The obligation to upgrade the Waverley Station

Update on June 13, 2016: Waverley Station will remain open as is for 10 years

I today received notice of the recent formal decision by the Architectural Access Board giving the MBTA a 10 year time variance for the improvement of the Waverley station. The AAB is allowing the MBTA to place a higher priority on accessibility improvements at more heavily used stations. The Waverley station will be allowed to remain open as is during this 10-year time variance period. Click here to read the AAB’s decision letter.

Update on March 25, 2016: Waverley Station likely to remain open

I met today with MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola about the future of the Waverley Station.

He explained that MassDOT and the MBTA are well along in their capital planning process. In a recent presentation about the overall MassDOT capital plan (at page 21), MassDOT announced the intention to spend $150 million on accessibility upgrades for the MBTA:

Having completed accessibility improvements at designated key stations, the MBTA has launched its Plan for Accessible Transit Infrastructure (PATI) to identify the next generation of accessibility investments and $150 million is proposed to fund both design and construction work at specific stations as the PATI work advances.

The specific project list has not been released, but the General Manager indicated that Waverley would not be on the list — other stations that are more heavily used are clear higher priorities for access improvements.

The General Manager indicated that the MBTA will be seeking a “time variance” from the Architectural Access Board — keeping the accessibility upgrades of the station on the long-term to-do list, allowing the station to remain open and hoping to reach it as a project in the future. If the AAB allows this variance, the station will remain open. Given the large investment that the MBTA is making in accessibility, it would be reasonable for the AAB to allow the variance.

Update on January 22, 2016: No Pleasant Street Station.

The MBTA and the Town of Belmont held a meeting for public input on Monday, November 16 at 7PM at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech Street, Belmont. The MBTA outlined two options for responding to the order to make the Waverley Station compliant:  (1) Invest in new platforms and ramps or elevators at Waverley or (2) Build a new station along Pleasant Street.

I’ve met today with representatives of the MBTA regarding the future of the Waverley Station.

The MBTA has been devoting considerable attention to internal conversations about how to resolve the questions created by the AAB’s ruling related to Waverley.

The MBTA was able to report today that they have concluded categorically that they will not pursue a new station located between Waverley and Belmont Center.

However, they are still working on defining the options for Waverley station itself given the requirements of the AAB.

I will stay close to this process and further report as soon as the options are defined.

How is it that a $400,000 maintenance investment by the MBTA in the Waverley station could trigger an obligation to spend tens of millions to make the station fully accessible, or in the alternative, to close the station?

Background — the Architectural Access Board

In 1967, Massachusetts led the way on disability access by creating a board with the authority to make regulations to assure that construction is attentive to the mobility needs of all. The subsequent national Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a much broader civil rights law which requires non-discrimination in construction (although it does not specify a detailed building code).

The Massachusetts board’s original scope and its first set of regulations were limited to buildings constructed by the Commonwealth and its cities and towns with public funds. In 1971, the legislature broadened the board’s authority to cover privately-financed buildings open to the public and also, specifically, transportation terminals.

In the 1986 revision of the board’s authority, the legislature gave the board its current name — the Architectural Access Board. Under its current statutory authority, the AAB has promulgated a full set of construction regulations that is, by law, incorporated as a part of the state’s building code.

Local building inspectors are the first line of interpretation and enforcement for the AAB’s regulations, as they are for the rest of the state’s building code. However, the AAB will directly hear applications for a variance from the regulations and also complaints from persons who feel that the AAB’s regulations have been violated. The AAB has a small staff and a considerable backlog.

Applicability of Architectural Access Board Rules

The AAB’s current enabling legislation is silent on the question of when maintenance or partial remodeling work will trigger an obligation to make an entire structure accessible. The AAB has, by regulation, decided that an owner must make a building fully accessible if they do work costing more than 30% of the “full and fair cash value” of the building, defined to exclude the land it sits on.

The full and fair cash value is generally to be determined by reference to municipal tax assessment records — which are based on market value. The regulations do allow the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has a computerized inventory of its structures, to use the replacement cost, as appearing in that inventory, instead of assessed market value.

