By ANIKA CLARK
As South Coast Rail chugs forward to bring commuter train service to New Bedford and Fall River, it has a new conductor at its helm.
Jean Fox, a Freetown selectman and former youth council director for the Greater New Bedford Workforce Investment Board, is the new manager of South Coast Rail. Her predecessor, Kristina Egan, stepped down in June, saying she wanted to start a consulting company and wished to spend more time with family in Maine.
“Jean is the right person at the right time for this project,” said Richard Davey, MassDOT secretary, in a prepared statement. “Her energy, attention to details and close ties with the community will serve the project well as we work hard to deliver passenger rail service to Southeastern Massachusetts.”
Rep. Christopher M. Markey, D-Dartmouth, praised Fox’s energy, accessibility and respect for people’s concerns. Markey said she “has always expressed strong support for the South Coast Rail. … I think she’ll be a strong advocate for it.
“I’m very happy that it’s her,” Markey said.
New Bedford Mayor Scott W. Lang, likewise, indicated that Fox’s interest and involvement in South Coast Rail long precedes her new responsibilities.
“She’s followed the project from Day 1. She was working closely with Kristina Egan,” Lang said. Along with having good relationships with local, state and federal officials, “I think she has a real understanding for the need for South Coast Rail for our region. … I think she’s a very good pick.”
Fox’s job will include guiding the rail project forward, keeping local residents involved during its design and securing funds to build and run the rail lines, according to a news release.
“The momentum’s there. I just think my charge will be to keep it going. And find the money,” said Fox, who described her difficult decision to leave the workforce investment board for this new challenge.
“Kristina excelled at bringing the communities together, whether they were for or against, and talking about how this was going to work for them … really, really listening and recording and weighing,” she said, describing how she hopes to emulate this.
Having commuter rail service to and from Boston is an economic development issue, Fox said. It’s a quality-of-life issue and is key to attracting businesses to SouthCoast and elevating the local work force. She also stressed how important rail is to the region’s ability to realize its potential.
“As this area declined economically, it became more and more apparent to me that the transportation piece was central to (its) revitalization,” she said. “Everyone calls it South Coast Rail. SCR. I have always called in South Coast Renaissance.”
But that renaissance isn’t going to come cheap.
While the projected price tag fluctuates, it depends on all the elements included and, according to Fox, will swell the longer it takes the project to come to fruition, “I think we’re looking at about $1.8 billion as of today,” she said.
And the challenge of coming up with that much money, particularly in a recession?
“It’s huge,” she said. “The other side of that is people continue to struggle to get jobs, people continue to put incredibly expensive gas in their tank. We’re still an area that’s segregated from the rest of the commonwealth. That has a negative effect on our economy, as well.”
Some communities that would be affected by the project, including those that already have rail access, oppose it, she said. It has also drawn environmental concerns, such as the impact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ recommended route would have on the Hockomock Swamp.
“Any major project will have an environmental impact,” she said. “Your charge as a resident of the state, as a human being … is to do your level best to mitigate the impact.”
As for any doubts some people may have about the project ever coming online, “I totally get their feeling of skepticism,” she said. “I’ve been there, done that, and I have the T-shirt. Because we have been promised this so many times. … But we have never come this far.”
Looking forward to her new role, Fox said she is scared, optimistic and excited.
But she pointed to a team of partners and a base of institutional knowledge that will support her. She’ll also tap and engage the many connections she’s made as a longtime Freetown resident, a Freetown selectman and a member of many boards — including, but not limited to, the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District’s commission (as vice chairman), Southeastern Massachusetts Metropolitan Planning Organization, the board for the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority, the Bristol County Commission on the Status of Women, and the SouthCoast Education Compact.
Fox will earn an annual salary of $88,500 and was “clearly the most qualified” among numerous candidates the Massachusetts Department of Transportation reviewed for the job, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority spokesman Joe Pesaturo said via email.
Fox starts Monday, and while she thinks she may get an office in the MassDOT district headquarters in Taunton, she initially will be commuting to Boston.
But “not for long,” she quipped. “Because there’s no train down here.”
September 09, 2011
By ANIKA CLARK