The Standard Times, Sunday, April 2, 2017 – Page B3
By William M. Straus of Mattapoisett is the state representative of the 10th Bristol District. He is House chair on the Joint Committee for Transportation. The Notice of Project Change can be found at www.massdot.state.ma.us/Portals/41/ Docs/NPC_2017Mar.pdf, which explains the NPC and its process.
Is SouthCoast Rail really coming? It’s easy to understand the frustration in answering that question. The public has seen scores of plans, filings, public meetings, and news conferences; and now Gov. Baker’s administration has presented a new “Middleboro route” idea for “early service” to Boston. This option dramatically changes the project for the better and has supporters, opponents and skeptics wondering what is next.
In considering whether early service through Middleboro makes sense, we should answer the questions from our fellow supporters of rail about agreeing to pursue early service. The early service Middleboro option, “No. 2,” would use existing track over to Middleboro on the way up to Boston. If we stay with the status quo idea for the Stoughton route, the earliest start date to Boston will be in 2030, and maybe later if the courts are involved. That is totally unacceptable. At present, the actual permits to fill and alter wetlands in order to build the Stoughton route remain many years away.
I don’t think there should be a split among supporters of the project, because a careful review of the new approach by Gov. Baker satisfies three key questions the public should be asking: Does going through Middleboro provide a fast enough ride? How soon can we get construction started? Is the Stoughton route still on the table? There are certainly other questions out there, but these seem to be at the top of the list of those raised by local supporters and skeptics.
How long is the trip to Boston for the early service through Middleboro? The current Stoughton approach offers what appears as the fastest trip to Boston of 77 minutes. The Notice of Project Change, contrary to one of the local news accounts, offers an 89-minute ride from downtown New Bedford; time is saved in proposed option No. 2 by running non-stop service from East Taunton up to Bridgewater. Lakeville is by-passed for those leaving New Bedford and Fall River each day. As compared to the existing two-hour-plus drive for Boston commuters today, this is a predictable and acceptable ride. I just don’t think 12 minutes difference is a deal killer for those who need to get to Boston. By comparison, the existing and well used Fitchburg line also offers a 90-minute train ride to Boston. With the use of what is called “skip stop scheduling” another 6 or 7 minutes can be shaved off our trip by trains skipping an alternating single stop somewhere along the route.
When can construction start? Any delay in getting the construction going adds millions of dollars to the project cost every year. This is one of the subtle benefits of the governor’s early service idea that hasn’t been discussed much. Environmental laws require that the state have ALL permits (including the nine municipal wetlands approvals) before any construction can begin on the Stoughton route. Permission to build early service through Middleboro mostly consists of track upgrades and stations from New Bedford and Fall River up to Taunton at the intersection of Routes 24 and 140. That track and station work happens to be identical to what is needed for the Stoughton route, but construction for that route can’t begin until they have every single permit from south to north. Early service through Middleboro gets a significant part of the project up and running in a few years while permits for the rest of the Stoughton route are still on the table. There is no downside in that. By the way, the wetlands impact of upgrading the track on the existing rail bed between East Taunton and Middleboro is less than a quarter of an acre. Starting construction for early service through Middleboro saves money by finally getting the project underway.
Is the Stoughton route still on the table? This last question wonders whether that early service to Middleboro could end up as a “bait and switch” that sacrifices what has been accomplished in pursuing the Stoughton route. Actually, the Change Notice filed by the Baker administration is only a change in that we get commuter rail service years ahead of schedule. The Stoughton route’s designation as the current preferred alternative will not be changed by getting early service, and those who still see it as the ultimate best route can still work on its approval and financing. In the meantime, we can get construction going and begin to realize the benefits of the Boston bound commuter rail service to which we are entitled.