Construction of commuter rail service to the South Coast on a route that runs through Middleborough should cost about $935 million, with service beginning in late 2022, according to a state transportation official.
While the T builds that first phase, officials will continue to explore the possibility of costlier option that would send an electrified train on a different route — through Taunton — to get to Fall River and New Bedford, according to James Eng, MassDOT’s deputy rail administrator who briefed the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board recently.
To the extent that Governor Charlie Baker’s January state of the state address was an opening to his reelection campaign, the South Coast Rail project was a major campaign promise as he seeks a second term.
“And after more than three decades of lip service, we’re going to make commuter rail from Fall River and New Bedford to Boston a reality,” Baker said in the annual speech he delivered last month.
The project will reduce vehicle miles traveled by 66,400 per weekday and shorten travel time for commuters in the seaside cities by around an hour, according to MassDOT. Travel-time from New Bedford and Fall River to Boston would be cut to about an hour and a half on the train, according to MassDOT.
The plan calls for 13 round trips per day to the South Coast, according to Eng, who noted the project would entail building another station near what is currently the end of the Lakeville line.
Routing the train through Middleborough avoids some of the permitting issues presented by the alternative plan of creating electrified train service through the Hockomock Swamp and downtown Taunton, Eng said.
That plan has a projected price tag of $3.2 billion with service beginning no sooner than 2030, according to Eng. Should the state go that route, about $800 million worth of work in phase one could be repurposed for that bigger endeavor.
Business leaders and elected officials from the South Coast have long called for train service linking them to Boston. Baker supported the rail project during his successful 2014 gubernatorial campaign.
State Representative Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat whose House Bonding Committee hearings rarely pass without a plug for the long-stalled South Coast Rail project, said recently that he was pleased that the governor used his State of the Commonwealth address last month to declare that his administration will make South Coast Rail “a reality,” but said he won’t be at ease until there is a definitive timeline for the project to be completed.
“Until that hard commitment of the resources that are needed and the timeline for it to be completed, it becomes something we keep talking about but we never see the end of the line,” Cabral said.
On many days, Cabral runs into “complete gridlock” on Route 24 and Interstate 93 during his commute between the State House and New Bedford, he said.
Rhode Island residents who live near Providence have better access to Boston via public transit than residents of New Bedford and Fall River, Cabral noted.
“It doesn’t help the economy of Greater Boston or the South Coast or Western Mass. when it becomes such a struggle and a challenge to actually get into the Boston area and out of the Boston area,” Cabral said. “I think it’s time for us to say yes, let’s make it a reality, let’s really put on the table what we need to reach that point.”