Baker wants serious look at South Coast rail route alternative

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BOSTON — While Gov. Charlie Baker found some reasons to favor an alternative route for commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River, members of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board opted Monday to wait for more information on how to address the slow-moving transportation project.

Facing their second transit expansion project with a ballooning cost projection in less than a year, the control board Monday inquired about alternatives and held off on taking any definitive steps on South Coast Rail.

According to new estimates released Monday, the cost of bringing commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River grew from $2.23 billion projected in 2012 to $3.4 billion with service starting around 2029, transportation officials said Monday.

But rather than running rail from track in Stoughton across the protected Hockomock Swamp into Taunton for electrified service, an alternative presented Monday would extend the Middleborough/Lakeville line, using the existing diesel trains from near its current terminus to new stations in the Spindle City and the Whaling City.

Baker said electrifying the rail line to run through the swamp “raises a real issue” and is a “big part of what adds to the price-tag and the timeframe of the current project.” He said the administration’s proposal is to continue permitting work on the Stoughton route while also taking a more serious look at the alterative.

MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola said he was “reticent” Monday to put a cost figure on the proposed alternative using a different route that he said would be significantly cheaper, but he said staff would be able to provide cost ranges on the alternative in the next month or so. The alternative would also mean a much earlier start of service, according to DePaola, an aspect Baker appeared to favor.

“I would like to see us have service to the South Coast much sooner than 2030,” Baker told reporters after meeting with top lawmakers on Monday.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, told the News Service he doesn’t trust the elevated cost and timeframe numbers and he continues to support the Stoughton route, believing the alternative route was raised to divide the region.

“This is going to I think do what’s it’s really designed to do, and that’s to split the district up, split the region up into some parts of it supporting it, other parts not, so that it will diminish support for the rail in general and again it will kick the can down the road,” Pacheco told the News Service.

Control board member Lisa Calise, who said she grew up in southeastern Massachusetts, wanted to know about alternatives to the commuter rail expansion, such as enhanced bus service or buses to a commuter rail station.

During Monday’s meeting DePaola said another option would be to extend the Middleborough line only to Taunton near the junction between routes 24, which leads to Fall River, and 140, which leads to New Bedford.

The Green Line Extension, bringing trolley service to Somerville and Medford, was already in the early phases of construction last year when officials announced its costs had grown out of control, hitting the pause button to scale down the scope and seek additional revenue sources.

— Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service