City Officials Tour Commuter Rail Options

Hurdles to Quick Rail Connection Explored
Local officials hoping for a quicker commuter rail connection from New Bedford to Boston got a first-hand look at some of the difficulties of linking to the Middleboro line.
About 40 regional planners and elected officials took a bus tour along the proposed Middleboro rail corridor Friday and learned that a bottleneck from Braintree to Boston’s South Station, along with potential delays in Lakeville, pose expensive challenges.
The so-called Middleboro alternative is one of three former rail extension proposals the state is considering under Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to connect SouthCoast to Boston by 2016. The Attleboro, Stoughton and Middleboro proposals were considered by the state in the past, with the Stoughton line identified as the preferred route in a 2002 Final Environmental Impact Report.
Gov. Patrick is “committed to taking a fresh look” at the three proposals in addition to newer proposals submitted by the public such as a dedicated lane for public transit on Route 24 or a monorail service on the same highway, said South Coast Rail Manager Kristina Egan.
Each of the three alternatives present problems that can be solved “with enough money and enough political will,” she said.
Extending the Middleboro line would require adding a second track parallel to the existing track that runs from Braintree to South Station because of capacity issues related to the new Greenbush Line, Ms. Egan said. Adding the additional track will prove an engineering challenge since the area is densely developed with houses, bridges and roads, she said.
The second problem is that trains running from New Bedford and Fall River may have to back up — causing a 10-minute delay — and head south to pick up passengers at the Lakeville station before continuing on to Boston.
Mayor Scott W. Lang, a strong proponent of the Middleboro proposal, says both challenges can and should be overcome. The “terrible bottleneck” between Braintree and South Station is already a problem that needs to be addressed, he said.
As for backing up trains to get to the Lakeville station, that should never happen, the mayor said.
All trains from New Bedford and Fall River “should shoot through and stop at the Bridgewater station,” he said. Lakeville passengers could be picked up by trains running from Buzzards Bay if the Middleboro line also is extended toward Wareham as proposed.
The Middleboro link would be cheaper and faster to build than the preferred Stoughton route, he said.
State Sen. Mark C. W. Montigny, D-New Bedford, disagreed with the mayor.
“My sense today is that Middleboro will not be the alternative,” he said. “I am skeptical.”
Though not a fan of the governor’s decision to re-evaluate the three routes, Sen. Montigny said he thinks the Middleboro proposal should be given a fair analysis.
“In the end, it is the Legislature in Boston, and not local officials, who will have to decide,” he said.
A position paper from the Taunton River Watershed Campaign, a coalition of 10 conservation groups, states that there are “serious environmental concerns” with the Stoughton line, which threatens to harm sensitive wetlands such as Hockomock Swamp and Pine Swamp and the rare species that live there.
“The Assonet Cedar Swamp will be impacted no matter which route is used,” according to the paper.
The full environmental impacts of the Middleboro and Attleboro routes have yet to be documented, said Priscilla Chapman of Mass Audubon, who joined Friday’s tour.
While the Hockomock Swamp is the biggest hurdle to the Stoughton proposal, the Attleboro route is challenged by 17 grade crossings where the rail would cross existing streets requiring builders to bury the rail and raise the road or vice versa, Ms. Egan said.
Capacity problems are also an issue with the Attleboro corridor since Amtrak trains would have priority over commuter trains, she said.
A second round of tours is planned for the spring, after the state whittles commuter rail proposals to a select group of two to six alternatives, Ms. Egan said.
There is no guarantee that Middleboro, Attleboro or Stoughton will be among the final contenders, she said.
Contact Becky W. Evans at revans@s-t.com
December 01, 2007

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