Why the MBTA has cut down hundreds of Wellesley trees

Anybody who takes the commuter rail from Wellesley Square, Wellesley Hills, or Wellesley Farms hasn’t been able to miss the tree removal work that MBTA contractors have been doing lately. We got an email from a chagrined reader who characterized the work as a “horrible hack job” and noted that although “Our property doesn’t abut the tracks, we feel badly for those who do.”

Wellesley Square, MBTA
I counted over 70 trees cut down from one end of the Wellesley Square inbound side of the train platform to the next. This picture shows a structure on the outbound side of the tracks. Several other properties have lost a substantial amount of green barrier between their property and the tracks.

I went down and took a look. Indeed, it’s not pretty. Here’s what I saw on my tour of the Wellesley Square, Hills, and Farms stops. First off, there were the 70+ trees down at the Square. From there I drove down to the Hills stop via Washington St. As I crawled along, craning my neck for a good look at the tracks area, I could discern even more carnage. I couldn’t get out and do a rough count because first off it’s not safe to do so along that stretch, and secondly if I did so I would most likely be trespassing. From my car I saw multiple stumps and lots of wood chips.

Once I got to the Hills stop I walked from one end of the platform to the other and counted another 50 trees down, all on the outbound side. This was a conservative count.

Then it was on to the Farms stop, which also didn’t escape the operation but instead experienced tree removal on the inbound side. I counted about 10 trees down as I patrolled that platform, including trees that were cut down nearby the pond. When I climbed the stairs to the bridge, there were substantial wood chips that stretched as far to Boston as I could see.

Wellesley Farms, into Boston
Stumps and wood chips, as far as the eye can see on the way into Boston. From the Wellesley Farms stop.

Here’s the upshot: hundreds of trees have been removed in Wellesley alone, some in environmentally sensitive areas. Since this project covers the entire Worcester line, there have likely been hundreds more removed up and down the tracks.

Compelling project

The project to remove trees and vegetation within the MBTA’s right-of-way has been in the works since before June 2016, when according to the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), the Wetlands Protection Commission (WPC) reviewed the MBTA’s request and determined that the areas slated for work were protected under the Massachusetts Right-of-Way Management regulations and were therefore exempt from Wetlands regulations. Because of that exemption, the WPC approved the plan. “Compelled” to do so was the word the WPC used, as in, they were, “compelled to vote to issue a Negative Determination of Applicability.”

What that means is that WPC Administrator Linda Hansen had to concede that Wellesley rules about Wellesley’s environmentally sensitive areas simply do not apply to the MBTA when it comes to that agency maintaining the tracks for safety reasons.  The WPC reviewed the request and determined that the areas are protected under the Massachusetts Right of Way Management regulations making them exempt from Wetlands regulations, so the plan was approved.

It was sort of one of those hold your nose, close your eyes, and swallow the medicine situations. The MBTA and Keolis Commuter Services has the right to maintain and remove the vegetation on the tracks in various ways, including even using herbicides in environmentally sensitive areas such as nearby the pond at the Wellesley Farms stop. The Town of Wellesley was fully informed of the upcoming project, but informed was as far as it went. Wellesley wasn’t being asked its opinion on the project or being asked for permission for anything. The transportation agency was simply offering transparency, and transparency doesn’t always mean one party (the MBTA) is entering into a situation hoping to gain concessions from another party (Wellesley). In this case, the transparency thing was more or less a “courtesy.”

Behind Town Hall, looking at the outbound side. This doesn’t look like the most courteous tree-trimming job I’ve ever seen. Are they seriously going to leave it like this? I saw a truck with the company name Northern Land Clearing over at the Wellesley Farms station.

I asked the NRC about this, and a representative said they have been dismayed by the extent of the cutting. NRC Director Brandon Schmitt said, “Any tree removal is troubling, and especially the removal of mature trees. While we understand and respect the MBTA’s Right of Way safety concerns, this practice is disappointing because it takes such a long time for trees to grow. The NRC works very hard to protect Wellesley’s urban tree canopy and will do everything we can to plant new public shade trees each spring and fall to help replace the ones we’ve lost.”

MBTA cites safety

So what does the MBTA have against trees and why are they so into herbicides, anyway? According to their Vegetation Management Plan documents, it’s all about the safety. And they say they’ve taken steps to substantially reduce their use of herbicides, which have been used to control unwanted vegetation on railroad beds and in railroad yards since the 1950s. Their historical overview of herbicide use says that the materials used to be applied to railroad Right-of-Ways (ROW) several times a year, but reductions in their use in the 1970s meant that, “herbicides were applied to the areas adjacent to the roadbeds to control brush and related vegetation at rates of 25 – 77lb. of Active Ingredient (AI) per acre.”  Contrast that to today, when they say it’s more like 4lb. AI per acre. The report attributes this decrease to “…the combined result of new herbicides, new application techniques, the effectiveness of annual control, and concern over possible adverse effects of chemicals used in our environment.”

The MBTA says, “Herbicides are essential to eliminate vegetation on the ROW roadbed…” because “There is no known mechanical method for adequate vegetation control.” Unfortunately, hiring a gardening crew to get out there and pull it all out by hand before saplings turn into old-growth oaks is not considered practical. Due to the unsafe nature of hanging around railroad tracks, it’s not like townspeople can band together and form a “Wellesley Friends of the Railroad” group and take the weeding into our own (herbicide-free) hands.

Wellesley MBTA
Some felled trees are an inch or less in trunk diameter, but plenty of larger trees were cut down as well. Wellesley Square stop, outbound side.

The main reason for removing trees and vegetation on railroad beds is what you’d expect: safety. Vegetation can not only hide track defects from inspectors but can lead to equipment breakage, fire potential, and a loss of support when vegetation gets up under track and pushes it aside. It can also interfere with engineer visibility, though the MBTA says overgrown vegetation is rarely the cause of accidents.

So the train operators are taking care of the trees and vegetation their way, whether we like it or not, or find it aesthetically pleasing or, like our chagrined reader, “a horrible hack job.”