the works for years, and the most recent public meeting about it was held in January. But Tobon says his bill would stop the talking and hoping, and begin a real process culminating in construction.

The proposed stop would be similar to the one in South Attleboro and wouldn’t be a full-blown train station. The plan would establish the rail stop off Barton Street and use the site of the old Union Wadding Building – ravaged by a massive fire in 2010 – for parking.

Tobon says the expense of building the platform would be minimal, with the bulk of the cost coming from the addition of another rail.

Tobon is asking either the R.I. Department of Transportation or the Commerce Corporation to find the $20 million to put into the budget, possibly by borrowing the money; the federal government would provide matching funds. Tobon says with the increased economic activity and rise in property values from the new rail stop, the project would create revenue for the state and offset the upfront cost.

But even if lawmakers give the plan the green light, Tobon’s bill says Pawtucket voters must sign off on the plan, too. Pawtucket would put a question on the ballot in 2016.

“If we take a proactive stance and get the community behind it, we have a very diverse community that is looking to be more involved and really immerse themselves, now we have to give them something to fight for,” he said.

Tobon says the Pawtucket commuter rail stop will be different from the new one in Wickford – earlier this month, Channel 12 reported Wickford Junction’s train passenger numbers have been consistently lower than expected and the station is operating at a loss.

“There wasn’t a whole lot going on there already,” said Tobon about Wickford. “We’re talking about Central Falls and Pawtucket, just right there, there’s 100,000 people.”

He also said there have been feasibility studies that project 1,500 to 1,900 daily boardings by 2030 at a Pawtucket-Central Falls station.

Tobon’s bill has been referred to the House Finance Committee, though it’s unclear how it will fare this session.

“I’m going to fight very hard for it,” he said.