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South Coast rail project moves forward, but obstacles remain

Supporters of commuter rail service returning to the South Coast region are celebrating a regulatory milestone, though funding hasn’t been decided and opposition remains adamant in some communities.

The state announced last week that the US Army Corps of Engineers had issued a final environmental impact statement that embraces the Stoughton Straight Rail Alternative – the option the state had chosen for a transit link between the region and Boston.

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The release of the Corps report, which the state Department of Transportation has adopted as its environmental report, unites the federal and state agencies behind a plan that would bring passenger trains to Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton for the first time since they were discontinued in 1958.

“I think it’s huge,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southeast Regional Planning and Economic Development District. “We’ve been working towards this goal for years.”

The estimated $1.8 billion project now is poised to move into final design and permitting, according to Jean Fox, South Coast Rail project director for MassDOT.

The proposal would extend the rail line that currently terminates in Stoughton, following inactive rail beds and a proposed trestle over the Hockomock Swamp in Easton and Raynham. The route would split south of Taunton, with a main branch heading to New Bedford and a secondary branch to Fall River, both using active freight tracks.

There would be 10 new stations – two each in Easton, New Bedford, Fall River, and Taunton, and one each in Raynham and Freetown – and the Stoughton station would be relocated.

‘Commuter rail service is a key piece of our economic development strategy.’

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However, funding the line is an open question. The state transportation funding law adopted in July singled out the South Coast rail project as a priority, but did not guarantee money for it.

State Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat who voted against that legislation because it didn’t commit funds to the project, welcomed the Corps report, but noted, “We still don’t have a clear path to finding how we are going to fund this initiative.”

Fall River Mayor William A. Flanagan noted that while Governor Deval Patrick strongly supports the project, his successor might not.

“One of the pivotal components in the timeline going forward is going to be who the next governor is,” Flanagan said.

Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for MassDOT, said the Corps report “gives this project a renewed sense of momentum” and the administration is confident that money will be made available.

Historically, the project has received strong support in Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton, Officials estimate the line would result in about 4,570 new daily rides and help stimulate the region’s economy. On the other hand, the plan has encountered resistance in Easton, Raynham, and Stoughton.

“We will have public safety complications with trains coming through town – the train is going to cut across Route 138, one of our major thoroughfares. It’s going to delay traffic,” said Joseph R. Pacheco, chairman of Raynham’s Board of Selectmen and a longtime opponent of the project. “The train noises are going to disturb our neighbors.”

Colleen Corona, chairwoman of the Easton Board of Selectmen, said she fears adverse effects to Easton’s historic downtown and the environment. She also worries about the safety effects of proposed grade crossings, and traffic tie-ups.

Some of the most vocal opposition has come from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national nonprofit composed of public employees who work in the environmental arena.

Kyla Bennett, director of the group’s New England office, said the project would harm the Hockomock Swamp.

“They want to bisect the largest vegetated wetland in Massachusetts,” said Bennett, an Easton resident. “It’s home to rare species. It provides water supplies for at least five towns and is one of the largest contiguous tracts of habitats left in Massachusetts.”

Bennett said it was a “very strong possibility” that her group will sue to stop the project.

But New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said the project would be a major boost for his city, bringing jobs and increased economic activity.

“Commuter rail service is a key piece of our economic development strategy,” he said, adding that it would also provide Boston direct access to a larger labor market.

Flanagan said the benefits to Southeastern Massachusetts would outweigh the financial cost of building the line. “It’s not just a transportation issue for us. It unlocks economic opportunity as well as it unlocks educational opportunity,” he said.

In all, 65 options were considered and six were closely examined. In addition to the option selected, there were three other rail routes, a rapid bus service on dedicated lanes on Route 24 and Interstate 93; and no expansion at all.

Fox said the other rail routes were rejected because they would add travel time, pose potentially greater environmental impacts, and have less ridership. The bus option was rejected because it would worsen traffic in the corridor as well as other roadways. The no-build option was rejected because it did not meet the project needs.

The Corps’ report calls for electric-powered locomotives over diesel ones, saying they would have the least environmental impact. The state’s preliminary estimate of $1.8 billion was based on the use of “clean diesel,” according to Fox, but Verseckes said the state has no plans to argue against the proposed use of electric trains.

The federal report still requires a formal filing by the Corps, expected next spring after the state completes a report on how it will mitigate the project’s impact on wetlands. The DOT report requires approval by the state secretary of environmental affairs, expected in November.

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