By law, the AAB’s rules apply to transit terminals. However, the AAB has not developed a specialized value computation for MBTA transit terminals as it has for Commonwealth buildings. The AAB applies municipal market value assessments in determining whether transportation terminals should be upgraded.

Clearly, this methodology needs to be reevaluated. There is no market for transit terminals and therefor municipal assessors cannot compute a meaningful market value for them. Further, assessors have no incentive to carefully value transit terminals since they are tax-exempt. So, the valuation is more or less arbitrary and may tend to be on the very low side as compared to the actual replacement cost of the terminals. It would be much more reasonable and consistent with the AAB’s general philosophy — which is not to trigger a full reconstruction obligation in the case of minor improvements — to use some kind of replacement cost concept.

However, so as to minimize value manipulation and litigation, the AAB has chosen to use independent records with pre-assigned values as the basis for its decisions — either municipal assessment records or the Commonwealth’s building inventory. Conceivably, as the MBTA continues to strengthen its capital planning process, an acceptable published value metric could become part of a new methodology for AAB decision-making about transit terminals.

How the Architectural Access Board applied its rules to Waverley Station

In Feburary 2013, the AAB ruled that MBTA improvements to Waverley Station triggered an obligation to make it fully accessible. In July 2013 the AAB made a separate determination that a variance from AAB regulations should not be granted in that reconstruction.

In both of these rulings, the AAB found it should order a full reconstruction based on the station value appearing in Belmont assessment records. One can view the parcel map for the town of Belmont online. The relevant parcel is 520 Trapelo Road and one can also view the assessment record for that parcel online. The Assessors in Belmont had assigned a value of zero to buildings on that parcel and $44,000 to the parcel as a whole in 2012.

The board stated in its 2013 ruling:

The Board established jurisdiction pursuant to 521 CMR 3.3.2 which states that, “[i]f the work performed, including the exempted work, amounts to 30% or more of the full and fair cash value (see 521 CMR 5.00) of the building the entire building is required to comply with 521 CMR.” Since the cost of the work performed amounted to $353,280.71 and the value of the facility at the time was $44,000.00, the work performed exceeded 30% of the full and fair cash value of the facility, therefore requiring that the entire facility be brought into compliance with the applicable requirements of 521 CMR.

In fact, according to the assessors’ records, the value of the buildings on the property were zero, not $44,000, as the board stated. The board should probably have referred to its regulation 3.8 which allows it to consider the entire land value when reviewing outdoor facilities. Either way, that stunningly low valuation is a great illustration of the need for reconsidering the AAB’s approach to valuing transit terminals. Even the smallest repair job at the station, costing 30% of $44,000 or $13,200, would trigger an obligation to spend millions, based on this methodology.

At first glance, it is surprising that the MBTA’s attorneys conceded the valuation at $44,000. However, it appears unlikely that they could have made an alternative presentation that would have led to a different outcome for the following reasons.

  1. If the attorneys had argued that  “no assessed value exists”, given the zero valuation of the building, the board would have properly turned to the land value which clearly does exist, although it appears wildly low.
  2. If the board nonetheless agreed to an alternative appraisal by a certified appraiser or professional engineer (which the regulations do allow for transit facilities when no value exists), the board would still have been working with a market value concept under its regulations.   Given the odd shape of the property, its location in the middle of an intersection, the fact that the property is zoned as a parking lot and the fact that to use it fully, one would have to bear the expense of air rights construction, the market value might be, in fact, near zero.  Since the work cost $353,280.71, the appraisal would have to be roughly $1.2 million or more to avoid the full reconstruction obligation.
  3. Even if the property were appraised at that level, and the board found no full reconstruction obligation, the MBTA would have an obligation to comply with AAB regulations in the work it actually did.  The MBTA did, in fact, arguably violate the AAB’s regulations in how it did the work it did:  It repaved the platform, but did so at ground level, in violation of AAB regulations for transportation terminals which require level boarding.
  4. If the MBTA had complied with AAB regulations in the platform reconstruction, the cost of even that limited work would have gone up considerably.  The property valuation necessary to avoid a full reconstruction would have been proportionately higher and almost certainly far above any reasonable market valuation of the facility.
  5. In fact, the cost of compliant platform construction might reach 30% of the cost of a full reconstruction of the facility, so that even under a replacement cost methodology, the AAB might have reached the same conclusion — but that is a merely theoretical issue since the then applicable regulations did not allow a replacement cost approach.
  6. Finally, even if the work were found to remain below the 30% threshold, the regulations require that if work exceeds $100,000, then accessible entrances must be addressed and that is the issue that drives most of the cost in a reconstruction anyway. The board’s regulations do provide an exclusion for projects under $500,000 in “underground transit facilities”. However, although Waverley is below grade it is not underground and, in any event, this exception is understood by the MBTA to be applicable to track and signal work as opposed to terminal work per se.

