Baker pushes 2-track S. Coast rail approach
Pacheco fears Middleborough approach may doom Stoughton line
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
The Baker administration has agreed on a course for the first phase of long-promised commuter rail service to the South Coast, working under an approach that contemplates diesel service along an existing Middleborough/Lakeville rail line while engineering, design and permitting work continues on a possible electric service route through Stoughton.
Transportation officials on Wednesday announced their intentions, encompassed in a recently filed Notice of Project Change that estimates the first phase of the project will begin in 2019 and be completed in 2024. One senator from the area said his work on the rail service extension began in the early 1980s.
Information about the cost of the first phase of the rail project is not available, according to a Massachusetts Department of Transportation spokesman. The MassDOT spokesman, Patrick Marvin, said the agency but expects “significant cost savings” on phase one due to “lower costs for infrastructure, fewer right-of-way requirements, and the ability to utilize existing rolling stock rather than purchase all new rail equipment.” One lawmaker said he has been told the cost would be in the $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion range.
MassDOT filed its project change notice with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office on March 15. A public comment period will end April 21.
Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who is co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, praised the governor for the decision.
“Filing of a Project Change Notice by the Baker-Polito Administration in favor of a ‘Middleborough Route’ is a major advancement for getting the permits to bring early commuter rail service to the South Coast,” Straus said in a statement. “The governor deserves a great deal of credit in pushing for this route change, which can bring us actual commuter rail service faster and cheaper and with fewer permit hassles than the bogged down Stoughton Route. A one-seat ride to Boston by this route presents a realistic choice, at a third of the cost, to see commuter rail service restored to the South Coast.”
Rep. Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat and proponent of South Coast Rail, said he has some unanswered questions about the Middleborough route – such as what it would cost and how many trains would run along it.
New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny called the announcement a “procedural development,” and said he had questions about costs and when service would start.
Taunton Sen. Marc Pacheco had hoped the state would continue to pursue service along the Stoughton route, which he said would provide greater environmental benefits and better spur economic development in the Silver City. Transportation officials have said the Middleborough route could be accomplished for less money and on a quicker schedule.
Pacheco said he was actively researching legal options with private interest groups. Pacheco also plans to call an oversight hearing of the Global Warming and Climate Change Committee he chairs to grill transportation officials about how the diesel service fits in with the governor’s plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“It could in fact provide an opportunity to eliminate any further action in the southeast in terms of Taunton, which is one of the major gateway cities in our Commonwealth,” he said. Pacheco added, “Once you have another way to get to Fall River, New Bedford, they’re not coming back. Certainly this administration’s not coming back.”
Under both routes, the commuter rail would extend out to Fall River and New Bedford, where officials have been clamoring for service. Transportation officials turned their attention to the Middleborough route after announcing costs for the Stoughton route had ballooned by more than $1 billion to $3.4 billion. Earlier this year, an email from a Department of Transportation official to legislative aides suggested the state had decided to pursue rail service through Middleborough, but Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the email had been sent in error and no final decision had been made.
Under the plan, the so-called 7.5-mile Middleborough Secondary Line will need to be upgraded to handle commuter rail traffic, an effort that “provides a quicker, less expensive option for service to and from New Bedford and Fall River,” according to the state transportation department.
While the environmental review is underway, MassDOT said it plans to advance work on the so-called Southern Triangle, from Cotley Junction in Taunton south through Berkley, Lakeville, Freetown, Fall River, and New Bedford, “which is common to both the early action and final phases of the project.”
“It moves things forward while maintaining the option of the route through the swamp,” said Rep. Paul Schmid, a Westport Democrat.
Rep. Robert Koczera, a New Bedford Democrat, said he thought beginning service through Middleborough would create a constituency for faster electrified service through Stoughton and the Hockomock Swamp in the future.
“You would build demand in our region for greater commuter rail service, and clearly the Stoughton route is preferable,” Koczera told the News Service.
Rep. Carole Fiola, a Fall River Democrat, said it was “great news,” and Rep. Keiko Orrall, a Lakeville Republican, said she believes the administration is taking the right course.
“There is currently existing rail between Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton to Boston,” Orrall said in a statement. “I believe that with improvements and public input it will prove to be the best solution for the transportation needs of the South Coast.”Koczera said he believes the project should be able to be accomplished in a three- to four-year window.
“I’m optimistic,” said Rep. Alan Silvia, a Fall River Democrat. He said, “We all want to ride this train before I go to heaven – especially me.”