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For a Better Economy, Add Commuter Rail?

Trains pass through Pawtucket and Central Falls, Rhode Island, without stopping. Local officials think a new station may revitalize the two old mill towns.

A dilapidated stairway leads from railroad tracks to a sealed entrance of the abandoned Pawtucket-Central Falls train station, in Central Falls, R.I. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Dozens of Amtrak and commuter trains pass through the two forlorn Rhode Island mill cities of Central Falls and Pawtucket, every day without stopping.

In more prosperous times, both had direct rail service to Boston and New York. But, in 1959, the historic Beaux-Arts station on the border between the two cities closed and train service ended for good 22 years later. Now, local leaders are betting that building a new train station will help both cities latch onto economic forces that have left residents struggling with poverty, unemployment and even a municipal bankruptcy.

While Pawtucket and Central Falls today are fighting for survival, they were once economic powerhouses. After Samuel Slater kicked off America’s industrial revolution in 1793 with his innovative Pawtucket cotton mill, ever-larger mills powered the economies of both cities for more than a century. In 1916, a train station complete with marble staircases opened on the border of Central Falls and Pawtucket, becoming a busy stop between Boston and New York.

Today, the mills have moved out, and so have many of the people. After falling from mid-century peaks, the cities’ populations have been treading water, with 71,000 in Pawtucket (down from 81,000 in 1950) and 19,000 in square-mile Central Falls (down from 26,000 in 1930).

Rhode Island stopped funding Boston-bound commuter rail in 1981, only to bring it back in 1988 with rush hour trains to Providence, seven miles south. Service has expanded over the years, including new stations at Providence’s airport, in the southern suburbs, and a park-and-ride station just over the Massachusetts line, but Pawtucket and Central Falls were left out.

Over the past few decades, both cities have attracted immigrants—primarily from Latin America—while bearing the brunt of the recent foreclosure crisis. “We were one of the worst-hit states,” says State Rep. Carlos Tobon, “and we were one of the slowest to bounce back out of the Great Recession.” In Central Falls, a median household made just $28,842 in 2014, less than a thousand dollars above the federal poverty line for a family of five. Nearly one-third of Central Falls lives in poverty, more than double the national average.

Central Falls residents aren’t the only ones facing tight budgets: after falling behind on years of pension obligations, the city declared bankruptcy in 2011. It emerged from Chapter 9 the following year, but retirees were dealt big cuts to their pensions and landowners faced steep property tax increases. Adding insult to injury, its mayor Charles Moreau resigned in 2012 and was charged with accepting bribes in a scheme to board up vacant homes.

In a special election one month after Moreau stepped down, Central Falls elected then-27 year-old city councilman James Diossa as its first Latino mayor. Diossa focused on attracting new residents and investment, including a new train station.

Pawtucket and Central Falls have pushed for years to restore train service. In 2003, the Pawtucket Foundation, a business-backed non-profit, laid out a vision for restoring the historic station. A 2007 City of Pawtucket study recommended a new station immediately south of the historic one, a deteriorating structure that sits atop a difficult curved section of track. A study of statewide rail service in 2009 again proposed a new station.

Yet the project faced an uphill battle. Commuter rail expansions south of Providence had failed to meet ridership projections, leaving trains all but empty and costing the state millions of dollars. Many Rhode Islanders saw commuter rail as a boondoggle. “We were under some really tough scrutiny, and rightfully so,” says Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien. “That’s made it more difficult for us.”

Gina Raimondo, elected governor in 2014 on a promise to revive the state’s flagging economy, was cool to the idea of building a new train station. “I don't understand the logic behind why we would need one in Pawtucket when there is one in Providence,” the Democrat said in June 2015, six months after taking office.

Then something changed. A report on the state’s economy from the Brookings Institution, championed by Raimondo and released in January 2016, urged the state to focus on its competitive advantages, including its historic urban centers. It prioritized a new Pawtucket-Central Falls station to both improve access to Boston-area jobs and spur development in the heart of the two mill cities.

