Federal engineers have agreed with the state's method for bringing passenger train service 50 to 60 miles south of Boston, to New Bedford and Fall River, traversing swampland and stopping in Taunton.
The sign-off by federal regulators on the fastest route and the use of electric rather than diesel trains will herald more detailed planning meetings and permitting on the $1.8 billion commuter train project that the state hopes to finance.
Gov. Deval Patrick and Transportation Secretary Richard Davey visited New Bedford Monday to announce that the finalized environmental impact review from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had selected the route through Stoughton and Taunton, with branches to New Bedford and Fall River, to be the most environmentally friendly.
The completion of the report and the federal agency's selection of the route through Stoughton will allow the project to begin the permitting process, Davey told the News Service.
Patrick has supported the project since his first run for office in 2006. With just over a year remaining in his second term, officials described the completion of the federal review as a significant step forward.
"Our goal now is to get as much done in the ground between now and the next governor so that it becomes a sunk cost," said Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, who was with Patrick Monday morning. "I've become a little less of a cheerleader because there have been so many setbacks. I don't think I've had a project that I've actually successfully passed more things for, including bond capacity, and yet hear we are celebrating milestones and fighting for permitting and financing."
The progress toward the construction of the rail line that will link southeastern Massachusetts with Boston is one of the first major transportation announcements from the Patrick administration since the Legislature approved a $500 million tax bill to finance investments in transportation.
With the closest rail lines in Lakeville and Providence, Fall River and New Bedford residents who commute to Boston can drive or take a bus, slogging through rush hour traffic on Route 24. The rail line would cut commutes from New Bedford to one hour and 17 minutes, according to estimates.
With enactment of a 3-cent hike to the gas tax, which will now be hitched to inflation, as well as the sequestering of motor vehicle sales tax revenue, the Legislature provided what leaders said would provide $800 million by 2018 for transportation, which is less than the roughly $1 billion sought by the Patrick administration.
"The governor's tasked us with preparing, basically, a new Way Forward, if you will, a new 10-year capital plan for transportation in the commonwealth, which we're working on now," Davey said. "South Coast remains among the governor's top priorities, so we're going to work hard to make sure we can fit that in."
Other projects included in the Way Forward plan unveiled ahead of Patrick's tax proposal will not make the cut for the 10-year capital plan.
"Unfortunately we're going to have to defer some of those projects" that aren't "safety critical" or "high on the list in terms of job creation and economic opportunity" or "greenhouse gas emissions," Davey said.
While Patrick has balked at borrowing an additional $100 million for local Chapter 90 road projects this year, his administration is pushing forward with South Coast rail and an extension of the Green Line to Medford. The MassDOT board this week is expected to authorize $393 million for Green Line extension contracts.
Though the full funding for the South Coast rail project has yet to be identified by MassDOT, the project was in included in Patrick's "Way Forward" plan published in January as a $1.8 billion priority in the 10-year, $10 billion investment strategy.
"South Coast Rail will reconnect the cities of Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River to Boston and position the South Coast region for smart growth and sustainability," Davey said in a statement. "Completing the final environmental document is a critical step forward in obtaining the environmental clearances MassDOT and the MBTA need to bring long-awaited commuter rail service to the South Coast."
The Patrick administration identified the Stoughton alternative as its preferred route for South Coast rail back in March 2011, and the Army Corps of Engineers review concurred that the Stoughton route had "no practicable alternative" with less environmental impact.
The alternatives included routing the train along existing freight tracks from Attleboro, cutting east through Norton, to a fork where it would continue on to the coastal cities, or from Lakeville, where it would cut west toward the split
MassDOT has already invested $20 million in federal TIGER grant funding to rebuild three rail bridges in New Bedford, and reached an agreement with CSX Transportation to purchase 30 miles of track from Taunton to Fall River and New Bedford to make South Coast rail possible.
Under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, MassDOT will accept public comment on the environmental impact statement until Oct. 26. The MEPA review process requires the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to issue a final certificate that will stipulate any additional requirements for mitigation to impacted communities.
