Commuter rail a long wait for some

Despite the economic downturn and a worsening state revenue outlook, officials in Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s administration say he remains committed to fulfilling his campaign promise to get commuter-rail service from New Bedford and Fall River to Boston up and running by 2016. More

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FOCUS: BRISTOL COUNTY, MASS.

Commuter rail a long wait for some

PBN PHOTO/VICTORIA AROCHO
ON THE RIGHT TRACK: Commuters await an MBTA train to Boston in Attleboro last week. Service from New Bedford and Fall River could begin by 2016
Posted 11/24/08

Despite the economic downturn and a worsening state revenue outlook, officials in Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s administration say he remains committed to fulfilling his campaign promise to get commuter-rail service from New Bedford and Fall River to Boston up and running by 2016.

“This is still a top priority of the governor,” Kristina Egan, the South Coast Rail project’s manager, said in a recent interview. “We’re moving right along.”

It has been nearly two decades since Gov. William Weld told residents of southern Bristol County that he would bring passenger rail service there for the first time since the 1960s. New Bedford, Fall River and Taunton are the only cities within 50 miles of Boston that are not currently served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail. Local leaders long have argued that trains would provide the area with a much-needed economic boost.

“Connecting us with a transportation rail will make it easier for people to move in and out of the city, out of the region to jobs, or to come down to work in jobs,” said New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang. “It will help fuel the whole recreational, entertainment and tourism industry that our area has.”

After years of study, and amid protests from residents who lived along the various route alternatives, the MBTA in 2002 said the best option would be to extend the existing Stoughton line southward. But federal officials never reviewed that proposal, and Patrick ordered the process to start from scratch after he was elected in 2006.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently began an environmental review of four alternative train routes for the proposed project, and will report next June on which would have the least environmental impact. (A fifth alternative would be a new rapid bus service, and a sixth would be no new service at all.) The state will then conduct an in-depth study of the preferred route, and the official route will be finalized in 2010.

The project also cleared a major hurdle last month when the state bought more than 30 miles of track south of Cotley Junction, in Taunton, as part of a long-stalled $100 million deal with the freight company CSX.

The biggest obstacle by far, however, is the one that has yet to be tackled: finding the money to pay for the estimated $1.4 billion project.

A 2007 report by a special state commission on Massachusetts’ long-term transportation funding needs warned of an enormous shortfall in the years to come. Over the next two decades, the report estimated that the state must come up with an additional $15 to $18 billion to repair its existing roads, bridges and other assets.

Although the commissioners stressed that it would not be “practical, plausible, or prudent” to forego any improvements to the state’s transportation system over the next 20 years, they warned that neither the MBTA nor the state “can afford any of the transit projects that have been deemed desirable by political and civic leaders.”

That includes the South Coast Rail project, which the report estimated would cost at least $14 million per year to operate.

“I’d say it’s very, very unlikely” the project will actually go forward under the current timeline, said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and a member of the transportation commission.

“There’s virtually no chance,” he said. “The reality is there is no way to pay for it, and there will not be any way to pay for it in the foreseeable future, unless the governor presents a proposal to identify new revenues to support this kind of expansion.”

Widmer is not the only skeptic. Jack Spillane, a columnist for The Standard-Times of New Bedford, noted recently that he had written his first story about a looming expansion of commuter-rail service nearly a decade ago – and that was a decade after Weld had first made the promise.

Egan said she understood why some were skeptical, but maintained that the state is committed to the project.

“It’s a regional equity issue,” she added. “Fall River and New Bedford are some of the most depressed cities in the commonwealth.” The projected economic benefit of the train line is being examined as part of a larger report on future growth in Southeastern Massachusetts that will be released in June, Egan said.

She said the administration will complete a plan to finance the service expansion by January 2010. She declined to speculate as to where the money for the project might be found, but hinted that the state may seek federal dollars, saying talks have begun with the state’s congressional delegation.

In the meantime, planning for the project continues to move forward. In September, the state transportation secretary, Bernard Cohen, announced the locations of 18 proposed train stations on the various alternative routes.

Under each of the four rail scenarios, two main stations would be built in New Bedford, at Kings Highway and along Route 18 in the Hicks-Logan neighborhood. A third part-time station would be built there at State Pier. In Fall River, there would be stations at Battleship Cove and off Davol Street at the Fall River Depot, and a station would also be built in Freetown. Taunton would get either one or two stations, depending on the route chosen.

A start-to-finish train ride would take anywhere from 65 to 90 minutes, depending on the route, Egan said. The state is currently studying traffic patterns in the area and will release an updated study on projected ridership in January.

In addition, the results of the environment review that the Army Corps of Engineers has launched will almost certainly be contentious.

The four alternative routes that are being studied are the Stoughton alternative; the Attleboro alternative; the Middleborough alternative; and the Attleboro/Middleborough Hybrid, which would combine the latter two routes. There are environmental concerns about both the Attleboro and Stoughton routes.

Egan said the state is fully committed to seeing the project through. “From the [Executive Office of Transportation’s] and from the governor’s perspective, we can’t afford to stand still,” she said. “We still need to move forward with these projects that are critical to our economic development.” •

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