When Gov. Mitt Romney laid out a policy for better coordination of transportation projects across the state, this was not what he had in mind. This spring, a group of South Coast legislators held up a land-taking bill necessary for the proposed “flyover” that will bypass the Sagamore Rotary to Cape Cod until they received commitments that the long-promised extension of commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River would move forward. Romney called the move “blackmail,” but lawmakers say it was the only way they could get the rail project, to which the Romney administration has been lukewarm, back on track.
State Rep. Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat, accused Romney of pushing his pet project to deal with Cape traffic ahead of other long-planned initiatives, including the South Coast rail line, telling the New Bedford Standard-Times that the flyover seemed to be the governor’s gift to “rich friends with summer homes.”
In mid-June, the logjam seemed to break. The Romney administration agreed to fund a growth-management study of the proposed commuter line’s effects and to free up $6.6 million for environmental permitting. The administration also agreed to begin discussions with CSX Corp., which owns 32 miles of the track right-of-way needed to restore service to the two South Coast cities, which came to a halt in 1958. In return, the region’s House members dropped their opposition to the Sagamore land-taking bill, which the Legislature promptly approved—with language directing the state and the MBTA to pursue permitting and right-of-way negotiations for the South Coast rail line.
State Rep. Robert Correia, a Fall River Democrat and dean of the South Coast legislative delegation, calls the rail-flyover deal a “win-win.” But while the $58 million flyover project is now on course to completion within several years, there’s no telling when, if ever, trains will be rolling into New Bedford and Fall River.
Running commuter rail service to the two Bristol County cities won’t come cheap—$850 million is the current estimate. And the environmental issues—the rail line would pass through the Hockomock Swamp in Easton, the largest freshwater wetland in the state—could derail the whole project.
But the biggest hurdle of all may be the Romney administration itself, which is reluctant to sink nearly $1 billion into a new commuter rail line. Although the administration agreed to fund the permitting and growth studies, Doug Foy, the state’s chief development official, says the state is not ready to commit to bringing commuter trains to New Bedford and Fall River.
“It’s certainly an interesting project,” says Foy, noncommittally. “It’s one of a number of big transit projects that are on the list of aspirations for the T.”
Several other big-ticket transit projects appear to be in line ahead of this one. Some of those are enhancements to Boston-area MBTA lines mandated under mitigation agreements related to the Central Artery project—mandates that Foy played a role in securing when he was head of the Conservation Law Foundation. South Coast officials say those mandates could be revisited and revised, if there were the will to do so. Meanwhile, they say the administration’s “fix it first” policy of ensuring that existing roads and transit lines are in good repair before embarking on new projects is inherently unfair.
“Romney’s out there saying, ‘fix it first,'” says David Tibbetts, a former state economic affairs director who is working with South Coast communities on economic development initiatives. “That’s great if you have it first.”
South Coast officials point out that New Bedford and Fall River are the only major cities in eastern Massachusetts without commuter rail service to Boston. “At some point, there’s an economic justice issue,” says Fall River Mayor Edward Lambert.
Lambert and others say the rail line would not only meet transit needs, but also serve as a catalyst for economic development. It could make the region’s relatively affordable housing stock more attractive to those priced out of the Boston market, as well.
“This is an economic development project as much, if not more, than a transit project,” says Lambert. Without rail service, he says, “I’m at a disadvantage as the CEO of this city when I try to lure businesses here.”
If South Coast leaders feel they’re getting the cold shoulder, it’s because the Romney team is being more candid than past administrations, which voiced support for the project without actually being committed to its completion, Foy says. “I think they are suffering from an overdose of honesty.”
But while Foy stresses the state’s fiscal limitations, South Coast leaders point out that the state is pouring millions of dollars into extension of the Greenbush commuter rail line to Scituate, and is preparing to spend millions more on enhancement or extension of other MBTA lines. They say the New Bedford/Fall River rail line seems to meet many of the criteria established by the administration for funding transit projects, particularly its potential to relieve adjacent roadways of congestion, not to mention the goal of regional equity in transit funding.
Meanwhile, the South Coast reps make no apologies for playing hardball. Three months ago, the rail line was “a dead project,” says Correia. With the permitting and growth-management studies now on track, at least “it’s on the board, and it’s moving ahead.”