I-Team: Wi-Fi Poles Proposed Along MBTA Commuter Rail Tracks Anger Communities

ANDOVER (CBS) – The MBTA will soon be upgrading its Wi-Fi service throughout the commuter rail system.

Welcome news for passengers, but some towns are just now discovering how the project will unfold, and what the upgraded system will look like in their historic neighborhoods. Some are already calling for the current plans to be derailed.

The tree-lined streets in the Shawsheen Village section of Andover are packed with young families and retirees who have lived there for decades.

“This is Norman Rockwell,” homeowner Lynn Makiej described as a crowd of kids sold lemonade behind her.

balloon3 I Team: Wi Fi Poles Proposed Along MBTA Commuter Rail Tracks Anger Communities

Balloons show height of proposed Commuter Rail Wi-Fi tower in Andover (WBZ-TV)

However, in this quintessential neighborhood, there are rumbles of discontent from residents who say they were blindsided.

“It’s going to be awful,” Makiej said. “No one knew.”

The MBTA is allowing a private company to install hundreds of 74-foot cell-tower like structures to provide the line-of-sight connectivity for the new system.

Many of the structures, known as monopoles, are proposed right in the middle of residential neighborhoods and will be installed next to the tracks on MBTA rights-of-way.

In Shawsheen Village, a planned community from the turn of the 20th Century, there are a number of strict rules to preserve the historic character. Along the street, lamp posts replicate the 1920s.

“The poles are going to hang 30 feet above the tree line,” said Danny O’Toole, a homeowner of 16 years. “It just takes away from everything.”

According to MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo, the upgrades are needed to replace the outdated current Wi-Fi system that has been the subject of many customer complaints.

balloon I Team: Wi Fi Poles Proposed Along MBTA Commuter Rail Tracks Anger Communities

Balloons show height of proposed Commuter Rail Wi-Fi tower in Andover (WBZ-TV)

“It is a little slow,” one commuter told WBZ-TV in West Medford as she exited her train. “But I can usually read the headlines.”

Residents of the Andover neighborhood say they are paying too high a price so commuters can have the convenience of faster Wi-Fi.

On a recent June afternoon, several neighbors gathered at one of the proposed monopole locations near Enmore Street. To demonstrate what kind of impact the project will have, they inflated several weather balloons and raised them 74 feet in the air.

While they loomed over the tree line in the neighborhood, the balloons also remained clearly visible about a quarter of a mile away along Main Street.

The monopole is almost literally in Brendan Smith’s backyard. A few years ago, after putting his three kids through college, he and his wife sank a six-figure investment into the home. They planned to retire there.

“It brought a tear to my wife’s eye because we thought we were in control of our own destiny,” Smith said. “Now we feel like we are going to get crushed by the development of this tower.

Andover selectman Alex Vispoli said he has been getting an earful from angry residents. But Vispoli also expressed frustration, saying he and other town leaders only learned of the project in early May. The notification said they had 30 days to provide comments.

select I Team: Wi Fi Poles Proposed Along MBTA Commuter Rail Tracks Anger Communities

Andover selectman Alex Vispoli (WBZ-TV)

Since then, the town has quickly assembled details and documents on a web site about the project.

“We don’t think it’s right that they can come in and steamroll this across the board,” Vispoli said. “When you start to peel back this onion, you realize it doesn’t make any sense.”

Vispoli said town leaders have unsuccessfully tried to get MBTA officials to attend a public meeting to answer questions about the project.

Pesaturo told WBZ-TV an agency employee will attend an Andover meeting in the near future, though an exact date hasn’t been set. He also said the town has received an extension to submit resident comments.

The I-Team learned the issue will not just be a battle in Andover. Starting on the North Shore, hundreds of poles will eventually be installed throughout the entire commuter rail system.

That includes communities like Medford, Concord and Hingham, which also boast plenty of historical value.

“So this is going to affect people who don’t even know it yet,” Vispoli said.

Several town administrators from the commuter rail network told WBZ-TV they are waiting to see where the monopole locations will be proposed, but already have concerns. The distance between each pole is roughly 1.3 miles.

The project stems from a 2014 contract with inMotion wireless. The MBTA awarded the company a 22-year licensing deal to install, maintain, and operate the multi-million dollar Wi-Fi system.

The basic service will be free for commuters, with a faster premium service available for a fee. The MBTA will collect 7.5% of the company’s net revenue from the service.

The MBTA is exempt from local zoning regulations, so it seems there is very little towns can do to hit the brakes on the project.

However, there is a federal process overseen by the FCC to ensure new infrastructure does not have an adverse impact on historic areas. The federal agency is currently receiving a flurry of written comments from folks in Andover.

A spokesman with Massachusetts Historical Commission told WBZ-TV the agency does not have veto power over projects, but it is monitoring the resident feedback and will be consulting with the FCC.

The project, scheduled to be up and running in 2018, will be presented at an upcoming MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting on June 26.

It’s a safe bet board members will also be hearing from homeowners in Andover.

“It’s basically going to transfer the equity from our homes into someone else’s private pockets,” O’Toole expressed.

Ryan Kath can be reached at rkath@cbs.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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