Not everyone on the South Coast is getting into training
South Coast rail, the plan to extend passenger train service from Boston to New Bedford and Fall River, promises to stir up more grass-roots activism than the Patrick administration has bargained for. Last fall, state transportation officials decided to re-open the route identification process to the region’s residents as well as 11 other state and federal agencies. Since then they’ve been getting an earful about dozens of possible mass transit permutations.
What do you get when you put so many heads together? A grand total of 65 proposals, ranging from commuter rail to monorail. The options, winnowed down to 10 at press time, include routing trains through Attleboro, Stoughton, or Middleborough, as well as “bus rapid transit” and an expansion of private bus carriers.
But the resurrection of the Attleboro alternatives has brought back bad memories for area residents. When South Coast rail was first proposed in the mid-1990s, the locals spent years fighting scenarios that they believed would increase rail traffic in places already used by Amtrak, freight lines, and the MBTA commuter line to Providence. State officials finally decided on a shorter route via Stoughton. (Going that way wasn’t embraced either, as environmentalists seized up — and will again — over any route that affected the Hockomock Swamp.)
State Rep. Jay Barrows says officials are doing as well as can be expected, but the absence of an up-to-date ridership study is seen as a major problem by the Mansfield Republican. He says a study hasn’t been done since 1999. Nor do state officials know how many people certain types of rail cars or buses can carry. People aren’t getting the answers they want, Barrows complains. “We keep getting the response, ‘You know, gee, we’re at 10,000 feet. That’s at 2,000. We’ll get back to you’,” he says.
The Patrick administration could have pursued the Stoughton alternative, the route selected the first time around, and picked up where the rail project left off in 2002 by seeking an extension of the environmental impact review that had been approved for that line. But the Army Corps of Engineers indicated it was unlikely to issue a permit based on the route chosen by Massachusetts officials, since their regulations require states to study all possible options. (Under the federal Clean Water Act, the Corps issues permits for construction involving the dredging and filling of bodies of water, including wetlands.)
So officials decided to jump-start fresh conversations on viable routes. Once a final roster of six or fewer alternatives is determined in April, it’s up to the Army Corps of Engineers to sign off on a route. State and federal officials must size up a host of factors, including project cost (the current rail estimate is $1.4 billion), trip speed, grade crossings, construction time, and environmental effects on communities. “I’m trying to lay bare for the public as well as for the agencies [that] these are the tradeoffs,” says Kristina Egan, the South Coast rail manager. “There is no silver bullet train.”As for ridership, the state has done preliminary modeling; the available data give high rankings to electrified trains running via Attleboro or Stoughton. Not surprisingly, a bus doesn’t do well. “Nobody on the South Coast is buying the bus,” says Graf.
Most residents express concerns about the impact of South Coast rail locally, not on the region at large. For every community like Freetown that weighs potential benefits, not just the cons of certain routes, there are others, such as Lakeville, that are just coming to grips with the possibility of trains running near homes. There are even more unknowns for existing commuter rail communities farther north that would face new construction and heavier train traffic. As the project plays out, says Greg Guimond of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, “More people start to realize, ‘Whoa, this could impact me as well. I better start paying attention to it.’”