S. Coast Rail is headed in wrong direction

Look to the roads – the Mansfield I-495 route

THE CURRENT PROCESS for South Coast Rail is on the wrong track. The current solution—an interim option which avoids sensitive environmental areas—doesn’t please the city it runs through (Middleboro), the one it misses (Taunton), or the communities at the end of the line, Fall River and New Bedford. The project also fails to offer riders a journey to and from Boston and the South Coast which is time-competitive with driving. If decision makers genuinely want this project to succeed, they ought to commit to reviewing route options that will be most likely to offer a service that people will want to use in numbers that make sense. We think an answer lies in reevaluating a long-ago, cast-off option, and thinking a bit outside the box.

When options for South Coast Rail were originally studied, four rail routes were considered, including the two currently under consideration. Each had pros and cons, and each had significant obstacles to constructability, travel time, operations, or both. They included:

  • The Stoughton Route, which was the original preferred alternative. This route offers relatively fast travel times and relatively easy operations by extending existing Stoughton trains. But the route has significant financial and environmental impacts because it crosses Hockomock and Pine Swamps between Easton and Taunton.
  • The Middleboro Route, which is the current MassDOT-preferred alternative, requires minimal new track construction, but its slow travel times will likely attract few riders, all while increasing congestion on the single-track sections of the Old Colony commuter rail lines.
  • The Attleboro Route, which would use the Providence Line to a power line right-of-way just north of Attleboro, was dropped from consideration because it was slower than the Stoughton Route, required more use of the Northeast Corridor/Providence Line, as well as several miles of new right-of-way along a utility corridor.
  • The Mansfield Route. This would use an existing right-of-way from Mansfield to Taunton and allow for a convenient, downtown station in Taunton rather than on the edge of town. It would avoid the extreme cost and impact of crossing the Hockomock Swamp and, with straight, fast track, provide the fastest travel times to the South Coast, with trains making the trip in as little as 51 minutes.

The Mansfield alternative is, by any measure, the best approach to providing rail service to and from the South Coast. It was dropped from consideration early on in 2011, largely because of a lack of imagination in handling constructability issues. As the Environmental Impact Report for South Coast Rail puts it: “A new grade-separated crossing would have to be constructed at Route 106, just south of the existing train station. There is not sufficient distance between this crossing and the Northeast Corridor to bring the rail line to the right elevation, which would necessitate lowering the roadway, causing major impacts to surrounding buildings.”

This is a nice way of saying “it would require razing and rebuilding most of Downtown Mansfield.” There are other issues as well, including impacts to the Mansfield airport, which was constructed adjacent to the right-of-way.

We believe, however, that there is a way to resurrect the Mansfield alternative, by reimagining its route. Doing so would provide a much faster and more reliable trip than via Middleboro with significantly less environmental impact than the Stoughton alternative provides. The key to this idea is to look not only at existing rail rights-of-way, but at highway medians. Yes, highway medians. Call it the “Mansfield I-495 Route.”

A typical section of the 100-foot-wide median on I-495 in Norton, from Google Maps.

 

There is no hard-and-fast rule that requires that a rail line must follow the paths of existing railroad rights-of-way. When New Mexico planned to connect Albuquerque and Santa Fe, it eschewed an existing but slow and curvy railroad and instead built a new line in the median of Interstate 25, providing significantly faster trip times. Building in a wide, exurban highway median is cheap: the New Mexico project was completed for less than $10 million per mile (in current dollars). In a more urban context in Los Angeles, a commuter rail exists in the middle of Interstate 10. (In a nod to multi-modalism, there is a local bus-bus rapid transit-commuter rail station adjacent to the freeway). In many other cities, from Washington, DC to Chicago to San Francisco, rapid transit lines have been built in the center of highways.

A similar use of highway medians would avoid negative impacts to Mansfield and unlock this otherwise direct and feasible route. A mile south of the current Mansfield Station, tracks could run above Route 140, a wide arterial roadway which leads to I-495. From there, the median of I-495 is more than 100 feet wide, plenty wide enough for a two-track railroad. While highways in New England are often narrow, curvy, hilly, or all three, I-495 in this area is wide, straight, and flat enough that it would allow for high-speed rail operations. The highway leads two miles to the Mansfield right-of-way, south of the major obstacles cited in the environmental impact report.

