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NORTON

Battle lines drawn again on rail route

Rail opponents in Norton are mobilizing anew to block any plans for passenger rail expansion from Boston to New Bedford and Fall River via their town.

Signs reading "MBTA, Go The Other Way" - stowed away in garages for the past eight years - are once again dotting lawns in Norton, one of the towns in the so-called Attleboro alternative, a plan that would route trains through Norton, Mansfield, Attleboro, and Taunton.

The opposition is led by local activist Heather Graf, who founded Citizens Concerned About Tracks in 1995 and led a successful five-year campaign that resulted in MBTA officials' eventually abandon ing the Attleboro route in favor of one dubbed the Stoughton alternative. It would send trains through Easton, Raynham, and Taunton. MBTA officials concluded that it was the most direct route with the fewest impacts.

But now the administration of Governor Deval Patrick is putting all route options back on the table, igniting the old opposition once again.

All three routes considered in the 1990s - the Attleboro and Stoughton alternatives, along with a third route, through Middleborough and Taunton - are again possibilities. This time around, officials said, they would also consider a scaled-down plan that relies on increased bus service rather than a new rail line. The governor hopes to have the $1.4 billion rail expansion project in service in December of 2016.

"The Attleboro alternative is still on the table, but with many other alternatives," Kristina Egan, the state Transportation Department's new South Coast Rail Project director, said last week. "We actually did a tour there on Oct. 15, and we were happy to get an on-the-ground orientation from Heather Graf and others."

Norton residents are ready. Selectmen last month took a formal vote to oppose the Attleboro alternative and to endorse the Stoughton route. And a few weeks ago, Special Town Meeting voters in Norton transferred $30,000 into an account to fight a rail expansion through town.

"And that's from voters who recently voted down two overrides," Graf said.

Easton, which lies along the Stoughton route, also continues to fight the proposal. Residents there argue that having a rail line run through the town's portion of the sensitive Hockomock Swamp would be environmentally destructive.

The original 2002 Environmental Impact Report for the Stoughton route expired this past summer, so another must be done before any plan can proceed. This time, officials say, all the possible routes will be evaluated simultaneously. The results of the study will largely determine which route is chosen.

"We'll come up with a report at the end of March that whittles down the alternatives to a set that will then get an in-depth review," Egan said. The timetable calls for finalizing the path the track will take by March of 2010.

"At last week's meeting of the [South Coast Rail] Task Force , about 17 or 18 different variations of options were suggested," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning District. "But I think the three discussed in the past will be the most serious possibilities."

Smith said his agency will serve as the link between the communities and state officials, helping to organize local meetings. The agency will also look at growth issues related to the rail expansion.

"The last time this was done, the alternatives were considered one by one," Smith said. "And that was a complaint some people had. Now all will be considered together. Before approving one, we have to show it is the least damaging alternative."

Graf said there are plenty of negative impacts, at least for Norton. "There will be 36 trains a day, and none of them will even stop in Norton," Graf said. "The plan is nasty for Norton and has absolutely no benefits."

Town Manager James Purcell said he and Graf recently met with Mayor Kevin Dumas of Attleboro and Mayor Charles Crowley of Taunton.

"Norton is well prepared to represent its own interests and that of our regional partners," Purcell said. "We are of one mind and one position with the cities of Taunton and Attleboro in this regard."

If the Attleboro alternative is chosen, Norton will get four rail crossings in town, plus a new section of track passing over Chartley Pond. But Taunton would feel the impacts the most. The city would have 15 at-grade rail crossings, with 11 of those along a stretch of 1 1/4 miles. The track would run through several densely populated neighborhoods, with some homes located within feet of the track bed. "That's just an impossible situation," Purcell said.

Under the Stoughton alternative, Taunton has only four at-grade crossings. Purcell said both Taunton and Attleboro are working on resolutions similar to the ones Norton selectmen passed, rejecting the Attleboro alternative and supporting the Stoughton plan.

The Mansfield Board of Selectmen and Planning Board have yet to take a position on the rail project, but Mansfield town planner Sean Burke provided his personal opinion of the Attleboro alternative, calling it "bizarre in the extreme."

"Given the number of grade crossings, it will create all kinds of traffic and safety-related issues," Burke said. "It cost a lot of money to study those options 10 years ago. This seems like we're re-inventing the wheel, and at an even higher cost."

Egan said residents and officials will be given ample opportunity to share their views at regional meetings over the next several months, she said. One such meeting will take place in Berklee on Nov. 28. People from other towns are welcome to attend.

Graf said she expects a planned meeting in Norton will not happen until January, but she is already preparing her town's case. "You know, 2016 seems far off," Graf conceded. "But what you have to instill in people is they're deciding now which way those tracks will go."

Christine Wallgren can be reached at CLWallgren@aol.com.

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