The decades-old push to extend the commuter rail to southeastern Massachusetts got a boost Monday, as officials signed off on the largest construction contract yet for the South Coast Rail project.
The MBTA’s oversight board approved a $403 million contract to prepare 24 miles of track and four new stations between Middleborough and New Bedford, as well as a new layover facility and signal system. The award comes a few months after the T awarded a separate $159 million contract for about 12 miles of rail to Fall River, the service’s other branch.
While its groundbreaking happened more than a year ago, these contracts account for the project’s big-ticket items that riders will actually use.
“This contract helps realize the dream of train service between Taunton, Fall River, New Bedford, and Boston,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said in a statement.
The cost of the contract came in slightly above the T’s estimate of $398 million. It was awarded to a joint venture between the Massachusetts-based Middlesex Corporation and Tutor Perini, a publicly traded California company.
Construction will last about three years, with passenger service expected to begin in late 2023. Trains will travel north from New Bedford and Fall River and through Taunton before jutting east toward Middleborough, where they’ll continue on the existing Middleborough/Lakeville line toward South Station in Boston.
The project has been promised by politicians for years, including by Governor Charlie Baker ahead of his 2014 election. His administration has followed through — though not without some controversy. Officials have tabled plans, at least for now, to build a faster, more frequent, and more direct electric-powered rail service, instead focusing on the more circuitous route that was easier to permit and build.
The state’s own projections showed smaller numbers of commuters opting for this version, which will cost about $1 billion in total, and some advocates have criticized it as poor value given the ridership estimates. The new route also prevents a station in downtown Taunton, to the chagrin of some officials there.
But others, such as state Representative William Straus, who represents part of the region and leads the House’s transportation efforts, have celebrated the Baker administration’s maneuver as finally delivering the rail connection.