How far does South Coast Rail commitment go?

Pollack says commitment firm despite questions on cost

THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION says the state is committed to South Coast Rail, even though the route and the cost of the project are not even close to being finalized.

State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack kicked off a conversation about South Coast Rail with the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board on Monday by saying the project is a commitment of the Commonwealth. That statement seemed to frame an open-ended discussion about the difficulties in fulfilling the South Coast Rail commitment at a time when the T is strapped for cash and already struggling with expanding the Green Line into Somerville and Medford.

South Coast Rail became a questionmark in June, when state officials said the consensus route to Fall River and New Bedford from the terminus of the Stoughton commuter rail line would cost $1 billion more than initially projected ($3.4 billion versus $2.23 billion) and not be completed until 2029. At the same time, the officials also tossed out another idea, running service to the two cities from the terminus of the Middleboro line. The officials said that approach would take six to eight years to complete at far less cost, but it would mean fewer trains could operate on a daily basis and the trip itself would take 91 instead of 77 minutes.

A host of officials from Fall River and New Bedford on Monday encouraged the MBTA’s oversight board  to explore and move ahead with the Middleboro option, but it was clear from the discussion that a lot of questions remain. In particular, board chairman Joseph Aiello and board member Lisa Calise seemed in no hurry to give a green light to the Middleboro approach, asking T officials for a lot more information on other alternatives.

Andrew Brennan, the MBTA’s director of engineering and environment, said 65 different bus and rail alternatives had been examined before settling on the Stoughton approach. He said the Stoughton approach would allow for 40 trips a day, 20 each to New Bedford and Fall River. He said the trip would take 77 minutes to New Bedford and 75 minutes to Fall River, with projected daily ridership at 4,570.

Brennan said the problem with bus rapid transit connecting Boston and the two Gateway Cities is that the length of the trip would in many cases be almost as long as driving by private vehicle. Pollack also told the board that bus service was unlikely to be feasible because it would take too long. Nevertheless, Aiello and Calise pressed for more information on bus-only alternatives.

Brennan said the Middleboro approach has a number of advantages. Most of the track right-of-way is already owned or controlled by the MBTA and service could be up and running in the same amount of time it would take to just complete permitting for the Stoughton approach.

But the Middleboro approach also faces a number of hurdles, principal among them that there is only one commuter rail track between Braintree and South Station, meaning trains in most cases would have to come in to South Station and return to Braintree before another commuter rail train could come in from Braintree. To address that problem, state transportation officials have suggested adding a second commuter rail track between Braintree and South Station, but that would probably require burying the commuter rail tracks under the southeast expressway near Savin Hill at an undetermined cost.

“I can’t stress how very, very conceptual it is,” Brennan said of the Middleboro approach.

Brennan pitched the board on holding meetings with the public in September on the various South Coast transportation options and possibly developing some sort of interim service to Boston. The Fiscal Management and Oversight Board took no action at Monday’s meeting, but asked Brennan to return in a month to go over a possible schedule for action.

The board seemed divided on what to do, with Aiello and Calise bent on exploring possibly cheaper alternatives and Monica Tibbits-Nutt raising concerns about launching new rail service at all in the future. “The days of continuing to build rail projects are starting to come to an end,” she said.

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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.

Pollack said the state commitment to South Coast Rail was a commitment of Gov. Charlie Baker and his predecessors, although she noted funding for the project was included in the MBTA’s five-year capital plan. Baker, who opposed South Coast Rail when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010, is fond of saying the focus of the T should be on maintaining and modernizing its core services. Pollack noted 80 percent of the T’s capital budget is focused on maintaining and modernizing the T’s existing services, but she said 20 percent is reserved for expanding the T’s services.

Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he believes state bonding authorizations for South Coast Rail represented a commitment to the project. Asked if the state was committed to the project no matter what it cost, he said he would never take cost out of the equation.

Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, said the commitment to South Coast Rail is different from the commitment to the Green Line extension, which is mandated in state and federal law. “The commitment [to South Coast Rail] is not a legal commitment,” he said.