South Coast rail could cost $1b more than estimated
The proposed South Coast rail project to extend commuter service to New Bedford and Fall River could cost $1 billion more than expected and take at least six years longer than scheduled to construct, state transportation officials revealed on Monday.
The long-discussed plan once had a price tag of $2.23 billion and a completion date of 2022. But consultants for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority now estimate it could cost between $3.3 billion and $3.42 billion and be finished between 2028 and 2030.
The increased costs and delays have officials weighing alternatives to the project, which was supposed to include 75 miles of track, new electrified locomotives, and 10 new stations.
At a meeting on Monday of the T’s fiscal control board, officials seemed more amenable to a cheaper option that they believe could bring rail service to the South Coast on a quicker timeline:
Instead of a lengthening of the Stoughton Line, the Middleborough Line would be extended to New Bedford.
Service for Fall River could possibly be added later, with additional trains.
The idea had been examined but dropped in the past.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters the administration of Governor Charlie Baker is committed to the project but must weigh which option is most feasible. “It’s not to say you don’t have to build the project,” she said. “But you have to be honest with our board, the taxpayers, and with the stakeholders of South Coast about how long it’ll take to get in service.”
Officials say the new estimate reflects the amount of time it would require to secure permits for the project, technology required by the federal government that would prevent crashes, and cost escalation from the delays, among other issues.
The revelation about higher costs comes as the MBTA grapples with the Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford, another rail project that exceeded its early cost estimates by nearly $1 billion. That initiative was put on hold for almost a year, and members of the MBTA’s oversight board have made it clear they could still pull the plug.
A commuter rail service ran from Boston to the South Coast before ending in 1959, and some officials have pushed for its return for decades.
The current proposal would extend the existing Stoughton Line to both Fall River and New Bedford — spurring development along the way, according to supporters.
The T would provide 40 daily 77-minute trips between Boston’s South Station and the South Coast, serving more than 4,500 riders a day and creating 3,500 permanent jobs and 6,800 construction jobs.
Pollack and other T officials warned of the project’s complications, including the drawn-out environmental permitting process for a project that would go through many protected wetlands.
The project would also be the MBTA’s first electrified commuter rail operation, a requirement to mitigate the line’s environmental impact. (The T’s other commuter trains have diesel-powered and diesel-electric locomotives.) That means the T would need new electric locomotives, 10 traction power substations, and overhead power systems.
The transit authority has begun construction on several bridges related to the extension, but it is still in a relatively early phase of design: About 15 percent of the design has been completed, according to officials. So far, the MBTA has committed about $24 million to the project.
Officials said that extending the Middleborough Line should again be an option, however.
A group of consulting firms — including HNTB, a company currently working on the South Coast rail project, as project manager — have submitted an unsolicited proposal to widen the Southeast Expressway through a public-private partnership.
The highway proposal, which would have a toll lane, could also include building a commuter rail track to increase capacity. There are currently no plans to widen the highway, but officials said the plan could address the congestion near Savin Hill in Boston.
With the Middleborough route, rides would take longer, but the MBTA would be able to provide some service within six to eight years — or, as officials pointed out, about the same time that the current South Coast rail project would need just to get the permits.
In addition, the right of way for the project is already controlled by the MBTA or the state Department of Transportation.
At Monday’s meeting, some Fall River representatives told the board they would be open to the Middleborough alternative. Robert Mellion, president and chief executive of the Fall River Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said it was not ideal, but a reasonable alternative.
“I support the concept of South Coast rail, but I’m not going to support a unicorn to nowhere,” Mellion said after his testimony to the board, referencing the current plan.
Others, however, said switching course would be a mistake. Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, read a letter from Steve Smith, onetime executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District. It outlined how the Middleborough extension would hurt commuter rail operations. Smith wrote that the longer trip time would “greatly reduce the attractiveness and result in lower ridership numbers” and create additional crowding on the Greenbush and Plymouth lines, which travel along the tracks.
“Do not kick the can down the street because you can’t figure out where the money’s coming from,” Pacheco said. “If it’s a money problem, say it. We’re all adults.”
Kristina Egan, the head of Transportation for Massachusetts, an advocacy group, and previously director of the South Coast rail project at the Transportation Department, also urged the board not to consider the Middleborough Line.
“If you change the project, you will start the environmental review” again, she said. “You will effectively kill this project. . . . If the governor has decided to stop this project, he should be honest about it and take the political consequences.”
Board members did not take any action on Monday, saying they want more information on any alternatives.