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North Easton

Proposed South Coast commuter rail causing angst

Questions about how a new South Coast commuter rail will affect North Easton are nagging town officials as the public comment period on the $1.8 billion project’s environmental review closes and the design phase begins.

The Army Corps of Engineers last month confirmed the state’s long-held view that an electric rail line connecting Fall River and New Bedford to Boston — by way of Stoughton — has the least negative impact on the environment.

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But taking the Stoughton route means trains will run through Easton, raising local concerns about parking, traffic, and the tracks’ proximity to drinking-water wells, as well as their impact on the graceful antique homes and buildings in the town’s historic district, since the plan must accommodate overhead power lines for the trains as well as tracks under Main Street, Town Administrator David Colton said.

And, of course, there is the speed and noise of the trains, he said, and their impact on pedestrians.

“The general thought is that we don’t care for this too much,’’ said Colton.

The decades-old plan involves activating a rail line that ends in Stoughton and extending it over the environmentally sensitive Hockomock Swamp in Easton and Raynham. A secondary route would veer off toward Taunton.

The roughly 75-minute ride will include nine new rail stops, including two in Easton: one in North Easton and the other near the Stoughton line in Roche Brothers Plaza, Colton said.

“There are also 11 at-grade crossings in Easton alone on just about every east-west road in town,’’ Colton said. “We are very concerned about what happens to North Easton when the train goes through.’’

Easton residents voted in 2008 not to spend town money to mount a legal challenge, Colton said. Raynham voters took the same step the year before.

Stoughton, which has long been opposed to the idea of a commuter rail in its congested town center, signed a declaration in 2000 condemning the idea and, earlier this month at a Special Town Meeting, approved spending $150,000 to hire a lawyer.

“This is not a NIMBY thing,’’ said attorney George Pucci of the Boston firm Koppleman and Page, hired to help the town review the plan and protect its legal rights, if needed. He said local officials are eager to sit down with the state to talk, not with a not-in-my-backyard approach but rather, “Gee, look at what you are doing to us.”

Like Stoughton, Canton also hopes to sit down with the state and discuss mitigation of the expected impact of the rail line, officials said.

State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Sarah Lavoie said the end of the public comment period on the environmental review on Oct. 25 does not signal an end to the agency’s dialogue with the communities along the proposed rail line.

“Certainly, going forward, the public will have many opportunities to voice concerns and share ideas,’’ she said. “The permitting process will require community engagement and community meetings.”

In a news conference last month, state Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said the South Coast rail plan will position the region for “smart growth and sustainability.”

State officials have made the case for 20 years that Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford are the only cities within 50 miles of Boston that are not served by commuter rail, and any connection would be a critical boost to the economy.

According to the plan, the line would run with double-decker coaches, if needed, to increase capacity and serve approximately 4,570 new daily riders. All told, the rail plan would eliminate nearly 256,000 vehicle miles traveled on local roads and highways per day, officials say.

Stoughton’s existing rail station would have to be moved, and the Canton Center station would be used, but modified. Canton’s rail line to Attleboro is already electrified, but the line that runs to Stoughton is not, said state Representative William C. Galvin, who is skeptical of the South Coast commuter rail idea.

“Both towns are concerned with the type of construction and how it will be developed in the center of their towns,” said Galvin, a Canton Democrat who represents parts of Avon, Canton, and Stoughton.

In both cases, quiet neighborhoods that are situated along the tracks will see trains flying by, he said. And, contrary to the state’s assertion, he said he does not believe ridership will eventually pay for the line.

“Someone making between $30,000 and $70,000 a year can’t afford to spend $150 a week on transportation,” he said, using an estimate of what the ridership fare might be. No fare figures have been released.

Massachusetts would be better served stepping up its outdated public transportation system on a statewide basis, rather than focusing so much money in one small area, like on the New Bedford and Fall River plan, Galvin said.

“I’ve been doing this for 23 years and this plan has been around for about that long,’’ he said, questioning whether the line will ever be built.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.
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