Can South Coast Rail qualify for stimulus funding?

Securing funds to offset the some of the costs associated with the $1.9 billion South Coast Rail project would be a significant coup not only for southeastern Massachusetts, but also for Gov. Deval Patrick, who promised to build the long-sought-after line to New Bedford and Fall River by 2016.

Massachusetts recently applied for two federal stimulus grants for the proposed MBTA commuter rail line. One is a high-speed-rail grant that would cover the entire cost. The other is a $71.4 TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant to build a New Bedford intermodal transportation center to serve rail, bus, and ferry passengers; repair four freight rail bridges and tracks that the state recently acquired from CSX; and make improvements to bicycle and pedestrian access. 

Is federal funding a slam dunk?

Not exactly. South Coast Rail Manager Kristina Egan says that the competition for funding is "way oversubscribed." But Egan believes that even partial funding would increase the project's chances later on. "Our hope is that the that the Federal Railroad Administration looks at the application as a starter application for future funding."

In the TIGER grant application, state officials bill the $97.7 million "Fast Track New Bedford" plan as "first phase of the South Coast Rail project." 

The new transportation hub would serve as the rail line's southern terminus.

What remains to be seen is how competitive South Coast Rail can be with ambitious projects like California's $40 billion bullet train from Sacramento to San Diego in the mix for high-speed-rail money.

Golden State officials have applied for a $4.7 billion grant, (that's more than half of the $8 billion available for high speed rail grants) and has state matching funds available, including a $9.95 billion bond already approved by voters.

But what isn't well understood in Massachusetts is that even if the Patrick administration moves South Coast Rail beyond this first phase, the MBTA currently does not have the money to operate a new line.  A detailed financing plan, three-years in the making, is scheduled to be unveiled next year.

Not surprisingly, the appeal of a regional transit hub sidesteps the broader issue of overall South Coast Rail financing, operation, and maintenance.

According to the project manager, the New Bedford hub plan ranks high in addressing federal priorities like stimulating economic development and job creation, targeting the needs of low-income and minority populations, and improving the region's overall quality of life.  "From those criteria, I think we score on the top," she says.

Asked about the MBTA's financial instability, Egan says, "How we can expand if we can't maintain what we have? [That] is a really good question."

"Stimulus funds are like bonus funds," she adds, emphasizing that the TIGER grant is for the intermodal center and for repairing 1.5 miles of unsafe freight track.

Longer-term sources of federal transportation funding may also be available through the next five-year transportation authorization bill that will be introduced next year. "[Senator John Kerry, US Reps. Barney Frank and Jim McGovern] have already put in earmark requests and we’ll continue to do that and we be looking for programmatic funds as well.  "So that’s part of the finance plan," Egan says.

The state has to figure out how the new transit center is going to be maintained, but it is not necessarily going to be a T expense, according to Egan. The building will house a variety of tenants including the state-run New Bedford Career Center.

Egan says while re-building the 30 miles of track in the southern portion is contingent on a funding plan, building the hub has merit.

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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.

"It’s a good project on its own even if South Coast never were to come," says Egan. 

Stimulus grant award recipients will be announced early next year.