Washington may frown upon South Coast Rail
What would Peter Rogoff say about the $100 million deal the Massachusetts Department of Transportation recently signed with rail freight company CSX Transportation, giving the state ownership of 30 miles of track that could become part of the proposed South Coast Rail project?
Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, hasn’t said anything specific about South Coast Rail yet. But at a Boston transit summit in May, where he delivered a speech targeted at transportation officials from Massachusetts and across the country who are counting on federal funds to help build new rail lines, he made clear where he stands.
“At times like these it’s more important than ever to have the courage to ask a hard question,” Rogoff said at the conference hosted by the MBTA Advisory Board and MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth. “If you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion? If you can’t afford your current footprint, does expanding that underfunded footprint really advance the president’s goals for cutting oil use and greenhouse gases? Does it really advance our economic goals in any sustainable way?”
He also pointed to financial problems down the road. “Are we at risk of just helping communities dig a deeper hole for our children and our grandchildren?” he asked. “Might it make sense for us to put down the glossy brochures, roll up our sleeves, and target our resources on repairing the system we have?”
The finance plan for construction of the line is currently scheduled to be unveiled later this fall after the Army Corps of Engineers selects one of the three possible routes—rail lines through either Attleboro or Stoughton or bus rapid transit along Route 24 and Interstate 93.
“We know it will be a mix of federal and state monies,” says Richard Davey, MBTA general manager and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s rail and transit administrator. “We need to be creative in terms of our financing.”
Gov. Deval Patrick, who is up for reelection this year, says he plans to make the long-discussed rail line a reality. Although bus rapid transit is one of the options being considered by the Army Corps of Engineers, it has few fans on the South Coast and Patrick typically talks about a rail link.
But Rogoff reminded his Boston audience that most transit trips in the US are done by bus, and bus routes are a lot cheaper to build and operate than rail connections. “Communities deciding between bus and rail investments need to stare those numbers in the face,” he said. “Bus rapid transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.”
The South Coast Rail project has fared poorly in recent federal grant competitions, even compared to other Bay State rail proposals. “For whatever reason, in two competitions, it hasn’t come out well,” says David Luberoff, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a strong critic of expanding MBTA service when the agency carries mind-boggling debt.
Three rail projects in other regions of the state have won a total of nearly $150 million in federal funds. Western Massachusetts picked up a $70 million grant for high-speed rail design and construction for its portion of the Connecticut River rail project through New Haven, Springfield and onto St. Albans, Vermont. South Coast rail lost out on its bid to secure $1.9
billion in the same round of high-speed rail funding.