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No guarantees for South Coast rail in transportation bill

Advocates of the longstanding plan to bring commuter rail service to the South Coast are voicing concern that the state’s new transportation funding law has left the fate of the project uncertain.

While pleased the legislation singled out the South Coast Rail as a priority, supporters worry the bill does not provide sufficient overall resources to assure that the plan will move forward.

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“There is not enough funding in the bill to fund all the different transportation projects, so my fear is that the South Coast Rail will be in competition with other high-priority projects,” said Kristina Egan, executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition supporting transportation investment in the state.

The South Coast project is “named in the bill as one project that should receive funding, but there are no actual funds allocated. So whether the South Coast Rail gets funded and how much will depend on future legislative and gubernatorial decisions,” said Egan, formerly director of the South Coast Rail project for the state Department of Transportation.

First discussed decades ago, the project would mark a return of commuter rail service to Fall River and New Bedford more than a half-century after it was discontinued.

The $1.8 billion project calls for extending the existing Stoughton line south from Stoughton through Easton, Raynham, and Taunton, and from there along separate routes to New Bedford, and to Berkley, Freetown, and Fall River.

Governor Deval Patrick proposed an average $1.2 billion per year in tax increases over 10 years to meet transportation needs. The bill lawmakers adopted calls for an average $600 million investment per year over five years — $500 million from higher taxes and $100 million from existing revenues – reaching $805 million by the fifth year.

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Patrick vetoed the bill, saying that he could accept the lower funding level, but that the $805 million was not all guaranteed revenue because it failed to provide for $135 million in annual revenue the state stands to lose when tolls in Western Massachusetts could come down in 2017. The Legislature overrode the veto on July 24.

State Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, said he is unhappy the bill does not provide more overall funding, but would have supported it if it included language committing the state to fund the South Coast Rail project. Without it, he voted against the bill and to sustain the veto.

“I think it’s in serious jeopardy,” Pacheco warned of the project. “The administration will continue to do what they can to move forward with the South Coast Rail because it has been a priority for them. But I am very, very concerned.

“This certainly frustrates me significantly,” he added. “Once again, unfortunately, the citizens of Southeastern Massachusetts face the very familiar and unfortunate burden of paying higher and regressive taxes for an infrastructure improvement plan that ignores their needs.”

But Representative William M. Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat and co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said there is “no question there is enough money available” to build the South Coast Rail.

Straus noted that the bill provides new annual transportation funds that will climb to $805 million after five years, on top of the $3 billion the state is already spending on transportation.

“To suggest there is any financial issue regarding the future of the South Coast Rail I think does not have a basis in numbers,” he said.

Straus said he was concerned, however, by what he sees as the slow pace of the project in securing needed regulatory approvals, including an acceptance by the Army Corps of Engineers of the designated route the state has proposed for the project.

“If there is a caution flag out there, it’s the lack of permits in hand, despite the sincere efforts by the administration over the last seven years,” he said.

But Jean Fox, project manager for the South Coast Rail project for the Department of Transportation, said the project is moving ahead, noting that the Army Corps is expected to complete a final environmental impact statement by late summer or early fall.

She said with the issuance of that document – which will include a finding on the designated route – the state can move into final design and state and federal permitting.

Michael Verseckes, spokesman for the Department of Transportation, said the agency “still holds the South Coast Rail project as a top priority. Notwithstanding recent setbacks in allocating a specific funding source, MassDOT will continue to advance the project.”

“At this time, the project is nearing the end of the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental review process. From there, the project will move on to permitting and final design,” he said. “In the meantime, the agency will continue to explore any and all additional opportunities to finance the construction of this important project.”

The proposed 50-mile route would follow existing state-owned rights of way. Along with new tracks, it calls for 10 stations, two layover facilities, and a trestle bridge across the Hockomock Swamp in Easton and Raynham.

The project has historically enjoyed strong support in Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford, but drawn opposition from some in Easton, Raynham, and Stoughton who have cited environmental and traffic impact, and cost.

Stephen C. Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, said he has perceived the opposition ebbing somewhat among those communities. He said the project remains popular among the southern communities, though there is also frustration.

“People are getting impatient to the point where they say, ‘How much longer can we wait?’ ” he said.

Smith said it is difficult to gauge just where the recent funding bill leaves the project.

“I have to take it on faith that when the legislators tell us they will be able to fund the South Coast Rail project with the current package, that that is in fact the case. But I would have felt better if a larger package had passed.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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