When, after the order finding that regulations required reconstruction, the MBTA came back seeking a variance from the regulations that would allow it to avoid a full reconstruction, the variance was properly denied. The standard on a variance is defined by statute.

[I]f the board determines that compliance with [its] rules and regulations is not feasible technologically, or would result in excessive and unreasonable costs without any substantial benefit to physically handicapped persons in a particular case, it may provide for modification of, or substitution for, such rule or regulation.

Certainly, elevator or ramp access to the station is technically feasible and, although expensive, would provide substantial benefit to physically handicapped persons (facilitating otherwise impossible access) — neither prong of the variance language appears to offer relief.

It does appear clear that the AAB followed the law and its own rules and further that a similar outcome would have been reached even with reasonable modifications of those rules.  Regardless, the time for contesting the issue is long past.  The law allows appeal of AAB decisions to superior court, but only within 30 days of the decision.


The MBTA violated AAB rules and the outcome of the AAB’s decision in response to complaints was more or less inevitable. Had the MBTA gone to the AAB before undertaking the work, it might have been able to work out an approach that provided some benefits to persons with disabilities at a lower cost. But the work was undertaken during the recession in the rush to put federal stimulus funds out the door.

The AAB’s reasoning in the case does illustrate the need to reconsider the valuation methodology for transit facilities. Applied rigidly, the methodology would make essentially any repair trigger a full reconstruction. Given the central importance of access to transportation for people with disabilities, it does make sense to set a low threshold, but the current methodology makes even minimal repairs legally risky and, when violations are found, may force large investments in stations that have low overall utilization (by people with and without disabilities). A better methodology would be based on replacement cost and create a mechanism for transferring reconstruction obligations to higher utilization stations.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

49 replies on “The obligation to upgrade the Waverley Station”

  1. Thanks much for this comprehensive explanation of how we got to where we are. Having worked as a personal care assistant for a gentleman with a mobility impairment, I believe it is extremely important to make sure that our transportation facilities are fully accessible to people in wheelchairs, who use walkers, who use strollers, etc. I agree that the cost is extremely high, but recent history has shown that the longer we wait to make these kinds of large one-time investments, the more expensive they become (at a rate even greater than that of general inflation). With that in mind, I hope that the Town and MBTA can agree to move quickly on whatever solution is ultimately chosen, even though any solution is probably going to leave some people unhappy.

  2. Will, thank you for this detailed explanation. This “mistake” by the MBTA shouldn’t be allowed to force the closure of two stations to be replaced by a suburban-style station that would be accessible to most people only by driving. If the problem of the Belmont station is that it’s on a curve, it could be moved behind the post office. It’s well known that Mass. has a massive underinvestment in infrastructure. We have to be smarter about building for the future. Closing either of these stations is absolutely the wrong way to go. Two convenient stations would be replaced by one that is hardly convenient to anyone. There would probably be much higher usage of both stations if the T provided better service between Boston and Waltham. Especially at Waverley the service is barely minimal. (There is some construction equipment at the east end of the Waverley platforms now. Is that related to the road project?)

  3. Thank you for this excellent summary of the problem. I was very surprised that the repaving cost more than $350,000 to begin with. Unless further repairs were done, this amount seems excessive.

  4. Let me throw in another transit suggestion — bus service to Alewife. That would not only provide a much more efficient connection to the red line but also connection to buses to other buses that serve the station, strengthening mass transit in the suburbs north of Cambridge.

    In my opinion if we could trade two commuter rail stations for a single station plus service to Alewife, it would be a clear win.


