South Coast Rail — always just around the bend

Gov. Deval Patrick threw $60 million at South Coast Rail on Monday, and he told New Bedford and Fall River residents that they’re thisclose to finally getting their commuter train into Boston. “You’re right on the threshold,” Patrick told the New Bedford Standard-Times. “And I want to ride that first train.”

The South Coast has been sitting on the threshold for a long time now. Bill Weld promised to build a rail line between Boston and the region two decades ago, saying, “Sue me if it doesn’t happen.” But South Coast Rail didn’t happen then, for the same reason it didn’t happen in the eight-year-long governorship of Patrick, an ardent booster of the rail project. There’s plenty of abstract political support behind South Coast Rail, but there’s very little actual money. And Patrick’s commitment Monday didn’t change that a bit.


Patrick just committed $42 million to repair four bridges along the South Coast Rail route. The state also announced $18 million to fix grade crossings in Taunton, Freetown and New Bedford. Patrick, and Weld and Paul Cellucci before him, all spent money on South Coast Rail this way — committing relatively small amounts to lay the groundwork for the rail project, but punting on the tricky question of how to pay for construction of the rail line itself.

The idea seems to be that if the state spends enough money preparing the way for the rail line, it will become politically impossible to walk away from the project. MassDOT’s South Coast Rail project manager, Jean Fox, said as much to the Standard-Times Monday, arguing that so much has been invested in the project that “it doesn’t make sense at this point to back down.”

But not backing down, as Fox put it, involves the same financial and logistical hurdles that it did in Weld’s days. Notwithstanding all the groundwork Patrick has laid over the past 8 years, the state still doesn’t have a plan for financing South Coast Rail’s initial construction — a more than $2 billion effort. It doesn’t have a plan for paying for the rail line’s operation. South Coast Rail cars won’t actually be able to reach Boston until the state expands South Station — a project that carries another, unfunded, $1 billion price tag.

And even before the state starts looking for the $1 billion it would have to spend on South Station in order to lay the way for the $2 billion South Coast project, the state will have to settle a feud with the US Postal Service, which currently sorts mail on the real estate the new South Station tracks would sit on. If this is what the threshold looks like, it’s an awfully costly and complicated one to cross over.



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