The South Coast Rail project — a revival of passenger rail service connecting regions of the South Coast to Boston for the first time since the 1950s — is picking up steam.
Construction of the Fall River line, one half of the long-awaited project, is finished, and the complete extension is on track to open by late next year, according to the MBTA. The new lines will extend commuter rail service through Middleborough, stopping in East Taunton before splitting, with one line running toward Fall River via Freetown and another to New Bedford via Church Street Station and the Wamsutta layover.
Governor Charlie Baker, who made completion of the project a cornerstone of his reelection campaign, cut the ribbon Monday for the newly completed Freetown Station on the Fall River line, which the MBTA promises will bring commuters from the gateway city to downtown Boston in under 90 minutes.
“I am really looking forward to being able to come back here as a private citizen at some point in 2023,” Baker said at a press conference. “To be able to hop on that train and see the fulfillment of what I know, for many of you, has been three or four decades of advocacy.”
Ed Lambert, mayor of Fall River from 1996 to 2007, said commuter rail access will allow locals to remain in their communities while working elsewhere — like Boston or Cambridge. He added the line will encourage outsiders to “discover” the area and its value.
“It’s very important, not just for transportation purposes, but symbolically to ensure that this important region of the Commonwealth is connected, and engaged, and participating. It’s an equity issue,” Lambert said in a phone interview.
Kimberly Wilson, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Labor Education Center — which helped form Bus Riders United, a coalition of Fall River, New Bedford, and Dartmouth transit riders — said the project has felt “never-ending,” but called Monday’s milestone very exciting.
“It’s kind of starting to right a wrong of being so isolated,” Wilson said. “This is a huge change.”
Wilson said the new line will bring opportunity for residents in South Coast communities to work in Boston and “participate in the rest of Massachusetts through public transportation.” But she expressed some concern the extension could also mean an influx of Boston residents looking for cheaper places to live.
“It’s the double-edged sword of increased access to opportunity with the potential downside of losing more affordable housing,” Wilson said.
Lambert said outsiders have been incrementally discovering the South Coast for years, and that a completed commuter rail will add to that. “There’s such a great quality of life here that we should not be afraid to open the doors to the rest of the region,” he said.
In 2019, the state agreed to pick up the $1 billion tab for the first phase of construction, allowing work to resume on the project, which had been stalled for decades. The 2023 opening date has remained a consistent goal since.
Baker said he remembered first being involved in discussions about the South Coast Rail in the 1990s, when he was working as a staffer for then-Governor William Weld.
“At that point in time, there’d already been a conversation going on about South Coast Rail for almost a decade,” Baker said.
So far, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said his agency has rebuilt 12 miles of track and 11 culverts, built 10 new crossings, two new stations, including Freetown, and one new layover. “And we’ve done it on time, and we’ve done it on budget,” Poftak said.
He added: “This is really a historic moment for us, for our current and future South Coast Rail riders.”
He said the 800-foot-long Freetown Station includes canopies for protection from the weather, electric vehicle parking, a bike shelter, and “customer amenities,” like benches, lighting, and security cameras.
Poftak said “significant work” is now underway on the New Bedford branch, which includes track and station repair and construction as well as building new signal and communication infrastructure along the corridor — more than $400 million worth of development.
Baker said the commuter rail is currently running at around 80 percent of prepandemic ridership, which he attributed to the system’s reliability, something residents along the South Coast have been unable to benefit from.
“How are we going to claim to be an inclusive Commonwealth if the South Coast of Massachusetts, and Fall River and New Bedford in particular, did not have access to the public transportation that was available to all the other communities within 50 miles of Boston?” Baker said.
Baker and Poftak were joined by other state and local officials, who praised the Fall River rails’ completion and recalled a years-long series of hurdles.
State Senator Michael Rodrigues, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said he still has the “infamous” groundbreaking shovel from a 1998 false-start to the project and the “real” groundbreaking shovel from 2019 in his office at the State House.
“This is almost surreal for me,” Rodrigues said. “I’ve been to a lot of groundbreakings, but to actually come to a ribbon-cutting is a great experience.”
Carole Fiola, representative for the Sixth Bristol District, praised the work of local advocacy groups and government officials who pushed for and completed the job, which has lasted through several governors.
“They said that the royal visit was probably the most exciting event to happen in Massachusetts this year, but for me and for us here, it is this day,” Fiola said.
Correction, Dec. 6, 2022: An earlier version of this story misstated Kimberly Wilson’s affiliation. She is director of the Labor Education Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.