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Transit finalists chosen

Neighbor towns feud over 5 plans

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / May 4, 2008

The whittled-down list of options for how to expand regional public transit, announced by state officials last week, is already meeting with much of the same opposition that has dogged the project from the start.

Two of the five options came as no surprise: construction of commuter rail extensions along what are called the Attleboro and Stoughton alternative routes. Those options have been front-runners in past studies, and both face continuing resistance from neighboring communities.

A third option would run the service along an existing track bed via the so-called Middleborough alternative. So far that option is drawing little negative comment.

A fourth would split the impact. Called a hybrid, it would channel half the commuter traffic along the Attleboro alternative and the other half along the Middleborough alternative.

The final option, which several officials publicly dismissed as soon as it was announced on Wednesday, calls for express bus service in a dedicated lane from Boston's South Station to Fall River and New Bedford via the Southeast Expressway HOV lane, Route 128, and Route 24.

"We're not here to talk bus service," responded New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang. "We're looking for a modern, state-of-the-art rail. There may be five options, but as far as I'm concerned, there are only four."

Lang, and other officials, expressed frustration that over the past 20 years the rail expansion has not moved beyond the planning stages.

An uncertain economy has hindered the project in the past, but that will not be the case this time around, state officials vowed.

The project is "on schedule and full steam ahead," Bernard Cohen, state transportation secretary, assured on Wednesday.

The identification last week of the five finalist options culminated a year of opinion-sampling by state officials. Now the staff of the state's South Coast Rail Project will "hunker down and crunch the numbers all summer," while doing in-depth field work on the routes, said project manager Kristina Egan. Her staff will also do computer simulations to help determine the best route, which won't be decided until 2010, she said. Environmental notices for the study will be submitted by fall, starting the environmental review. Egan has said the least environmentally damaging option will be selected for the expansion route, as long as it is capable of being built and can be done at a reasonable cost.

The use of both diesel and electric power will be considered for the Attleboro and Stoughton alternatives.

"We heard the public loud and clear," Egan said. "They want a green project. Electric costs more, but it also provides a faster ride."

Electric rail may be most appealing in the Attleboro scenario since that corridor is already electrified. By contrast, using electric cars along the Stoughton alternative would require building overhead lines, including through environmentally sensitive areas.

All the rail alternatives would extend across Southeastern Massachusetts to Fall River and New Bedford, but via differing paths.

The Stoughton alternative would extend the track of the existing Stoughton line south, through Easton and Raynham, and into Taunton, before heading to the coast.

The Attleboro alternative would begin at the existing track in Mansfield, head through Attleboro, into Norton, and then to Taunton and south to the coast.

Finally, the Middleborough alternative would extend the existing Middleborough/Lakeville commuter rail line south through Lakeville and Berkley, to the coast.

Taunton River Watershed advocate Priscilla Chapman has been outspoken in her opposition to the Stoughton alternative because it would require crossing the Hockomock Swamp in Easton, designated by the state as an area of critical environmental concern. In 2002, the state chose the Stoughton alternative as the best route for the track expansion, sparking local opposition, but lack of funding derailed the plans then.

Chapman said she was disappointed that another option on the earlier list - running a rail line along the highway corridor - didn't survive as a finalist.

"I think the rail along the highway would be the least environmentally damaging since you already have disturbance there," Chapman said.

"We want them to look very, very carefully now at the environmental resources they will be impacting. They have to consider not just the acreage of wetlands, but the quality of the wetlands."

A group called Citizens Against the Rail Extension, has pointed out the Stoughton alternative would run the track close to Easton's drinking wells. Members also say it would also cut the town in half, which could delay public safety response in an emergency.

There is similar opposition to the Attleboro alternative. Norton resident Heather Graf, founder and president of Citizens Concerned About Tracks, is unhappy that the route would run through Chartley Pond in Norton. "That route is an environmental nightmare," Graf said.

It would also produce 15 at-grade crossings in Taunton, prompting the Taunton City Council to vote in opposition of the Attleboro alternative and in favor of the Stoughton alternative.

Graf was one of the few non-officials who attended the state's Wednesday announcement. "I'm not surprised, but I'm not happy," said Graf of the Attleboro alternative's landing on the finalist list. "I guess now we'll keep fighting for another two years."

Graf said her group will take the fight to the state Legislature, which will have to fund the bonding bills for the project as it proceeds.

State officials, as well as those in New Bedford and Fall River, back the rail extension plan because, they say, it offers not just transportation, but economic development to an area that has been languishing.

"This gives us a second chance to do planning in Southeastern Massachusetts," said Stephen Smith, the executive director of the Southeast Regional Planning and Economic Development District. "That whole area has been a victim of sprawl. We're already looking at growth implications of this project. We'll have a corridor plan to maximize opportunities for transit-oriented development and minimize impacts."

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

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