    1. So what is it they are building right now? And why build something if they are thinking of closing the station?

      1. From our legislative liaison at the MBTA:

        NEL Corp. has work ongoing that involves removing and resetting timber shielding for bridge inspections at Trapelo road and Lexington road in Belmont at Waverly station.

    2. Kiril,

      I find your suggestion to be very good. Indeed, Alewife is underdeveloped as a bus hub. It serves the locations north of it, but there are not routes covering the south and west towns (e.g. Belmont, Waltham, Watertown). As part of such exexpansion, Waverly station can get coverage and it will be helpful for all commuters.

  5. I second the bus to Alewife. I could use the reverse commute to get to Waltham. Right now we have the equivalent of geographic apartheid with no cross-town suburb transit. Going from Lexington to Waltham is a trip to north station and back out.

  6. Thank you for the detailed explanation. It seems like there is a very big loophole though in the AAB regulations: The fact that a solution to not making the station ADA compliant is to close the station is even a possibility is outrageous. The spirit of the regulations are to make facilities accessible to everyone, not to deny access to everyone equally.

    This type of issue has come up in other places as well. On the Community Path Extension in Somerville, the community asked for a separate staircase up to Lowell St to supplement the long ramp on the other side of the street. AAB regulations said that a staircase may not be built without a ramp adjacent to it. From a technical and monetary standpoint, building an additional ramp was not possible. In the end, the staircase was not built nor was a second ramp. Basically, everyone was punished equally because a second access point could not be made accessible to everyone. Again, this doesn’t seem like this is the spirit of the AAB regulations.

    1. It seems to me that the problem is inherent in legislative mandates generally. As long as there is no way to override them when a situation warrants, there will always be cases where they force undesirable and unintended choices. When there are many such mandates their cumulative effect extremely stifling.

      The tried and tested solution is to establish review boards as part of the mandate legislation with authority to modify regulations on a case by case basis. Local zoning regulations are an example where such a review process works quite well. Imagine how onerous zoning would be if there were no variance process?

  7. I encourage folks to have a look at this website, which has a thorough discussion of the proposals to replace the two stations with a single one:

    I don’t know the writer, and I haven’t dug into the argument well enough to endorse it, but it seems to add to the debate.

    1. Thanks to Robert for sharing that blog post. It destroys the T’s arguments for closing 2 stations.

  8. Certainly plenty of active T stations in the metro west area similar to Waverley (below street level) and many now ADA compliant. Not sure punitive closure or the taking of private property to create a new station is warranted.

  9. I believe there should be some provision to make minor modifications and not close the station. This area is a growing urban residential area and ties to the communter rail as well as the #73 T-bus are going to grow in numbers.

  10. It is imperative that the Belmont Waverley Square station be kept operational. Right now it may be operational at low but critical volume – critical to those who use it and to property values. There ought to be a review of which high usage station it would make sense to make fully compliant with handicapped access bills and construction. Right now, not Belmont. If and when the statistic of usage for Belmont changes, a change that may be said to be likely as greater Belmont housing density is ongoing, then this issue can be reviewed. At a time with tightened budgets and a Republican governor and and national Congressional refusal to invest properly and fully in public transportation — there is a need for strategic placement of handicap access in HIGH usage stations only. A handicap accessible bus to handicap accessible Alewife could be the right solution for the Waverley transit situation….a less expensive proposition. DO NOT close Belmont Waverley, please — this is critical to many lives now and in future, as well as property values in the town. To close would be very short-sighted.

  11. I still think the problem is within MBTA/DOT itself rather than anybody else. A $35MM proposal to add escalators to a commuter rail platform is an intentionally inflated bill trying to scam the tax payers.

    Unfortunately, so far we don’t have a plan to counter this kind of vandalism from state run public organizations. It is possible that most state agencies trying to bullet proof their in-efficiency and potential mismanagement by intentionally inflate cost estimates and proposals, asking as much as possible because there are very few check and balance against it.

    Dear Senator Brownsberger, can we have a discussion along this line as I think this could be the biggest problem going forward in all public projects.

