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Worries over rail project funding

Proponents of a decades-old plan that would connect Southeastern Massachusetts communities with Boston by commuter rail are encouraged that the project is conversation on Beacon Hill, but worry that if it’s not funded this year, it might never get done.

A $500 million transportation bill passed by the House last week lists South Coast Rail among the projects that should receive funds, but no direct source was attached to it.

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“There is a fear that South Coast Rail will never be built if it’s not funded,” said Kristina Egan, director of Transportation for Massachusetts , a social advocacy group. “Whatever happens now in transportation is going to be seen as a solution for the next decade, so it’s very unlikely that a big funding fix will be considered in the next few years.”

The tax hike under consideration in the Legislature, far less than Governor Deval Patrick’s proposed $1 billion for transportation, also wouldn’t provide enough revenue to cover other stalled projects competing for the same money, including the South Station expansion and Green Line extension, she said.

“There isn’t enough in there to cover all the different capital needs,” said Egan, previously the South Coast Rail project manager for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “From what I’m hearing from different legislators, is that the [South Coast Rail] project could be funded, but there are so many competing projects.”

With Patrick vowing to veto the House tax hike, project advocates were keeping a close eye on the Senate’s plan, hoping for more funding. As of late last week, the Senate plan was at $805 million.

Estimated to cost nearly $2 billion, the South Coast Rail project would link Boston to Fall River and New Bedford and, advocates say, jump-start economic development in the struggling region. Plans estimate it would create 3,800 new jobs when completed.

Even though the project has been bouncing around since the 1990s, it has never been in a better position for funding until now, Egan said. Pointing to a recent poll conducted by nonprofit think tank MassINC, Egan said nearly 60 percent of Bay State residents are willing to pay more for investments in road and transit projects, with the majority of those willing to invest more in transit projects.

And although they may disagree on the numbers, Patrick, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray also agree that now is the time to invest in transportation projects, Egan said.

“I don’t think the stars will align like this anymore,” she said.

But to make it happen, Egan said, the Senate and House will have to increase the size of their tax hikes. “If [legislators] are going to make a tough vote, might as well make it matter,” she said.

In anticipation of the rail, some area communities, including Freetown and Fall River, have adopted zoning changes to accommodate new residential and mixed-use developments near the proposed stations, said Stephen C. Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, a regional agency that serves 27 cities and towns. State and federal grants have also been awarded to communities that would be affected by the rail for studies and infrastructure repairs.

“There’s been planning around this project that’s not here yet,” Smith said. “The original hope was [completion by] 2016, now we’re pushed off to maybe 2021. . . . I don’t want to give up because I do think it’s a good project, but I do think there could be a major shift in sentiment if this fails and if the legislature can’t pay for South Coast Rail.”

Some residents, he said, are frustrated that the state extends rail service to Rhode Island, but not to its own southeastern communities. And after years of politicians promising the rail would come, Smith said it’s hard not to blame those who have grown cynical about the whole thing.

“It’s deja vu,” Smith said. “This is the time we have to grasp the brass ring. If we don’t do it now it’s not going to happen.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is weeks away from submitting the project’s final environmental review, which would open the door for the various federal and state permits necessary to get the project going, Smith said.

“Once this rail comes around, it’s going to revive the area,” he said. “It’s not a boondoggle, pork barrel project, there’s real economic benefits to it. . . . [But] it’s very clear that the project cannot go ahead under the existing funding stream.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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