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Transit options get cool reception

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2008

The unveiling this week of the 10 plans deemed most likely to expand public transportation across Southeastern Massachusetts has done nothing to quell disagreement on the topic.

The plans - chosen by state officials from a list of 60 options - drew a quick round of complaints from attendees at the first of three planned community forums on the topic. They criticized state officials for wasting time and money to study rail service options that had been scrutinized previously, and for offering insufficient specifics.

"I was sitting here talking about this same thing 10 years ago," complained Norton Selectman Robert Kimball.

The list of 10 - which will be further whittled down to four or six over the next month - include some routes that have been generating controversy for years.

Four of the 10 finalists call for extending the commuter rail along the so-called Attleboro Alternative, which would route trains through environmentally sensitive areas in Norton and result in 15 street crossings in Taunton.

Attleboro, Taunton, Norton, and Mansfield officials have all taken formal votes opposing any expansion via that option. Taunton Mayor Charles Crowley said Monday that the plan puts city residents in jeopardy. "It would cut our city in half," hindering emergency response, he said.

"We thought the Attleboro Alternative wasn't going to be built, and now we have development along that line," Kimball, of Norton, said. "When do you consider the human impact?"

In the previous rail study several years ago, the Attleboro Alternative was dropped. Officials at that time preferred the so-called Stoughton Alternative through Easton instead.

That alternative, controversial in its own right, also made the final 10 list. Two of the options call for expansion via the Stoughton Alternative, which would require the rail to pass through the Hocko mock Swamp.

Three more plans on the list call for some form of extension of the Middleborough line, and the final two on the list involve enhanced bus service to and from New Bedford and Fall River.

South Coast Rail project manager Kristina Egan, who made the announcements and oversaw Monday's forum, noted that the Hockomock Swamp is classified as of "critical environmental concern." The former track that ran through the swamp is no longer there, so the plan would require building a new trestle, she said.

James Azevedo, one of just a few Easton residents who attended Monday's session, said he recently walked the swamp area and found the proposed tracks would be close to three town wells and two of West Bridgewater's.

"I'm not against the rail, but running tracks through a resource area would be doing a disservice to our children," said Azevedo, who said he has also located a species "of special concern" under the state's endangered species law in the swamp, called the Mystic Valley amphipod, a tiny crustacean.

The issue of funding also surfaced. Many asked where the state, in a sagging economy, expected to get the $1.7 billion needed to expand commuter service to Fall River and New Bedford - a task that wouldn't be completed at best until 2016. And some even suggested the money might be better used as direct aid to those cities to help revitalize their economies.

State Representative Betty Poirier, a Republican who represents Attleboro, Mansfield and Norton, chided rail officials over what she said was a lack of specific information.

"People came with questions and few were answered," she said. Her office frequently fields complaints from commuters over the current rail service. "Shouldn't we fix those problems first?"

Egan expected a large crowd for her announcement of the 10 front-runners, but only about 50 people turned out for the session, held in Attleboro, and most of those were local officials and state representatives.

To those who felt their questions were not answered, Egan stressed that rail experts were still viewing options "from 10,000 feet." Once a set of four to six finalists is selected, which is expected to occur during the next month, extensive study of each will be done, she said.

When those alternatives are selected, Egan said the public will be able to comment through the formal Environmental Notification filing process. She warned the group that some form of the Attleboro Alternative would probably be among the four to six that eventually undergo a thorough two-year environmental impact study.

The actual route that expanded service will take won't be decided until 2010. The decision will be based on which is considered to be the least environmentally harmful while still fulfilling the goal of effectively extending the network of public transportation, Egan said.

The latest rail information can be found on southcoastrail.com.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@globe.com.

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