There are several ways to connect back to the original SCR route south of Taunton, but the best one would use I-495 for three additional miles, avoiding homes, grade crossings, sewer lines and environmentally-sensitive areas adjacent to the right-of-way in Norton. It then would cross through the Myles Standish Industrial Park, which will be home to nearly 10,000 jobs with a recent expansion, although a recent planning document cites difficulty in attracting office and R&D jobs. A new station would put these jobs a 30-minute trip from Back Bay, providing reverse-commute options to the industrial park, and potentially catalyzing additional mixed-use development there.

The mile through Myles Standish would mostly follow existing, wide road corridors and abandoned freight railroad spurs, but would require the relocation of a few small office and warehouse buildings to elsewhere in the office park. Rejoining an active freight railroad, it would then continue to Taunton, where a station could be built a six-minute walk from Taunton Green, half the distance of the proposed Stoughton alternative station on Arlington Street, and much closer than the Middleborough-alternative station, which is more than three miles from downtown. From there, it’s a straight shot south to Fall River and New Bedford

There are additional operational benefits for the rail system for building this Mansfield I-495 route:

  • Currently, the freight route from the South Coast and Cape Cod to Framingham—and the rest of the country—uses the Northeast Corridor from Attleboro to Mansfield. This proposed connection would allow freight to be routed on a grade-separated line which would no longer conflict with the Amtrak and MBTA corridor, where it can cause delays.
  • A new station would be built at Mansfield with high-level platforms, which would reduce boarding times there by several minutes for busy, rush-hour trains where passengers currently have to climb up and down several steps to get on and off the train.
  • The right-of-way would support two tracks to Taunton, reducing the single-track bottleneck issues present with the Middleborough and Stoughton routes.
  • A new park-and-ride facility along I-495 could free up parking lots in downtown Mansfield for transit-oriented development, which could provide thousands of new units of housing a quick transit trip from Boston, Providence, Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford.

With more service, there might be some impact to the capacity on the Northeast Corridor, but faster, electric trains would mesh better with Amtrak service, and would no longer require commuter rail trains to wait on side tracks for fast Amtrak trains to pass. If necessary in the short run, some Stoughton trains could be turned into shuttles to Canton Junction to transfer passengers there to catch the frequent trains downtown. In the long run, a third track from Readville to Stoughton could provide a significant increase to overall capacity on the line.

In addition, there would also be some impact adjacent to a few residences in Mansfield. To branch this line off of the Northeast Corridor, a third track would rise up south of Mansfield Station and fly over the Providence Line. While this would minimize conflicts between train traffic on the line, it would potentially impact two residences along George Street before curving to Route 140. Any project of this size will face some such challenges; those presented by this approach are relatively modest in scope and scale.

The South Coast region of Massachusetts deserves a good transit link to Boston, which would not only tie the cities there to the economic engine of the state, but provide housing options for the continued growth of the region. But regional rail only works well when it is time-competitive with driving. Unlike the Middleborough plan, the Mansfield I-495 Route would please everyone: Middleborough would retain its current service, Taunton would get a downtown station, and New Bedford and Fall River—and for that matter, everyone in the region—would get a fast trip.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Transportation and urban planning student/Member, MIT/TransitMatters

About Ari Ofsevit

Ari Ofsevit is a transportation planner with the Charles River TMA in Cambridge, which runs the EZRide Shuttle. He has won hackathons examining data from Hubway, late night MBTA service, and MassDOT real time highway traffic.

About Ari Ofsevit

Ari Ofsevit is a transportation planner with the Charles River TMA in Cambridge, which runs the EZRide Shuttle. He has won hackathons examining data from Hubway, late night MBTA service, and MassDOT real time highway traffic.

Work and permitting should continue on the “southern triangle” from Taunton to New Bedford and Fall River, but instead of throwing good money after bad for a stop-gap route which will take an hour and a half (or more) to get to Boston via Middleborough, let’s make sure we make a full assessment of this new idea, which could make the trip in half the time.

Ari Ofsevit is a transportation and urban planning student at MIT and a board member of TransitMatters.