    1. Honestly, Gang, I don’t think the usual problem is overestimating the costs of public projects.

      The usual problem is underestimating the costs of public projects. Once these projects get started, they run into one unanticipated problem after another and usually cost more than estimated.

  12. Will,
    Thanks for your interest in this important issue. Public transportation must be an integral part of any long term plans for Smart Growth in greater Boston, and the Waverley Station is a classic example of neighborhood-friendly public transportation, accessible by foot, creating all of the right incentives for not using cars for daily commutes and promoting a liveable community, foot traffic, property value, and local businesses. I am opposed to any alternatives that would close the current Waverley Station or replace the Waverley Station with a new station on Pleasant Street. No one lives on Pleasant Street. For whatever reason, the MBTA is out of compliance with the American Disabilities Act and Massachusetts law. Responsible people and organizations comply with the law, and the MBTA should do that. The answer is to make the current Waverley Station accessible to all among us with permanent or temporary special accessibility needs, not to make it inaccessible to any of us by closing it.

    David Webster

      1. Will, totally agree. And I also think one of MBTA’s main challenge is not with budgeting, but with cost control and efficiency to be trusted by the public.

        We are lucky that at least Beverly Scott is gone for good

        1. I agree with Gang. The T’s probably is not it’s budget. The problem is that it can’t seem to do anything for a reasonable cost, and the numbers they quote are simply ridiculous. How could it possibly be cheaper to build an entirely new station than to build a few ramps to the ones we already have?

          1. Give the engineers a little credit. They actually are professionals.

            The new station — undesirable as it may be for many reasons — would be at ground level — only short ramps. Waverley is expensive to renovate because of its depth and the need to support the walls during construction.

  13. As a disabled person who lives in Waverley Square and who rides the 73 bus to get to work 5 days a week, and uses the Purple Line to get to friends further west on some weekends, I sincerely hope the Waverley Square station will be left open, at the very least. If there will be reconstruction of the Waverley Square station, that would be a bonus. It would also be interesting to see how many disabled people would use the Waverley Square station if it were handicap accessible.

    I would just like to put perspective on the situation from someone who actually uses both services and who is disabled.

    It takes me 10 minutes to descend the stairs and just as long to go up them at the Waverley Station. I do it anyway because seeing my friends is important to me, and I will continue to use the stairs until I cannot. I use elevators (preferably) or escalators at other stations to get access to buses or trains.

    If the MBTA were to close the Waverley Station, instead of walking to pick up the train, I would have to:

    1. Take a cab to Belmont Center or Alewife to pick up the Purple Line there. I will do that when I can no longer use the stairs.


    2. Take the 73 to Harvard Square and the Red Line to Porter Square or Alewife to pick up the Purple Line there.

    The most reliable form of getting to the Purple Line on time is a cab. Anyone who rides the Red Line or the 73 or 71, weekdays or weekends, knows the misery of trying to get to work on time, the wait in the cold weather, the crowded buses passing passengers by, etc., etc. If I were to miss the Purple Line because of the consistently unreliable T, it would be more than an hour’s wait for the next Purple Line train. I cannot stand, sit or walk for long periods of time because of my condition.

    Many of the folks who ride the 73 in morning get off from the Purple Line from points west to go to work. I don’t even know what these people did if they had to work weekends during the time when the Purple Line was not running on weekends, and there was no alternative form of transportation,

    Brandeis students also use the Purple Line to go Belmont and ride the 73 to get to Harvard U.

    I have lived in Belmont for at least 30 years, and have lived in the east, west and Midwest. While this discussion is about the Waverley Station, I would like to at least say the MBTA has the worst public transportation I have ever had to use in all of the States I have lived.

    Speaking for all my “bus and train buddies,” we would all like to see the service improved on all bus and train lines. The MBTA people should check out other States and countries to see if they can garner some ideas to help improve the service in Massachusetts.

    Many thanks to David Webster for his post.