The federal review process will be completed once the Corps issues a record of decision.
Davey said he expected MEPA certification in early November, and said the state has already accomplished some "early action items," rebuilding bridges along the route, though the state "could not undertake any meaningful work" until the Army Corps selected the Stoughton route.
For the South Coast Rail to operate smoothly, the state would also need to expand South Station, a project that is in the planning stages and somewhat constrained by the presence of a U.S. Postal Service facility right next to the current station.
"South Station is pretty much full at rush hour, which is exactly when we want to be running service out to South Coast and in from the South Coast," Davey said.
Montigny said it would be politically "impossible" for the governor with just 15 months left in office to secure support to fully finance the project before he leaves, but called Patrick a "rock" in support of the project and hopes to see continued investments in bridge repairs that won't go to waste because of the port development happening in New Bedford Harbor.
Asked if he thought the $500 million package approved just two months ago would be sufficient to finance South Coast rail, Montigny said, "Some do. I don't."
While many lawmakers at the end of the rail extension favor the project as a way to link the region with Boston and spur economic growth, some along the route disagree that the benefits will outweigh the costs.
Rep. Louis Kafka, a Stoughton Democrat, said he believes the money it will take to build South Coast rail could be better invested to lure businesses and economic development opportunities to that region of the state. He also questioned whether the ridership predicted for the route to New Bedford will be there, or if the cost of a train ride between Boston and New Bedford or Fall River will be prohibitive.
"I've been opposed to the plan going through Stoughton since it was first mentioned as a possibility and that hasn't changed because, from a public safety standpoint, the existing tracks are so close to existing homes," Kafka told the News Service.
Kafka also predicted the project could be challenged by environmental groups in Easton concerned about the rail path cutting through Hockomock swamp, which is home to some endangered species.
Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, voted against the transportation financing plan approved by the Legislature in July in because it didn't guarantee that South Coast rail would be fully funded in the future.
"They need to lock up every single contract they can lock up on this that ties future administrations to completing this rail system, and the citizens of southeastern Massachusetts have to put the pressure on anyone running for governor to be certain about where they're going to be on southeastern Massachusetts rail, because otherwise it doesn't happen. A future administration could derail this project," Pacheco said on Monday.
Predicting a "renaissance" for "gateway cities" like Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River if the rail extension is built, the senator said the economic development and environmental benefits from reduced carbon pollution will outweigh the cost.
"The cost is something that people will always raise, especially those who don't want it done, but if it's managed correctly there will be more benefits at the end of the day," said Pacheco.
Though many critics worry South Coast rail could create long-term financial problems for state akin to the Big Dig, Pacheco said eased traffic congestion in Boston, the Rose Kennedy Greenway and redevelopment opportunities on the South Boston waterfront as examples of positive outcomes from the Big Dig despite cost overruns.
"The Big Dig could have been managed better, but I don't think there's too many people who would argue it's not better for Boston and the metro region than what we had. I think the same things will be true when you look at the completion of South Coast rail," he said.
Republican Charlie Baker, who opposed South Coast rail during his last run for governor in 2010, now says he's willing to consider new information, but remains skeptical that the project is the best use of taxpayer money to spur economic growth.
Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who represents Taunton and Fall River, said the project would "provide a critical infrastructure link" boosting the region's economy.
"As we work towards strengthening our local economies and tackling still stubborn unemployment rates, approval from the Army Corps is a major step forward," Kennedy said in a statement.
Construction would mean a return of passenger train service to the southeast, which George Carney, owner of the former Raynham dog track, said ran in the mid-part of the 20th century.
"It was great then, it would be even better now," said Carney, who is planning to donate land and build a shopping development next to a planned station in Raynham. Carney said when Route 24 first opened there was little traffic, and said he hopes the train line will reduce the amount of cars on the highway.
The Army Corps determined the route through Stoughton would be the fastest, would pick up more passengers by stopping in Taunton and would result in 5,670 to 5,240 daily boardings.