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State grants will help towns prepare for expanded rail service

State Transportation Secretary Richard Davey has announced $235,000 in grants aimed at helping Southeastern Massachusetts communities prepare for a proposed rail expansion from Boston to Fall River and New Bedford.  

Nine area towns were among those receiving small grants to work with regional planning specialists over the next several months to tweak local zoning regulations and analyze issues ranging from housing and business development to traffic congestion and open space protection.

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The grants, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 each, stem from the state’s South Coast Rail Economic Development and Land Use Corridor Plan, produced in 2009. The plan anticipates the economic boost the rail expansion is expected to bring and targets priority areas for development and preservation.

“These technical assistance grants reinforce the state’s designation of priority areas,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District. “The majority are related to zoning, mixed-use, and transit-oriented development.”

Under the grant program, which is in its fifth round, Smith’s agency will provide technical assistance to Raynham, Freetown, and Lakeville. 

Raynham and Freetown are slated for train stations, should the front-running Stoughton Alternative plan for rail expansion be selected. The option would expand the line from Stoughton through Easton and Raynham and Freetown, on its way to Fall River and New Bedford.  

Raynham will use the technical assistance to continue its study of a stretch of Route 138 that includes the targeted train station location on the Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park property.

“Last year, we determined the conditions along Route 138, which is a mishmash of zoning,” said Raynham Town Planner Marilyn Whalley. “There is some business and a lot of residential. The road is currently overburdened with traffic, and adding more traffic from the South Coast Rail would exacerbate that problem.”

Raynham will develop a mixed-use zoning overlay district on Route 138, to encourage business growth compatible with existing neighborhoods. Whalley said the town will also look at traffic-calming measures and ways of making the route more accessible to bike riders and pedestrians.

Freetown will follow up on last year’s establishment of a mixed-use district bylaw that encourages a business and residential blend near the targeted train station on South Main Street. The town will produce rules and regulations for special permits in the district. Town Administrator Richard Brown said officials are “glad we’re getting the money we need to flesh out” the bylaw.

Lakeville will use regional planning assistance to draft an inclusionary zoning bylaw, addressing its low- to moderate-income housing shortage. The law follows up on last year’s development of a housing production plan, outlining strategies to address affordable housing.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, meanwhile, will assist Stoughton and Foxborough with their downtown difficulties. “We’ve been working with these towns for the last several years on goals they’ve expressed for revitalization of their downtowns,” said the agency’s land use director, Mark Racicot. 

Stoughton Town Planner Noreen O’Toole said the front-running rail alternative would have significant impact on a congested area. “We have a lot of routes that run through town, and there’s a major existing traffic problem,” she said. Regional planners will help produce a traffic plan and draft zoning changes to encourage better business and residential development downtown.

Foxborough will update its downtown zoning and implement a recently produced affordable-housing plan.

Other grants went to Bridgewater to address traffic, business, and housing challenges downtown; Mansfield to study infrastructure needs related to rail service; Rochester to develop a village center overlay district plan; and Wareham to produce a streetscape plan and cost estimates for the Merchants Way area.

And as communities continue to prepare for a commuter service expansion, state officials have been pressuring federal agencies to wrap up the project’s environmental review by the Army Corps of Engineers, according to South Coast Rail Project manager Jean Fox

In an e-mail, Fox said state agencies plan to submit their final technical reports and analyses to the Army Corps next month. “The MassDOT and the Corps have developed a very aggressive schedule that reflects issuance of the Final Impact Statement/Report in March of 2013,” Fox said. “This is a very significant milestone for the project, as it paves the way for design and permitting.”

In 2011, the Army Corps issued its draft impact report on proposed expansion options for commuter service. While the draft didn’t formally identify a preferred expansion mode, the state Department of Transportation selected the Stoughton route as the best option.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.
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