By Steve Urbon
NEW BEDFORD Buses would get caught in traffic. Doing nothing is not an option. Attleboro is too problematic. So the Army Corps of Engineers has written a draft environmental report flagging Stoughton as the best option for extending commuter rail to Southeastern Massachusetts.
It’s the same conclusion reached twice before when the state did environmental impact statements. But now the federal government is on board, clearing the way for the rest of the permitting process.
State Rep. William Straus, D- Mattapoisett, who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told The Standard-Times the federal portion of the report doesn’t explicitly endorse a route. But the totality of the report points clearly toward the Stoughton option, and the state portion says so outright.
State Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, said he is pleased but not excited about the report since this is the third environmental report in a “maddeningly frustrating” process that goes back to 1993 when he pushed legislation through to fund the state’s original environmental reports which also pointed to Stoughton.
Still, he said, “We could have been talking about a bad news day.”
Project Manager Kristina Egan said the document is a joint federal-state exercise and, while the state clearly endorses Stoughton, the Army Corps will hold off until the final report is published.
Although the state Department of Transportation issued a press release Monday, Army Corps spokesman Tim Dugan said the long-awaited report will not be officially released until it can be published in the Federal Register, a legal requirement. That should be in a few days, he said. Meanwhile, he said, the Corps is hand-delivering printed copies of the 2,500-page document to 24 libraries in towns and cities along the route.
Egan and other officials of the Patrick administration held four briefings at the Statehouse this morning: one for proponents in the Legislature, one for opponents, and one each for the House speaker and Senate president.
She said between now and when the comment period ends on May 27, there will be two public hearings: one in New Bedford at the main library and the other in Mansfield. Dates are pending.
Stoughton emerged as the preference after the Army Corps spent many months examining every aspect of the proposals, which included an Attleboro alternative, a dedicated bus service and no project at all.
“Whatever it is, this touchstone leads you to the Stoughton route as the best way to move 8,000 to 9,000 people a day up to Boston,” Straus said, adding that four years and input from 11 separate agencies went into this draft report.
Montigny said, “I’m happy to see what we already know. I don’t get excited and don’t cheerlead based on crossing minor milestones. I won’t do that until the finances are in place and a shovel is in the ground.”
The rail project has drawn opposition from towns along the routes for years. Some of them, such as Stoughton, have been planning a legal strategy.
“They pretty much said that Stoughton is the preferred route,” said Rep. Louis Kafka, a Democrat who represents Stoughton and opposes the proposed route through that community and prefers the use of buses. Kafka told the Statehouse News Service that the Stoughton route has been at the “head of the list” for likely paths since 1994, but said his concerns about environmental and public safety impacts remained.
In Raynham, Selectman Joseph R. Pacheco told The Standard-Times the town’s voters chose in 2007 to “mitigate, not litigate.” A wish list of 10 items has been prepared, including such things as a new fire station in the north part of town where the trains will run.
It takes seven to nine minutes for emergency vehicles to reach that part of town now, he said, and they will need to be able to respond earlier in the event of an accident on the tracks.
Pacheco said that while commuter rail may be inevitable, and it will help Fall River, New Bedford and Taunton, he’s looking out for the interests of Raynham first. Other cities, he said, “obviously deserve this, and it would do great things, but we have concerns we don’t believe are adequately addressed by the state.”
In light of that, he said, Raynham “wants the state to speak with us, not at us.” Among the concerns: this $1.4 billion project would be under the auspices of the MBTA, “where air conditioning doesn’t work in the summer, heat doesn’t work in the winter, and all the trains are late.”
In 1991, then-Gov. William Weld made an infamous promise to a Chamber of Commerce audience at White’s of Westport. As Montigny remembers it, “Weld said, ‘Mark, if you don’t have commuter rail by 1997, you can sue me.’ When I see him we still joke about suing his trust fund.”
The publication of the final environmental impact statement is expected in about one year, said Egan. At that point, Massachusetts will get its permit under the federal Clean Water Act. After that, assuming all goes well for the project and it is not derailed by lawsuits, comes the approval of the state under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.
Egan said it is the biggest and most important permit among many that will be needed from the state, and the documentation for the Army Corps’ judgment is “totally solid.”
The process will take two to three years, said Straus, but Egan said she looked at a target of summer 2012. When it is completed, the state will start looking for contractors for initial work while legislators look for ways to pay for the project.
Straus said a distinct possibility is that the state will ask for federal money that is currently being rejected for rail projects in several states, including Florida. Eligibility is the question, since the federal money is aimed at high-speed rail.
“We need help at the federal level to have this project eligible to receive the redirected money,” Straus said.
March 22, 2011 12:00 AM
By Steve Urbon