Time to reconsider S. Coast Rail phased plan

Current approach is too slow and offers too little bang for the buck

THE PATRICK AND BAKER ADMINISTRATIONS have been aligned in their support for South Coast Rail as the best approach to providing improved regional mobility to and from the South Coast region of Masssachusetts. Linking the great cities of New Bedford, Fall River, and Taunton by rail to Boston would provide those and neighboring communities with the same type of intercity rail service currently enjoyed by other Gateway Cities to the west and north of Boston.  Regional equity is, and ought to be, a fundamental principle informing transportation policy. But there’s a problem with the Commonwealth’s approach to implementing South Coast Rail, and the time has come to speak candidly about it. The problem simply stated is this: South Coast Rail as currently envisioned fails to offer efficient, cost-effective rail service, and may actually degrade mobility for many riders.

South Coast Rail as currently structured by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation consists of two “phases.”  Phase 1 has the unfortunate consequence of harming more riders than it helps. It also fails to guarantee that the project will ever advance beyond Phase 1, thus possibly relegating everyone to a service that is, by design, highly expensive and deeply inadequate to the task of improving regional rail mobility. Phase 1 extends rail service from Middleboro, the current terminus of one of three Old Colony lines, through to Fall River and New Bedford using the “Middleboro secondary” line. The current projected travel time is an unappealing 90-95 minutes, a long trip made longer because the system would not be electrified and proceeds along a fairly indirect route.

Equally problematic to the proposed lengthy trip duration is the poor trip frequency. During peak travel times (7a.m.– 9a.m.; 5p.m.– 7p.m.), Fall River and New Bedford will each get only three trains. This is a frequency of about one train every 90 minutes. Outside of the peak period, trains will operate on a 3 to 3.5 hour “frequency.”  Such frequencies immediately disenfranchise potential riders who might consider taking intercity rail but are worried that they may receive a mid-day phone call to return home to tend to a sick child or elderly parent.  These people would continue to have no realistic commuting choice other than driving.  Other riders might be unperturbed by these frequencies, particularly if they are looking for oportunities to read the entirety of, say, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

As a result of these trip length and infrequency issues, the South Coast intercity rail expansion as currently proposed would, on day one, be the worst example of the antiquated “commuter rail” model we’ve put up with since the 1960s. It doubles down on a failing business model based on long-outdated notions of the demographics and desires of intercity rail riders, disregarding the varied lifestyles and needs of those who need convenient and reliable transportation. It offers intercity rail based upon the same approach leadership of the Fiscal and Management Control Board has rightly called out as costing “way too much for way too little ridership.”

In addition to the long trip and the infrequent service, there are unfortunate negative impacts on service. Because Phase I connects to the Middleboro Line, it must use the Old Colony Line through Dorchester to reach South Station. This line has only a single track and cannot be widened without significant additional expense – an expense not considered as a requirement in (or cost of) the current Phase 1 approach. The line is already near capacity, and any form of additional regional rail service on the Old Colony Line would stress the theoretical limits of the system. Phase 1 will have the likely consequences of completely preventing any peak hour service increases on the Old Colony lines and hampering potential off-peak service increases. The result: degraded service for existing riders on that line.

Phase 1 as proposed provides this poor level of service at an unreasonably high cost that ranges from $900 million to $1.1 billion, according to recently published reports on the preferred phased approach. That approximately $1 billion cost figure is for a total net new projected ridership of 1,600 people.  Total projected daily ridership at South Coast Rail stations is 4,400 total riders. This translates to a cost-per-rider of $200,000.

One way to think about the cost problem is to compare the cost effectiveness of South Coast Rail with the Green Line Extension. You may remember that at a projected cost of $3 billion in 2015, the Green Line extension was deemed too expensive to build by the current administration. After making threats to kill the project, the administration directed new consultants to design a significant downsizing and down-scaling of the project, enabling the state to move forward with a $2 billion project.

The Green Line extension has a projected net new ridership of 8,000 per day, and a total ridership at the extension stations of 26,000 people. This translates to a cost-per-rider of $115,000 at the old $3 billion cost. Now keep in mind that the Commonwealth threatened to cancel Green Line extension when the cost per rider was less by almost half of what is forecast for Phase I of South Coast Rail. It isn’t totally fair to compare ridership projections for projects in dense urban environments such as Cambridge and Somerville with those from the less densely populated South Cost region, but this comparison raises important flags about whether the Commonwealth is taking the right approach to providing South Coast Rail service.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that we ought to impose unachievable performance or cost metrics on South Coast Rail. Public transportation by definition is not a profit-making enterprise. (Neither is driving, by the way, which is also heavily subsidized.) The costs of building, operating, and maintaining any public transportation system are simply too high to pass along to riders only. Choices must be made, and often policymakers are compelled to choose from among a short list of imperfect alternatives. Curiously, the state is not asking South Coast cities and towns to cough up substantial sums, in contrast to the pay-to-play approach it took with Cambridge and Somerville, which may be more about situational politics than anything else.

South Coast Rail, by definition, will be expensive to build.  That is not, and should not be, a determinative factor in assessing its merits. Yet it is appropriate to ask: in times of constrained revenues, and when it’s important to set priorities, does South Coast Rail as currently envisioned rise to the top of the list, potentially crowding out other even more worthy regional projects?  The stubborn legislative and gubernatorial resistance to raising net new revenue exacerbates this problem. When transportation revenues are flat and declining, as ours are, we are forced to make difficult choices.