Riders load a bus headed for Providence in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Feb. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

“The Brookings study helped open up the conversation,” says Jan Brodie, executive director of the Pawtucket Foundation. She began meeting with Raimondo and the state Department of Transportation. In March, Rep. Tobon introduced a bill to allocate $10 million for the train station.

The bill didn’t pass, but the state committed $22.5 million in April as part of its application to the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. The cities agreed to chip in a combined $3 million for the $40 million project, which includes track and signal upgrades to accommodate a new stop without slowing down Amtrak trains. In July, the feds awarded $13.1 million, just shy of the $14.5 million the state was seeking.

The station has come under fire from the small-government Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, and other conservative critics are worried by the project’s ridership projections. The grant application estimates it would serve 519 riders daily, within the range of other Boston-area commuter rail stations. But most riders would be drawn from busy stations nearby, resulting in a net gain of just 89 new passengers.

Boosters say nearby stations need relief, and ridership will rise with development around the new stop. “Infrastructure like trains, train stations—originally our highways back in the sixties—the demand wasn’t there when they first got built,” Brodie says. “They are meant to be a catalyst for more.”

Within a half-mile of the proposed station just west of downtown Pawtucket lies a vast post-industrial park containing more than two million square feet of vacant or underutilized mill space. Half is owned or managed by Urban Smart Growth, a developer specializing in repurposing historic mills. The company, which has a representative on on the Pawtucket Foundation board alongside both mayors, racked up unpaid taxes in both cities as the property languished.

Phototubes protrude from an abandoned building at the Conant Thread-Coats & Clark Mill Complex, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Officials are optimistic the train station can unlock the area’s development potential. “There are 20 acres of development property out there,” Grebien says. “That’s the next phase of this.”

State tax credits already include bonuses for high-poverty areas and transit zones, and the mayors say tax-increment financing of station and street improvements, tax stabilization agreements, and rezonings are under consideration to spur development. The foundation’s role, Brodie says, is to guide the cities through this planning process. It wouldn’t be her first time: before starting at the Pawtucket Foundation earlier this year, Brodie led the state commission redeveloping 27 acres opened up after Interstate 195 was relocated away from downtown Providence.

The area surrounding the planned station has already attracted the new headquarters of Narragansett Beer and the old Union Wadding mill was converted into more than 200 apartments. Urban Smart Growth is now paying its taxes, according to both cities, and the company is beginning construction on live-work units near the train station site, with a goal of attracting artists.

Although Pawtucket and Central Falls are clamoring for new investment, the cities also have lots of low- and moderate-income households, including thousands of immigrants. New development around the train station could make the area more desirable and, therefore, less affordable.

“People from Boston are starting to find their way into this area, because of cheaper real estate,” Diossa says. “Obviously, it’s very difficult—and I don’t like to use the word—to stop gentrification.” But, he says, ensuring that new development doesn’t eventually lead to displacement is a top concern of the Central Falls planning department.

There are already 1,149 affordability-restricted units within a half-mile of the train station, according to the TIGER application, and the mayors want to build more. “Right now, we’re at the bottom level of pricing, and that’s what’s making it attractive,” Grebien says. “But you’ve got to put affordability into the new development.”

Even as plans move forward for a new train station and new development, prospects remain dim for the long-abandoned Beaux Arts station a few blocks up the tracks. A pharmacy and parking lot were built on part of the property in 2007, and a local church acquired the rest. Brodie has been meeting with the church, but there’s no development plan and the historic structure above the train tracks continues to decay with no one stepping up to shoulder the substantial cost of stabilizing and restoring the structure.

“It’s going to become a hazard on that line. It’s just a matter of time,” Tobon says. “At some point, we’re going to have to make a tough decision and say whether we’re going to knock it down.”

In the meantime, there’s a lot of optimism for development around the new train station.“It’s walkable. It’s bikeable. It extends downtown,” Brodie said. “The time has come. Both cities have mayors who are willing to do what it takes.”

About the Author

  • Stephen Miller
    Stephen Miller, a Rhode Island native, is a journalist living in New York.