By Susannah Sudborough
BU News Service
BOSTON — Everything seems to be falling into place for construction of the South Coast Rail, state officials say, although some locals remain concerned about launching the project in phases.
Preparations for Phase 1, which will connect commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River through Middleboro and is set to be completed by 2022, is well underway, according to MassDOT spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard. She wrote in an email that design is at 90 to 100 percent completion.
Goddard noted nearly every necessary construction permit has been issued and an $18 million contract was approved for the cleaning, replacement, and removal of culverts in areas planned for the project. In addition, she said, MassDOT has started purchasing infrastructure materials that cannot be quickly manufactured, such as special track work and turnouts. Lastly, real estate acquisitions necessary for station areas and easements are being pursued.
Goddard wrote that other expected developments in the near future will include bids for the repair or replacement of the last four bridges on the New Bedford Main Line, likely by the end of March, along with the issuance of final permits including a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit. Construction is expected to begin soon on early-action culverts and bridges.
Perhaps most notably, Goddard said a management team is being created to ensure the crucial transition from MassDOT to the MBTA, which will operate the railway system.
Another major step forward is likely to be seen in the next month or two, said Rep. William Straus, D–Mattapoisett, House Chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Transportation. The full billion dollar budget for the project is expected to be released in March and will be made part of the Capital Investment Plan, enabling constituents to see where the money for the project is coming from.
According to Straus, $100 million of the $1 billion meant for the project was already spent this fiscal year on permits and construction, something he deems a worthwhile investment.
“If you’re going to build the South Coast Rail, you have to build this [Phase 1], no matter what track options you think are better or worse,” said Straus.
Some other local legislators are not as confident.
Sen. Marc Pacheco, D–Taunton, said he is opposed to implementing the project in phases, believing all parts should be built at once. He fears construction will never reach Phase 2, which would leave Taunton without service.
Phase 1 does not include a train station in downtown Taunton so residents would have to drive to the closest station in Middleboro. There is skepticism that Phase 2 will never be built because it is estimated to cost several billion dollars.
“They [officials] can’t answer how Phase 2 will be funded or when it will happen, and in my world that means it’s not funded and it won’t get funded unless people demand it,” said Pacheco.
Phase 2 includes the “Stoughton Route,” which would bridge service between Stoughton and Taunton. Phase 1, which would connect the South Coast to Boston through Middleboro, is also called the “Middleboro Route.”
Pacheco said he thinks completion of just the Middleboro Route will not allow for the most trips to and from Boston and will not allow as many South Coast residents to access public transit.
“With the Middleboro Route there will be some service, but it won’t be the best or complete version for the citizens of Southeastern Massachusetts,” said Pacheco. “We need to do it the right way to bring the most economic benefit.”
Allin Frawley, a Middleboro selectman, is also concerned about completing the South Coast Rail in phases. In addition to sharing Pacheco’s skepticism about whether Phase 2 will be completed, Frawley opposes the plan to abandon the current Middleboro station and build a new one close by. He said that the new station will provide 300 less parking spaces, reducing Middleboro residents’ access to public transit, and will be built next to one of the worst intersections in the state.
Frawley also said he feels that MassDOT is not responsive enough to his and others’ concerns and said that the proposed plan has not changed since it was enough.
“MassDOT hasn’t worked with Middleboro to make a plan that works for us,” said Frawley. “We’re not being included in this process.”
All officials agree that South Coast Rail should bring significant economic gains to the region, as well as make transportation to Boston and within the region more convenient.
“It’s a basic notion of equity in how people have access to Boston for work,” said Straus. “We’ve been cut out of that equation for decades.”
According to the South Coast Rail website, Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford are the only major cities within 50 miles of Boston that do not currently have commuter rail access to Boston.
“The automobile trip time to Boston has doubled over the last two decades and made the lack of access to the Boston economy unacceptable,” said Straus.
In addition to allowing more area residents to seek job opportunities in Boston, Pacheco said, the South Coast Rail would enable reverse commuting from the Boston area to economic opportunities within the South Coast. Currently, he said, it is difficult in travel between cities within the South Coast, something the rail project is designed to fix.
The region would also benefit economically from opportunities to increase daytime tourism, said Pacheco.
“People want to study the history of the state, they want to visit Battleship Cove and historic downtown Taunton,” said Pacheco.
This, lawmakers believe, is why South Coast Rail is widely supported by their constituents.
“I’ve seen few projects get as high level of support as this from residents and local officials,” said Straus.
Straus said that some concerns have come up when talking with residents, such as how parking lots might be configured, whether there will be enough trips made, where railroad crossings will go, but that he sees this as a positive.
“These are the kinds of concerns you want to hear about a project,” said Straus.
Goddard wrote that at the implementation level, engineering and design teams have worked closely with local municipalities and other key stakeholders.
Straus said that as chair of the Transportation Committee, he is committed to being an advocate for the project and ensuring it remains a priority for the state. Both Goddard and Straus agreed that Phase 1 is on track to be completed by 2022.
“Communities in this area are eagerly awaiting completion of this project and the many benefits it will provide,” Goddard wrote.
This article was previously published in South Coast Today.