Cahill: South Coast rail may be ‘impossible’

Officials fire back at treasurer over train plan doubts

A TOP OFFICIAL IN MASSACHUSETTS with his eye on the governor’s office has expressed doubts about whether the state can afford to expand train service to Fall River and New Bedford. Above, passengers wait to board a commuter rail car in Attleboro last fall.
Posted 5/14/09

NEW BEDFORD – Supporters of the plan to restore train service to Fall River and New Bedford unleashed a barrage of criticism on Mass. State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill this week after he suggested the state likely could not afford the $1.6 billion project.

In an interview on Tuesday with the editorial board of the New Bedford Standard-Times, Cahill said that building the long-awaited commuter rail line will be “virtually impossible” unless the state’s finances improve significantly.

In fact, Cahill suggested state officials should consider scrapping the project’s planning and environmental reviews, which have been under way for two years and carry an estimated cost of $17 million. “I think it has to be on the table,” he said, adding: “I’m not going to make a commitment that could make me more popular down here and not be able to fulfill it.”

That appears to be a dig at Mass. Gov. Deval L. Patrick, who made a campaign pledge to get the South Coast rail line up and running by 2016 during his successful bid for the Bay State’s corner office in 2006. The region has been waiting for the restoration of passenger train service to Boston, which was eliminated in the 1960s, for nearly two decades.

Patrick has maintained his commitment to the project despite doubts about its affordability and staunch opposition in some of the communities that could wind up hosting the tracks. In April, the state chose three preferred options for the rail route. Construction is supposed to begin in 2012.

Cahill, a Democrat in his second term as treasurer, is reported to be considering mounting a primary challenge to Patrick for the gubernatorial nomination next year. In the interview, he cast himself as a truth teller.

Cahill “cannot think of any scenario in the current economy in which the local rail line could be built” unless it is financed by the federal government, wrote Standard-Times columnist Jack Spillane, who attended the meeting with the treasurer.

But Cahill also said he doubted if the feds would be willing to support another major infrastructure project in Massachusetts. “They don’t trust us because of what happened with the Big Dig,” the treasurer said.

Kristina Egan, the Patrick administration official leading the South Coast rail project, shot back on Wednesday. “It’s shortsighted to pull the plug on an economic generator like this,” she told the Standard-Times. “We can’t stand still just because we’re in a temporary downturn.”

Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, said the money for planning the project has already been budgeted and would not result in significant savings. And Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, said Cahill’s remarks “have already had a detrimental impact on the project. It just sounds like the current recession is being used as an excuse to attack the project.”

Still, Cahill is not the only one who doubts whether the trains will move ahead. Michael Widmer, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, last fall told Providence Business News he saw “virtually no chance” the project would go forward anytime soon.

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