William M. Straus
State representative, Mattapoisett Democrat, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation
On April 2 the state’s environmental secretary issued an important approval for the Baker administration’s plan to bring an early start for commuter rail service to Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River. The so-called “Phase 1” plan for South Coast Rail is an innovative approach using existing and in-use state-owned rail corridors south of Middleborough to get the project into operation as soon as 2022.
At a third of the cost, nearly a decade sooner, and with zero wetlands variances, Phase 1 has much to commend it. This is a welcome alternative to the original plan to only push for service using the Stoughton route through the Hockomock Swamp -- where there is no track or electric service -- with little prospect of final environmental approvals for more than a decade, and with a price tag of more than $3 billion. Permitting work for that route can continue while people in the region are actually riding trains to Boston!
An irony of government I’ve observed over the years is that even good ideas have detractors, and Phase 1 is no exception. Some complain that a 90-minute ride to Boston is too long, even though that ride exists elsewhere in the system. My “normal” drive is over two hours now, and I know that many would welcome the more predictable train ride with its productive time for reading and Wi-Fi access. Some say Phase 1 will delay getting the full Stoughton route completed. As it turns out, most of the Phase 1 construction south of Taunton is part of the full Stoughton route anyway, and the construction costs saved by getting this work completed now (instead of as late as 2030) should nearly cover all the upgrades for the rest of Phase 1.
Phase 1 for South Coast Rail also provides a better-conceived new station in Middleborough, which would open up the possibility of a transfer platform for regular future commuter service south to Cape Cod.
In the end, Phase 1 brings early rail service, at less cost, with immediate benefits of cars off the road and reduced greenhouse emissions. Enough I would hope to convince all but the most hardened critics.
Member, Middleborough Board of Selectmen
Phase 1 of the South Coast Rail is a second-rate political solution, and the South Coast deserves better.
The biggest issue with Phase 1, which calls for extending the Middleborough/Lakeville line, is that it only provides a “short-term utility” and there is no guarantee that Phase 2 -- extending the existing Stoughton line -- will ever get built.
As a standalone project Phase 1 does not fully meet the goals of South Coast Rail. With a 90-plus minute ride, this plan will only disenfranchise South Coast residents and guarantee that Phase 2 will never happen.
Phase 1 will not include a downtown station in the gateway city of Taunton, and actually reduces transit access for Middleborough -- the proposed new train station in our town would actually have more than 250 fewer parking spaces than the existing Lakeville station it would replace.
Neither Taunton nor Middleborough would receive any of the benefits of rail service -- for example, there are no definite state plans to fix the traffic problems in the Middleborough rotary -- but both would play host to all the issues associated with them.
With 26 daily trips scheduled, the rail line would probably be stretched to capacity, leaving no room for future expansion -- including regular rail service to Cape Cod.
The project’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Report states that this plan will increase commuter ridership by 1,600 riders at a cost of $935 million -- roughly $584,000 per rider. And it says Phase 1 would meet just 10 percent of the South Coast ridership demand.
The new train station is slated to be built in a Middleborough Water Resource Protection District zone, which we contend would directly violate our local bylaws and threaten a municipal well. The state approved this plan and still has not acknowledged that bylaw or spoken to the town about it.
I understand the support for Phase 1 from other communities; the South Coast has been deprived of mass transit for far too long. But this is a bad proposal and only provides an inferior rail system that will ultimately be the end of the real “preferred option” of the Stoughton electric route. It should not be pursued.
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As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.