  14. How many car park spaces are as part of the proposed 1000 Pleasant St Train station? How many car park spaces are on the current Waverly station train stop? What is a estimated $$$ to renovate, update, make fully accessible, etc., the Waverly stop? Why start from scratch at a considerably greater cost or is there federal $$$ available to offset the money that will cost the MBTA (and us). There is always a hidden agenda that needs to be uncovered. Mr. Tocci’s comments and his issues described in the recent town paper need to be examined and evaluated in terms of how a Pleasant st T stop will negatively impact the commercial commerce already on Pleasant St. What would be ‘taken’ and how to justify/rationalize this choice. Always disturbing when more $$$ is being proposed to be spent when less could obtain the same results. I am not seeking a personal response, but the process needs to be more properly vetted by a source that has no stake in the outcome. thanks for reading. msg

  15. I have read the cost to bring up to code for the Waverly station to be at $35million, surely two elevators for the station cannot cost anywhere near this amount. The loss of this station would create a hardship for all(hundreds) who depend on this train to get to work or just to visit Boston. I hope these public meetings are heard and this whole thing is not a charade.

  16. Thank you v.much for following, if not leading on, the question of train service and the Waverley stop on the MBTA-operated Fitchburg line.

    I v. gratefully use this line from Waverley to get part way to Southwest N.H where at present there is little public transportation. However, this line if and when it is extended to Gardiner and perhaps beyond is likely also to need more not less flexibility in its use. – Thus a reason to update Waverley when, not if, money allows in making public transport of all kinds more available.
    – Aside from the importance of not extending the use of public land when the present station is well located.

  17. when anyone talks about the MBTA these days it is overwhelmingly negative. The Belmont Waverly station serves the most densely populated portion of the town and I might add probably the most economically challenged with lots of two and three family homes and lots of renters. Maybe more people from this area would use the train more often if the schedules were more convenient.

    1. Indeed. There is a lot of frustration.

      Quite true that if service were more frequent (and more reliable), more would ride it. And the more riders you get the more service you can provide — that’s the positive spiral.

      Unfortunately, it’s hard to set that in motion.

      1. I agree the scheduling is poor, especially off peak. How about running some Buddliners during those times as a less expensive way to improve service?

        1. The T has given thought to adding what they call Diesel Multiple Units — essentially subway type cars that run on railroad tracks — I think this is what you are suggesting.

          My understanding is that they have put that project on indefinite hold — too many operational problems to make it work.

      2. Yes, and unfortunately the train has not been running on the weekends for a year or more? Cart…horse. Belmont too needs to enable people to easily get there ON FOOT – sidewalks, curbs, CONTINUE the residential snow shoveling by-law, incentivize municipal employees. Dare I recall the incentives first given when homes were built in Waverley (-:

  18. I respectfully disagree with your last sentence. The best approach is for the state to do a better job funding AAB upgrades so that all people can get around more easily. I plan the upgrades at MIT based on the same state statute and there is no reason for the MBTA to be held to a different and lesser standard than the rest of the institutions in the state. I have seen students and staff who in the course of one moment become disabled and I believe firmly that it is critical to get rid of barriers and provide universal access PARTICULARLY to public facilities.

    1. Hi Thayer,

      I completely agree that the MBTA should be accessible. So, it is important that we use the funds we have to accomplish as much accessibility as possible and it is not clear that the current rules encourage that.

  19. Senator w. Brownsberger :
    Will, Your diligence and thoroughness exceed any that I hae ever seen in an elected official.
    One may hope that bureaucrats would strive for flexibility whenever possible. Without prods from conscientious public officials such as you, there would be no hope. Thank you. Tom Killilea
    Ps At a public hearing about traffic concerns at W. Sq. and Star Market, I introduced a visual aid – a T pass.

  20. Thank you for the update. Throwing away the Pleasant St station option validates that the MBTA heard us on November 16th – quite a win!!! I encourage continued pressure to establish a charette for Waverley station to include Annis Sengupta, myself, a developer, a financial wizard, civil engineer, and Joe DeStephano (primary owner of property there) as a start. This group can collaborate with the MBTA and impacted neighbors to help deliver the best, most economical plan that takes all considerations into account.

    Will, kudos on staying close. I look forward to helping with this issue!!!

    1. Hope to have more information in a few weeks about the plans for Waverley itself — they need to put a few more big picture parameters in place before a charette could make sense.

      I will stay close to this.

  21. Good news. Thanks for all of your work on this issue, and for providing these frequent updates.

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