Should the state press on with the South Coast Rail project?
William M. Straus
State representative, Mattapoisett Democrat, House chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation
South Coast Rail is a critical project for more than just the communities around Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford. While it would obviously benefit those cities directly by restoring the missing passenger rail connections they previously enjoyed, the project would also be a plus for other regions and communities south of Boston because the ever more crowded road corridor from Quincy and Braintree north into Boston would see fewer cars during the daily commute. Southcoast residents using public transit as an alternative way to get into Boston would help everyone who already use the roads to get to work.
The project recently became more cost-effective and practical as a result of the alternative route for the rail line presented to the MBTA’s control board by the Baker Administration. On June 27, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack proposed the idea of reviewing the project in a way that eliminates the major permitting and cost hurdles of pursuing a train route as an extension of the so-called Stoughton line.
Engineering efficiencies and available right-of-ways very recently identified in the track corridor north of Quincy raise the prospect of a South Coast Rail project with about a third of the cost and an advanced timeline. Permitting issues would also be significantly reduced because the entire project could operate 100 percent on existing track already owned and controlled by the state.
This option of proceeding from the Southcoast using the existing in-service commuter rail originating in Middleborough can and must be offered as a possibility by the control board when it next takes this up. The board should listen to the Baker Administration and open this idea up for public comment and input.
Most headlines this week focused on the updated cost and schedule for the current South Coast Rail project as exceeding $3 billion. The sobering news can, in my view, become the catalyst over the next few months for a better, less costly and quicker project by seizing on the new Middleborough option. The control board should take up the Baker Administration’s idea and begin the public discussion as soon as possible.
Easton resident, director, New England office of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
New estimates that the Stoughton Alternative could cost up to $3.4 billion and not be completed until as late as 2030 have hopefully sounded the death knell for the proposed route of the South Coast Rail. To salvage the project, the MBTA seeks to revive the Middleborough Alternative, or an as-yet-unknown route, as a cheaper substitute. But the Commonwealth needs to look more closely at the real transportation needs of Fall River/New Bedford rather than latching onto another ill-considered rail scheme.
While for environmental reasons alone, the plan to extend the existing Stoughton line should have been dropped decades ago, its ridership economics never made sense either — a failing that will also plague the Middleborough route, and other routes. According to census data the MBTA used to calculate ridership figures, only 1,455 people regularly commute to Boston and Cambridge from Fall River and New Bedford, the main communities South Coast Rail would serve. Yet the MBTA estimates 4,570 riders would take the proposed train. How would ridership magically triple?
A careful reading of the documents shows that the MBTA believes existing rail passengers would stop taking their current trains to ride the new train, even if this means driving farther to get to the new station. This tacitly concedes that not as many cars would come off the roads, casting doubt on the claim that greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced. The analysis demonstrating the need for the new train line and its environmental benefits are a house of cards.
Because of this, the MBTA and its Fiscal and Management Control Board need to re-examine both the ridership and the need for this project. If the goal of the new train is to help the economically depressed cities of Fall River and New Bedford, thought should be given to economic development projects in the cities themselves. Otherwise, this new transportation investment would be utterly misdirected.
Not another dime should be wasted on the white elephant Stoughton Alternative, and it should be formally dropped. However, a hasty rush to a new train project should be avoided. It is high time to go all the way back to the drawing board.
Last week’s Argument: Should the State Police, after arresting an immigrant on criminal charges, detain the suspect at the request of US immigration officials?
Yes: 35 percent (31 votes)
No: 65 percent (58 votes)
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at email@example.com