Washington may frown upon South Coast Rail

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.

Washington may frown on South Coast Rail“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?”

It’s an open secret that even if Massachusetts manages to find the $1.4 billion to $2 billion it needs to construct a new commuter rail line from Boston to New Bedford and Fall River, the MBTA does not have the financial wherewithal to operate it. The MBTA faces a nearly $100 million deficit in 2012, so any new operations would only push the authority deeper into debt.

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.

Should MBTA expand or fix it first?
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.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

To date, South Coast Rail has only received $20 million in stimulus funding (for a total of $30 million in federal funds since 2005) for the rehabilitation of three structurally deficient freight rail bridges that could also carry passenger trains if rail routes are eventually selected. Two other MBTA projects did as well or better: the Fitchburg commuter rail line reeled in $55.5 million to extend that rail line five miles, the seventh largest award in the country. Another $20 million went to improvements around the Blue Line’s Wonderland station in Revere.