The question posed here is not whether South Coast Rail is too expensive to build; rather, it is how to build the best South Coast Rail from an optimal service perspective and in the most cost-effective way.  The best South Coast Rail is one that is not phased, that addresses the pent-up mobility needs of all major cities on the South Coast (that means including Taunton), and that offers a level of service that is attractive to more people than the anemic numbers projected by the Phase 1 proposal currently on offer from the T’s consultants. A better South Coast Rail project would include electrification of the line and a commitment to run more frequently during the day.  Electrification would take the currently proposed running time and improve it to a point where ridership might actually exceed the currently forecasted anemic level.

The currently envisioned Phase 2 Stoughton line service has many potential benefits, to be sure, but suffers from requiring the addition of over 16 miles of new track, most of which would cut through the Hockomock Swamp, an environmentally sensitive area. This is one reason why many believe that South Coast Rail as currently proposed won’t ever advance beyond its Phase 1 service.

One potential solution, as conceived by TransitMatters’s Ari Ofsevit, would come from using the historic Mansfield-Taunton branch. Its main virtues: it follows a fairly arrow-straight path from Mansfield to Taunton and avoids sensitive environmental sites, like the miles-long bridge through the Hockomock Swamp, while adding just two miles compared to the Stoughton alignment. There are some alignment issues in downtown Mansfield, but it appears they can be overcome by using wide highway rights-of-way to join the current Northeast Corridor line south of Mansfield Station.

The corridor was considered early on in the South Coast Rail scoping process, but cast off because of grade crossing and elevation issues near Mansfield, where much of the old right-of-way is overbuilt with streets and a bike path. However, a short diversion away from this area avoids these obstructions, takes advantage of Route 495’s wide median, and connects directly to the Northeast Corridor line coming up from Providence via an elevated rail section following along a short stretch of Route 140.  Creative use of these highway rights-of-way (which would be a ten-strike for modal equity) were not analyzed for the Mansfield branch alternatives in the original alternative scoping for South Coast Rail, and the time has come to take a hard and objective look at it.

Equally important, this route also serves downtown Taunton, offering true regional equity and allowing a good, walkable, downtown station with some potential for transit-oriented development. There are challenges to resolve if this line is used, but it would have significant benefits by offering a faster service from New Bedford and Fall River that is not phased, that serves downtown Taunton, and that does not degrade service on the Old Colony line. This option ought to be seriously explored on a cost-benefit basis as compared to the Stoughton route. TransitMatters would be glad to walk through its assessment of this alternative with the MBTA and its consultants.

 Should the South Coast be connected to Boston by intercity rail?  The answer is an unqualified “yes,” in part because such a connection will in the long term be in the best interests of people who wish to have maximum live/work mobility, and in part because there is no reasonable high-occupancy-vehicle solution to the mobility problem posed.

Economic growth in our Gateway Cities is an important goal, and New Bedford, Taunton, and Fall River are great cities with strong histories and good bones. Should South Coast Rail as currently proposed advance without serious reconsideration?  The answer is an equally unqualified “no.”  In the rush to “get something done,” the Commonwealth is pursuing a phased project that is inordinately expensive and extraordinarily inefficient. Put simply, there is no bang for this public dollar buck.

I understand and am empathetic to both the merits and the politics of South Coast Rail. When I was state transportation secretary, I supported South Coast Rail. I, too, thought that a phased approach providing early service to Lakeville might be the way to provide quick rail service to the South Coast. I directed millions of federal stimulus dollars to bridge reconstruction projects along the line that potentially might become South Coast Rail – investments that would at least make the bridges safe for other uses, without regard to whether South Coast Rail ever came.  I continue to support a well-designed South Coast Rail project, but the facts and data make a compelling case that the current approach is not the right answer.

The Commonwealth should take a step back from its current preferred phased approach, and conduct a Green Line extension-type review that takes into account and carefully assesses benefits of not phasing the project, building it as an electrified system, and utilizing the Mansfield/Taunton branch alternative described briefly here.  Yes, a non-phased approach may delay service to and from the South Coast by several years, and, yes, it still will be expensive, but I believe the outcome will be considerably more cost-effective and will attract a larger cohort of potential net new riders because it will provide better service.

As the TransitMatters Regional Rail report, issued earlier this year, made clear, the Commonwealth needs to begin the process of making investments in its intercity rail system that are forward-looking.  That means system-wide electrification rolled out over time, high-level platforms at all stations in the short term, and strategic expansions like South Coast Rail that are smart, cost-effective and fit into that regional rail vision of more service all day long, with shorter trip times to encourage, support, and grow significantly higher ridership.

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Proponents of South Coast Rail ought to want the best rail service, both from a service and cost perspective.  The current approach doesn’t get us there. In all likelihood, Phase 1 service will deeply disappoint South Coast Rail supporters, exacerbate public frustration, and fuel opposition to future strategic public transportation expansion projects. Ironically, Phase 1 may be so disappointing that it will also effectively kill any prospects for Phase 2. To those who believe strongly, as I do, that the South Coast cities and region ought to have high quality intercity rail connections to Boston, I say it’s time to take another look at the approach we are taking to deliver this long-awaited service.  If we are going to do this – and we should – let’s do it right.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group. He serves on the board of TransitMatters. Board members Ari Ofsevit, Ted Pyne, and Josh Fairchild contributed to this article.