NORTON - While the state's final decision on a route for extending rail service through the region is still two years away, a large group of well-organized opponents of the so-called Attleboro alternative are already battling hard to get that option eliminated.
That Attleboro route, abandoned in a previous study of extended rail service, would run track through Norton, Mansfield, Taunton, and Attleboro.
On Tuesday, about 200 people - including local officials from across the area - gathered in Norton for the latest regional meeting on the options being considered. South Coast rail manager Kristina Egan asked for opinions on all 35 proposals being considered for extending public transportation in the area. But the crowd remained largely focused on just one - the Attleboro alternative.
One after another, speakers urged rail officials to eliminate the option. Among their ranks were the mayors of Attleboro and New Bedford, selectmen from Norton and Mansfield, state Senator James Timilty, and state Representatives Elizabeth Poirier, Steven D'Amico, and Fred Barrows.
Taunton Mayor Charles Crowley submitted a written statement, read by his assistant, in which Crowley noted he and the Taunton City Council oppose the Attleboro alternative because it would require 15 road crossings in the city. They favor the so-called Stoughton alternative, which would require only five.
Timilty agreed with Crowley, telling Egan that the Attleboro alternative was a "nonstarter" due to the large number of dangerous road crossings.
"We respectfully request the Attleboro alternative be taken off the table as soon as possible," Timilty said.
Norton Board of Selectmen chairman Robert Kimball told Egan that his board and colleagues in Mansfield had voted to block the Attleboro alternative, and the mayors in Taunton and Attleboro were in agreement.
"We'll do whatever we need to" to stop the Attleboro alternative, Kimball said. "We've even put money aside for legal expenses."
Attleboro Mayor Kevin Dumas told Egan that the proposal "doesn't provide any economic benefit" to his community.
Even New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, who says he is "very intent" on getting rail service to his city, spoke against the Attleboro alternative. Better to extend track through Middleborough, down to Wareham and Buzzards Bay, he said.
"I think we got our point across," said Norton Town Manager James Purcell, following the meeting with Egan.
"Tonight marks a new beginning in our campaign to get the Attleboro alternative off the table," said Norton resident Heather Graf, founder and president of Citizens Concerned About Tracks. The group has members in Norton, Mansfield, Attleboro, and Taunton.
A similar civic engagement meeting in Easton, planned for last Monday but postponed due to snow, is expected to be rescheduled for a time at the end of the month.
In February, rail officials will narrow the field of 35 options. Those will be presented during public sessions in March. Egan expects six or fewer alternatives to be selected as front-runners by April. Those will undergo an in-depth review.
"The ultimate decision will be based on the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative," Egan said. "The Army Corps of Engineers will have the final say."
Once the decision is made in 2010, the Legislature will have to provide funding. Construction is expected to cost $1.4 billion. Service should begin by 2016, Egan said.
Christine Wallgren can be reached at CLWallgren@aol.com.