During the next three weeks, state officials intend to pick six options from the list of more than 60 proposals to expand public transportation to Fall River and New Bedford.
The leading proposals will be announced the first week in March. In what has been a contentious deliberation process, the public will then have an opportunity to react to the plans.
Leaders and citizens groups in several communities have been working hard to keep options that would negatively affect their communities off the short list.
That effort was clear in an information meeting last month in Norton, where residents vehemently opposed the so-called Attleboro Alternative route, and last week in Easton, where residents attacked the so-called Stoughton Alternative.
The Stoughton Alternative would cut through the Hockomock Swamp in Easton, bisect the town center, and wind close to public drinking wells. In 2002, that route was the state's top choice for construction of a new commuter rail line, although finances caused the plan to be abandoned at the time.
This time, Easton is battling not only the state, but a well-organized group from neighboring towns. Citizens Concerned About Tracks says the Stoughton route makes more sense than the competing Attleboro proposal. The group has members in Attleboro, Norton, Mansfield, and Taunton .
Easton, too, has its own citizens group. Citizens Against the Rail Extension was established in 2002 when the earlier rail extension was first considered, and the group has been recently reactivated.
Last Thursday, group president James Sullivan said the Stoughton plan would result in seven road crossings in Easton, along with several miles of track running through the environmentally sensitive Hockomock Swamp and dangerously close to two of Easton's main drinking wells.
Fellow group member Chuck Hanegan pointed out public safety concerns. "The track cuts the town in half," Hanegan said. Firefighters and police could be delayed by passing trains when trying to reach emergencies, he said.
A few days before last Thursday's meeting with rail officials, Easton selectmen voted unanimously to oppose the Stoughton Alternative. At the meeting, Selectman John Haederle told Kristina Egan, manager of the state's south coast rail project, that he believed the Stoughton Alternative would not be allowed under federal environmental standards.
Federal review had not been part of the 2002 process, but it will be this time. Several speakers agreed with Haederle.
"I think the proximity to the wells is a top priority," said Kyla Bennett, an Easton resident and member of a third group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which also opposes the Stoughton Alternative. She noted the damage fossil fuels could cause to wildlife in the Hockomock Swamp.
Melanie Deware, chairwoman of the Easton Historical Commission, said there were 15 historic properties that could be affected by the Stoughton Alternative. She said the Hockomock Swamp is also "sensitive historically" because it contains a number of significant Native American sites.
"Once your history is gone, it's gone," Deware said.
Citizens Against the Rail Extension, along with Easton officials, urged the state to reject the Stoughton Alternative and instead extend the Middleborough leg of the Old Colony line, since officials in that town have said they would welcome that option.
Use of an existing highway corridor - running traditional rail or monorail along Route 24 - also drew support in Easton. Putting the track in a high-visibility spot might persuade some drivers to switch to public transportation, residents said.
South coast rail officials will post the short list of choices on the southcoastrail.com website at the beginning of March.
They have scheduled three community forums that month to get reaction: on March 10 in Attleboro, March 11 in Lakeville, and March 12 in Freetown.
After those sessions, the list will be finalized, probably in April. It could contain the same options as the list produced in March, or variations.
The plans will then undergo extensive federal and state study over about two years.
Egan has said the US Army Corps of Engineers will make the final choice of how the public transportation network will be extended in 2010, selecting the option that is the least environmentally damaging while providing the desired expansion.
During the two-year study period, scientists will inspect the routes, marking off wetlands, calculating the number of stream and river crossings required, and considering the number of acres of open space that will be affected, Egan said.
Sullivan has said if the Stoughton Alternative makes the state's short list, Easton will be tracking that study closely.
"That route has the most abutters along the track, the lowest ridership, and the biggest environmental impacts," Sullivan said. "The people of Easton are going to be all over the ridership numbers so they had better be right."
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.