South

Candidates weigh in on rail project

Five of the 10 announced candidates for governor said they fully support the project to return a commuter rail to the South Coast region, while four others are reserving judgment.

With the next election looming as a pivotal development for the $2.2 billion rail project, the gubernatorial contenders were asked their views in an informal Globe South survey.

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In interviews and e-mailed comments from their campaigns, Democrats Joseph C. Avellone, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, State Treasurer Steven Grossman, and Juliette Kayyem; and independent Evan Falchuk all said they back the South Coast Rail plan and would work to move it forward as governor.

Republican Charles D. Baker, Democrat Donald M. Berwick, and independents Jeff McCormick and Scott Lively said they want to see more evaluation of the plan or are still considering it.

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Another contender, Mark Fisher, declined comment through a spokeswoman, who said the Shrewsbury Republican did not plan media interviews until after his campaign kickoff.

The long-planned project would extend the rail line that ends in Stoughton south along inactive rail beds and a proposed 1.5-mile trestle over the Hockomock Swamp in Easton and Raynham, then on to Taunton. South of Taunton, the route would split, with a main branch heading to New Bedford and a secondary branch to Fall River, both branches using active freight tracks.

Governor Deval Patrick has championed the project, helping the more than two-decade-old plan gain some modest momentum.

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The Army Corps of Engineers in September issued a final environmental impact statement that endorsed the Stoughton Straight Rail Alternative — the option chosen by the state — opening the way for permitting and final design. Then last month, a state legislative panel included funding for the project in a multiyear transportation bill.

But advocates warn that the fate of the project could depend on the next administration’s funding decisions.

Grossman, in an interview, said he supported the project “and I will commit to doing my best to move it forward and to using political capital to do that.” He said he has a way to pay for it.

Anticipating that Congress will adopt legislation allowing states to implement a uniform online sales tax, Grossman said the estimated $5 billion the state would generate from those revenues, coupled with the money the state committed in last July’s transportation spending bill, would be enough to fund all of its priority transportation projects, including South Coast Rail.

Kayyem, a former federal and state homeland security official, said in an interview that “I absolutely support continuing to push for the South Coast Rail investment,” noting that the position reflects a larger theme of her campaign.

“A lot of my campaign is about infrastructure being the backbone of our state. It connects us to each other and to other states and the world. . . . It really is part of our economic development plan and how we should be investing in the next 20 or 30 years,” she said.

Kyle Sullivan, a campaign spokesman for Coakley, said by e-mail that the attorney general “is a strong supporter of South Coast Rail. She believes it is a critical infrastructure investment that will pay dividends in jobs and economic growth while also bringing some important regional equity to our transportation spending.”

Advocates warn that the fate of the project could depend on the next governor’s funding decisions.

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Baker, a former state secretary of administration and finance, opposed the South Coast Rail project when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010. Interviewed by the Globe that June, he called South Coast Rail “yet another example of overspending and overcommitting at a point in time when taxpayers are desperate for the Commonwealth to live within its means.’’

But a statement from his campaign suggested the Republican is willing to revisit the issue.

Tim Buckley, Baker’s campaign spokesman, said, “Charlie will seek input from residents and data on South Coast Rail’s cost to determine if it is the right path to job creation and a stronger local economy for the South Coast. In addition to crafting a fiscally sound, statewide transportation plan, Charlie is running to foster a stronger economy to boost regions like the South Coast that have not seen the same success as other parts of the state.”

Baker’s stance drew a jab from Grossman.

“I think Charlie Baker has in the past been an opponent of South Coast Rail and even now he is grudgingly indicating that he might be willing to take a look at it,” Grossman said. “I think for the people of the South Coast, they need a full-throated statement of support for [a project] that will unlock the economic potential of the South Coast.”

Avellone, a biotechnology executive and former Wellesley selectman, said in an interview: “I strongly support the South Coast Rail project and it will be a high priority in my administration on transportation projects. I think it is vitally important for the economic growth of the region.

“People in our knowledge economy need to have access to multiple places in the state, and I think connecting the state via important projects like the South Coast Rail is critical to having a 21st-century economy,” Avellone added.

Falchuk, a former global health company executive who is running as a candidate of the United Independent Party, said the fact that the pending change in governors has created uncertainty for the South Coast Rail project “is part of the problem with the whole political process. It’s hard for us politically to make commitments and follow through on them.

“This is relatively modest compared with some of the many accomplishments that have come before us,” he added. “We should just be able to move forward and get it done and that’s what I’ll do as governor.”

Berwick, a former Obama administration health care official, said in an interview that he is committed to expanding transportation access to the South Coast, but wants to explore the available options to make sure “we get the most value for our money.”

McCormick, principal of a venture investing firm, said in a statement, “Transportation links are a key to revitalization for Gateway Cities like Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford, so we should do all we can to connect them to markets. We are reviewing the cost benefit analysis of this project to determine the impact of this public investment. This study will be concluded within 90 days.”

Lively, an evangelical Christian pastor from Springfield, said in an interview that he generally favors rail projects, but is not ready to take a position on South Coast Rail on “what the pros and cons are as understood by the local people.”

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