THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Work slated for missing rail link

Bridge fixes are 1 step in South Coast project

Governor Deval Patrick’s administration has said South Coast commuter rail service would begin by 2017. Governor Deval Patrick’s administration has said South Coast commuter rail service would begin by 2017.
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / June 18, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday that construction will begin this summer on a long-promised, long-delayed commuter rail link to Fall River and New Bedford.

State officials said they would spend $20 million of federal stimulus funds to rebuild structurally deficient freight bridges in New Bedford and prepare them for commuter rail.

The spending is a small fraction of the total cost of the South Coast Rail project, for which estimates range from $1.4 billion to more than $2 billion. But the announcement was welcomed by advocates of commuter rail, who said the line would help spur economic development in a chronically struggling region of Southeastern Massachusetts.

“This is not just a dream,’’ said US Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Worcester. “This is not just a speech or rhetoric. This is real; this is going to happen.’’

The new optimism about the South Coast Rail project stems from a quiet development last week, when the state completed the purchase of 37 miles of freight track from a private shipping company, CSX. The track would serve as the backbone for the new commuter rail line.

The South Coast Rail area is the only major region within 50 miles of Boston that is not currently served by commuter rail.

“We’re going to deliver on the promise of South Coast Rail,’’ Patrick said in a conference call with reporters. His administration said commuter rail service would begin by 2017.

“I see the economic value,’’ Patrick said. “We all do, not just for today, but for the long term.’’

The project still faces significant challenges. The bulk of the funding, which would have to come from a mix of state and federal tax dollars, remains uncommitted.

And there are big questions, too. Transportation officials have yet to decide what route commuter trains would follow to get from Boston to Taunton. It is not clear that South Station can handle the extra train traffic without an expansion. And the MBTA, which would operate the rail line, already carries crushing debt that makes even existing operations difficult.

“It’s good that they’re making progress on this, but there are still really large issues that have to be addressed,’’ said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents the cities and towns served by the T. “Like how the whole project will be funded, and how the T will pay for operating it, and the large issue of the needs of the existing system that have to be addressed.’’

Charles D. Baker, a Republican who is challenging Patrick in the race for governor this year, called South Coast Rail “yet another example of overspending and overcommitting at a point in time when taxpayers are desperate for the Commonwealth to live within its means.’’

“This is consistent with a troubling pattern,’’ Baker said. “Where’s that money going to come from?’’

Commuter rail service to the region was cut off in 1958, and for the past two decades politicians have courted votes in the economically weakened Fall River-New Bedford-Taunton corridor by promising to bring it back. Governors and gubernatorial candidates have made promises about South Coast rail going back to William Weld, who once told Fall River residents to “sue me’’ if he failed to deliver.

But Patrick has taken a variety of measures that make this announcement different, said Stephen C. Smith, who has witnessed the evolution of rail planning as executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning & Economic Development District since 1983.

“There have been lots of staged events — including ones where ground was broken and shovels were handed out and ribbons were cut — to celebrate progress on the South Coast Rail which were total illusions,’’ Smith said. “This is different. This is tangible progress, given the fact that there’s an agreement in place with CSX.’’

The CSX deal is widely seen as the first of the three biggest hurdles the project faces, with the remaining two being the federal decision on the final project route and the quest to obtain funding for the project. In working toward rail service restoration, the Patrick administration has appointed the project’s first full-time director, held more than 100 community meetings, and produced thousands of pages of design and environmental-impact documents.

The South Coast track acquisition from CSX is part of a larger $100 million deal to relocate the company’s heavy Boston-area operations to Central Massachusetts and turn over control of its rails east of Worcester to the state. The deal, parts of which are not yet complete, will facilitate multiple commuter rail improvements, according to state transportation officials and CSX.

The South Coast Rail area includes not only the one-time manufacturing hubs of New Bedford, Fall River, and Taunton, but also 28 smaller communities, with a combined population of 740,000. Relatively affordable real estate has made it one of the fastest-growing regions in the state, but the unemployment rate far exceeds that of Massachusetts as a whole. Many residents head to Boston for work, contributing to heavy traffic on Route 24, Route 140, and Route 128, as well as the Southeast Expressway.

Patrick’s administration projects that restored rail service would ultimately yield at least 3,500 new jobs and spur $500 million in new annual economic activity, benefiting not just the South Coast but the Boston area and other regions. The commuter rail trains are predicted to carry more than 8,000 riders a day and reduce road and highway traffic by up to 297,000 vehicle-miles traveled a day, according to project manager Kristina Egan.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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