Baker feels the love on South Coast

Rail service plan makes him a hero to the region

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER, who has been facing heat for his oversight of the MBTA since a Red Line derailment June 11, traveled to the South Coast on Tuesday to bask in the adoration of a region thrilled he is finally bringing commuter rail service to them.

At a ceremonial groundbreaking in Freetown, complete with a commuter rail locomotive in the background, politicians from across the region came to praise the governor for transforming South Coast Rail from an idea that never seemed to get off the ground into a fully funded and permitted $1 billion project with a completion date of 2023.

Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, brought with him a shovel given to him for a South Coast Rail groundbreaking that took place under former governor Paul Cellucci in October 1998.

“For many, many years we were running around in circles,” Rodrigues said, acknowledging that at times he became very cynical about whether the South Coast Rail project would ever get done. But he said Baker came into office in 2015 with an open mind and made it happen. “They have turned this idea into life,” he said.

Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said no project of this scale gets done without a lot of people working on it. But he said Baker deserves special praise. “It’s at some point one person who pulls all the pieces together and keeps everyone focused and with Charlie Baker, and certainly the constant assistance of the lieutenant governor, this project is where it is today,” he said.

The praise rolled on and on, with lawmakers saying Baker’s administration was the sixth to promise South Coast Rail but the only one to actually make it happen.

Baker seemed to recognize the political benefits of moving ahead with South Coast Rail, handing out lots of ceremonial shovels and quipping that “I wish to hell it could be done by 2022, to tell you the truth, for all kinds of reasons.” Baker has indicated he make seek a third term in 2022, although he told reporters after the event that his remark was an attempt at humor and not an indication he is definitely running again.

The South Coast Rail project would extend the Middleborough/Lakeville commuter rail line to Pilgrim Junction in Middleborough and then over to East Taunton before heading south to Fall River and New Bedford over reconstructed rail lines. The project calls for the construction of six new stations and two new layover facilities for the diesel-powered trains that will provide service on the line.

The Middleborough-focused South Coast Rail service is officially described as Phase 1, with Phase 2 to be an all-electric service connecting the Stoughton Line to Fall River and New Bedford with an estimated total project cost of $3.2 billion. Phase 2, if it’s ever built, would be completed by 2030.

Once completed, the trip between New Bedford and South Station on the South Coast line is expected to take at least 90 minutes. There will only be three peak AM and PM trips each day, with a total of 13 total trips. Ridership projections have been iffy, with estimates of 1,600 daily riders in 2030 and 3,900 in 2040.

Baker’s financing plan for South Coast Rail counts on nearly $461 million in state general obligation bonds and another $549 million in rail enhancement bonds, which are financed by gas tax money. The general obligation bond money will come from expected increases in the so-called bond cap (basically the amount the state can borrow) over the next five years. One analyst said the governor’s approach means all of that new borrowed money will be going to South Coast Rail and none to other projects in state government.

Even though South Coast officials are ecstatic, others worry the line will fail to attract enough customers, generating annual deficits that will require ongoing subsidies. Despite pressure from the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, no operating cost estimate has been offered publicly yet for the project.

Shovels are lined up for the ceremonial groundbreaking in Freeport for South Coast Rail. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Baker, who opposed South Coast Rail during his first unsuccessful run for office in 2010 and then shifted course during his victorious 2014 campaign, said the argument that convinced him was regional equity. “That argument really rang true for me,” he said.

New Bedford and Fall River are the only major cities within 50 to 60 miles of Boston that don’t have commuter rail service linking them to the capital city. Baker said the southeastern region of the state often felt left out. “It was very hard to argue with them on that because they were right,” he said.

Pressed by reporters after the event, Baker said South Coast Rail will not detract from his administration’s efforts to upgrade service on the Red Line’s core system in and around Boston.

“The difference between this project and the upgrading of the core system is that this is being operated on lines that aren’t currently running,” he said. “It’s a completely different type of project. We can basically set it up as a separate enterprise and just focus on this. The Green Line extension project has a lot of the same elements as this one does.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

By contrast, Baker said, the challenge in fixing the core system is not money or manpower but trying to keep it running while rebuilding it. “You can only do the work at night, on weekends, or early in the morning, or at some point in time when you divert passengers to some alternative,” Baker said. “It’s a very different type of project. So I don’t think projects like this detract from the work.”

Baker was adamant that the challenge in rebuilding the T’s core system is not money or manpower but what he called track time. “We’ve been reticent, frankly, about shutting down particular routes on the weekends if they’re not heavily traveled and coming up with alternative sources of transportation for people or maybe shutting them down a little earlier at night or maybe opening a little later in the morning,” he said. “We just need to find more track time.”