The Herald News, Thursday, March 23, 2017 – Page A1

By Michael Holtzman

Fall River – The Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced Wednesday its project change filing to upgrade the Middleboro/ Lakeville commuter line to initiate South Coast Rail service to Fall River and New Bedford.

Construction would begin in 2019 and take five years until 2024 to build – compared with 2030 estimated for the full project through Stoughton, according to MassDOT’s filing made public Wednesday afternoon.

“This will enable us to provide passenger rail to the South Coast region years sooner than would be the case if the project would be constructed at one time,” Transportation Secretary/ CEO Stephanie Pollack said in a written statement after delivering the message to South Coast legislators at noon Wednesday.

The concept is to use the existing line for “early-action service” in an initial phase and continue preliminary engineering design and permitting for an electric train route through Stoughton.

That’s long been the preferred commuter rail route to Boston, which is approximately 15 percent designed.

MassDOT one week ago on March 15 filed the Notice of Project Change with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office, as first reported by The Herald News on Tuesday. That begins a public comment period through April 21, the filing reported on MEPA’s biweekly Environmental Monitor says.

MEPA would have 10 days afterwards to act, officials said.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who a week ago met with area legislators and leaders about the Middleboro option favored by most, said in the media release, “Our administration is committed to providing the South Coast with commuter rail service as expeditiously and efficiently as possible.”

The Stoughton final phase – with an escalated $3.4 billion price tag last summer – would continue to advance while giving the region more limited commuter rail service years earlier, Baker also noted.

The project change summary filed with MEPA shows the vastly reduced impacts on track mileage work, acres of land for stations and wetlands altered. They include:

• Stoughton route: 16.4 miles new track, 35.5 miles upgraded; 95.3 acres of land altered, 6.1 acres of bordering vegetated wetlands altered.

• Middleboro secondary route: 7.6 miles track upgraded; 10 acres of land altered; 10,000 square feet (a quarter acre) bordering vegetated wetlands altered.

• Proposed new total combined: 16.4 miles new track, 43.1 miles upgraded track; 105.3 acres of land altered for stations; 6.35 acres bordering vegetated wetlands altered.

The number of annual trips estimated through Stoughton under the prior filing was 255,932, with the number for Middleboro to be determined. The total number of needed parking spaces would increase at least 500 from 3,467 to 3,967, says last week’s filing changes.

After MEPA has adopted the Middleboro secondary line and continues its review, MassDOT said it would advance work on the “Southern Triangle” from Cotley Junction in Taunton south through Berkley, Lakeville, Freetown, Fall River and New Bedford.

While the cost for a 7½mile easterly extension to Lakeville/Middleboro was not immediately available, it’s been estimated at a fraction of the Stoughton route.

“We’re developing budget estimates,” Patrick Marvin, a spokesman for MassDOT said. He said in an email significant cost reductions are due to savings on “infrastructure, fewer right-of-way requirements and the ability to utilize existing rolling stock rather than purchase all new rail equipment.”

State Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, reacted enthusiastically over the announcement for the Fall River area and the region.

Under consideration is whether they can accommodate two or three sets of peak period morning and evening trains from both Fall River and New Bedford, Rodrigues said.

“I think the Middleboro alternative is a great idea. It’s much less expensive, gets service much quicker, and it doesn’t take the full-blown, long-term Stoughton route off the table,” Rodrigues said.

State Rep. Carole Fiola, D-Fall River, was also among about a dozen legislators who received Pollack’s briefing and reacted similarly.

“This is a very logical and anticipated and positive step in the process,” Fiola said.

She said it follows the public input process MassDOT initiated this summer and fall.

The two legislators said Sen. Marc Pacheco, DTaunton, at the briefing continued to speak out on the option that would remove Taunton’s downtown commuter rail station by its commercial sector in favor of a station in East Taunton.

“I’m very excited to see the governor and state committed to the route I’ve publicly supported,” Mayor Jasiel Correia II said. “I think it’s a route that’s realistic. I think the Stoughton route is more and more not realistic.”

Correia said after the public responses he expected Middleboro to proceed “because it’s a great alternative.”

The first phase would extend the existing Middleboro/Lakeville line via the Middleboro second line to provider quicker access and a less expensive option for service to and from Fall River and New Bedford, MassDOT said.

Rodrigues also related a fairly new second option Pollack shared with legislators going through Bridgewater. That choice involves whether to use the existing Lakeville/Middleboro station but needing to backtrack about one mile, and add time, from routes from the SouthCoast. The Stoughton route estimates 77 and 75 minutes to Boston from Fall River and New Beford, while the Middleboro secondary option has been estimated at upwards of 90 minutes.

Another new option briefly discussed, Rodrigues said, is to build a new Middleboro station north of the existing station, bypass it and go director to Bridgewater. That would eliminate plans to build a new train station north of Bridgewater, he said of the designs that require further review.

“I think it’s all really good news,” he said of prospects to begin providing at least limited commuter rail service as soon as possible.

State Rep. Bill Straus, D-Mattapoisett, chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, called the filing “a major advancement for getting the permits to bring early commuter rail service.”