BOSTON-A public-focused real estate firm sporting national aspirations is celebrating a milestone where it all began, with Transit Realty Associates beginning its third contract and 12th year managing real estate for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The MBTA is the leading provider of public transit in eastern Massachusetts, and has 4,000 land parcels, 400 miles of right-of-way and a lease portfolio exceeding 800 agreements.

“We do have a lot going on,” TRA executive director Lorna Moritz tells GlobeSt.com in acknowledging the firm’s breadth. During the first 11 years since the MBTA agreed to outsource its real estate operations, TRA has produced more than $175 million in gross non-fare revenues and tripled the agency’s recurring lease income, she says, plus has provided the financial wherewithal to modernize the MBTA’s operations and enhance ridership. There is another element of green, as TRA’s assistance has fostered the advent of so-called smart growth, also referred to as transit-oriented development. It is a concept Moritz says the TRA was “working on even before they called it transit-oriented development,” and now the firm is entertaining a wave of proposals embracing the idea.

TOD projects on the MBTA network include one at Woodland Station in Newton where 180 apartments were built by a private developer. The pact fostered $4.3 million to erect a 548-unit parking garage, new roadways and a handicapped accessible platform, plus a deal to share maintenance costs of the grounds. In Boston, the Red Line subway’s aging Ashmont Station is being modernized thanks to a developer’s deal to build 100 units of housing and retail on an underutilized parking lot. That venture was fomented by MBTA staffers exploring ways to overcome a budget shortfall to make the needed repairs, Moritz explains. “It is a great project,” she adds. That same firm, Trinity Financial, is also doing a TOD on MBTA land at North Station in Boston, a $135-million mixed-use complex known as Avenir that will yield 241 residential units and 30,000 sf of retail. That and an adjacent project produced $27 million for the MBTA.

As TRA begins the third contract, which extends for five years, Moritz says increased TOD and securing more air rights contracts are among the near-term goals. Gone, she says, is the contentiousness over privatization of the MBTA real estate that marred the launch of TRA in 1996. “That debate is over,” she says, aided by results that have shown first-hand what can be accomplished by a dedicated program to maximize an agency’s real estate holdings. Exemplified by the Ashmont project, Moritz says she also believes the TRA has developed a solid working relationship with many divisions of the MBTA.

In one program, TRA has helped the agency coordinate installation of new fiber optic and cabling when providing access to private utilities and telecommunications companies any time those groups use rights-of-way. “Any cost savings is revenue generation,” Moritz says of the value in letting the MBTA simultaneously install lines. That is especially efficient, she says, given the huge cost of digging trenches.

The program to lease or sell rights-of-way to telecom and utilities has provided tens of millions of dollars in revenues this decade, adds Moritz, and TRA anticipates that will continue to expand. Indeed, having anticipated there may one day be a need for additional data infrastructure, TRA installed 120 miles of vacant duct space for future growth, space it is now preparing to offer to interested parties. Technology is becoming a bonus for TRA in other ways as well, she says, with the firm’s LandTracker database employing global positioning satellite systems to identify hidden properties, and even the occasional scofflaw using a right-of-way without recompense.

Emboldened by experience using the new tools and TRA’s history overseeing the MBTA inventory, officials of the locally based company are increasingly expanding their platform nationally through a sister firm, TR Advisors. That group has already assisted the city of Cleveland in establishing guidelines for transit development, and Moritz reports communities such as Austin, TX; Chicago and Washington, DC are considering the outsourcing approach. “The concept has been foreign to many transit agencies for quite some time, but now they are starting to get it,” she says.

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