By STEVE LeBLANC
Massachusetts transportation officials hoping to build a new commuter rail line have decided on a preferred route to connect Boston to New Bedford and Fall River.
Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan said Monday that a route that would take trains through Stoughton is the best option to meet the state’s transportation, economic and environmental goals.
The state had been weighing two other possible routes for the South Coast project. One would use electric or diesel trains on an existing route through Attleboro. The other would create dedicated rapid bus lanes on Route 24 and portions of I-93.
Mullan called the decision to move ahead on the Stoughton route a “critical step forward” in bringing commuter rail service to the South Coast.
The decision accompanied the release of a key environmental impact report by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after four years of collaboration between a dozen state and federal agencies.
MBTA General Manager Rich Davey said the choice of the Stoughton route was clear.
“After an exhaustive process involving all affected communities what we found is that there’s only one route that provides high quality service while at the same time advancing the state’s air quality, energy, and climate goals,” Davey said in a statement. “That is the Stoughton alternative.”
The route would take trains through Stoughton, Easton, Raynham and Taunton before branching off into two lines — one for Fall River and the other for New Bedford.
Gov. Deval Patrick said the state is now waiting for final federal approval of the project, which could take up to a year. At that point, he said, the state will be able to come up with a financing plan.
Patrick also defended his decision to push ahead on the project despite the state’s fiscal woes and recent troubles with delayed trains on existing commuter rail lines.
“The reason we are having issues with commuter rail is because we don’t invest in our infrastructure,” Patrick told reporters. “We need to invest in existing rail and we need to invest in new lines.”
Although the state was looking at three alternatives, the environmental impact report weighed the pros and cons of a total of eight alternatives for providing public transit service from Boston to Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford.
The report studied not only the transportation benefits of each alternative, but also the potential effect of each plan on wetlands, rare species, air quality and noise.
The Patrick administration has said the rail project will add nearly $500 million in new economic activity to the state each year, while creating at least 3,500 long-term jobs by 2030.
Those jobs are on top of the estimated 7,000 to 8,000 construction jobs that would be associated with building the new rail line.
Officials have long championed a rail link between Boston and the South Coast as a way to curb suburban sprawl, cut greenhouse gas emissions and revitalize the region’s economy.
Despite a series of false starts by past governors, Patrick said he’s committed to seeing the project through. U.S. Sen. John Kerry has said the state’s congressional delegation is committed to obtaining the federal dollars needed to build the rail link.
Officials have said they hope to complete the rail link by 2017.
March 21, 2011, 5:42PM ET
By STEVE LeBLANC