Today is free-ride day on the MBTA, a sop to commuters to make up for the transit service's wretched performance during the past winter.

A free ride from the T is nice. But some straight answers from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation would be even better.

There's no more snow on the tracks. But service on the Haverhill line is still so unreliable, some commuters get in their cars and drive to Woburn so they can get to their jobs in Boston on the more dependable Lowell line.

That what Nick Stellakis of Andover does every day, despite living within walking distance of the Andover station.

What makes the Haverhill line so unreliable? Most of the line that serves the Merrimack Valley is single-track, rather than double-track. That means whenever a train breaks down on the line, train service comes to a halt. The single line also must accommodate freight trains and Amtrak's Downeaster.

"When the trains break down on the single track, you are stuck," Stellakis told reporter Bill Kirk. "You can't get around them or past them. It would take me an extra hour or two to get home every night."

That was all supposed to change five years ago. In 2010, officials held a ground-breaking ceremony in Andover. It was the kickoff for a project to add 8 miles of double-track between Lawrence and Wilmington.

The parallel track would allow freight trains and the Downeaster to move onto the new line and out of the way of the commuter trains, reducing delays.

That was the promise. Little of it has yet happened.

Instead the double-tracking project is bogged down in delays and cost overruns.

What started out as a $17.4 million project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to put in an extra set of tracks over the 8-mile stretch from Lawrence to Wilmington has ballooned into a nearly $55 million project run and funded by different agencies with multiple, smaller projects tacked onto the original, double-tracking project, Kirk found.

To date, just two miles of the double-tracking have been completed and put into service, Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the Mass. Department of Transportation, told Kirk.

It remains unclear exactly why so little of the project has been completed so far, leaving commuters like Stellakis to scratch their head during the morning commute.

"Why is it taking so long?" he asked. "It was supposed to be done years ago. I'm wondering when I can take the train from Andover again, and it doesn't seem like ever."

That's what really matters to Merrimack Valley commuters. The fine details of the project and which of an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies are paying for it matter little.

But even basic questions on when the double-track project will be complete and how it will improve service result in double-talk from transportation officials.

One state official even insists that project won't change commuter service at all.

Kirk reports that two weeks ago, Andover Town Manager Reginald 'Buzz' Stapczynski emailed Dan Fielding, public liaison for the Mass. Department of Transportation, asking him "when the double-tracking project" would be completed and when service to Andover could be expected to improve.

Fielding responded that the double-tracking, due to be "substantially completed" by the end of this year, "is not designed to decrease run times or increase commuter rail capacity because even though there will be two tracks through Andover, only one will have access to the station. Therefore all trains are still on the same infrastructure they were on before the project was started."

He went on to say the double-tracking will increase capacity for the Downeaster and freight trains, "thus creating the ability to segregate train traffic and reduce conflicts ... currently a significant source of delays."

Stapczynski told Kirk he had been hoping for improved service in Andover and recently spoke with the secretary of MassDOT, Stephanie Pollack, who said the schedule would be changed and would improve in Andover, "which is not in agreement with what he (Fielding) said."

It's ludicrous to suggest that $55 million in improvements to a commuter rail line will result in no improvement for commuters.

But given the chaos and incompetence that is the hallmark of public transportation in Massachusetts, it would not be surprising.

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