Until now, resistance to expanding the area's commuter rail service line through Mansfield and Norton has come primarily from those towns, and neighbors to the south. But now that officials of Canton, Westwood, and Dedham realize that the plan would mean major construction in their towns as well, the opposition may spread north.
Officials in those three towns are just now hearing details of what construction of the so-called Attleboro Bypass route would mean to them: specifically, adding a third track along the existing rail route from Canton Junction north through Westwood and Dedham, to the Readville station in Boston.
"The triple track would run through Canton Center," said Canton's Fire Chief Tim Ronayne III. "That's our main [emergency] response route to the north section of town. As far as the Fire Department is concerned, we don't want any expansion to the tracks that would slow down response time."
Officials note that the track would also cut through environmentally sensitive areas: Fowl Meadow and the Ponkapoag Bog lie in a state-designated "critical area of environmental concern."
That, along with traffic impacts, bothers Canton Selectwoman Avril Elkort. Her board met with Kristina Egan, South Coast Rail Project manager, a week ago to get a better understanding of the options being considered.
"This would negatively impact our Downtown Station," Elkort said of the additional track.
Westwood and Dedham officials have not yet met with rail officials to discuss expansion plans, so they are withholding comment for now. Westwood's meeting will be next month, and Dedham's is not yet scheduled.
The Neponset River Watershed Association is also closely tracking the rail expansion's progress and are concerned over plans for a third track through Fowl Meadow.
"We have been worried about this for a long time," said the association's executive director, Ian Cooke. "Ten or 12 years ago, it became apparent to us that there were thoughts that people might want a third track through the Meadow. Although our organization is very enthusiastic about the rail service, it's a worry it will be through environmentally sensitive and aquifer areas."
Cooke added his organization is reserving judgment until members know what the rail service expansion will entail.
The South Coast Rail Project aims to provide public transit linking Boston to Fall River and New Bedford. Egan's office is in the process of whittling down a list of possible route and construction options.
The Attleboro Bypass would route train traffic through Norton, Mansfield, Attleboro, and Taunton, on its way south to New Bedford and Fall River.
Another route under consideration, known as 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. Both options are controversial - and both worry Canton officials.
Although the Stoughton Alternative would not require construction of a third rail track, it would increase rail traffic along the existing track, said Elkort, and that is a problem for people living along the route.
Canton has not taken a formal stand, nor have officials forwarded their concerns over rail options to state officials yet.
The Attleboro Bypass route, meanwhile, has raised similar concerns about additional rail traffic.
When Norton's town leaders and the state legislative delegation met with Egan a week ago, they added concern over congestion to the list, saying train traffic along the existing Attleboro line is already too heavy before taking on more trains. In fact, that was enough to cause the option to be taken off the table during an earlier transportation study, in 2002.
Rail officials plan to spend the summer scrutinizing alternatives that include the Attleboro Bypass, the Stoughton Alternative, and the Middleborough Alternative that would run along existing Old Colony track before heading south to the coast.
Experts will run computer models to determine whether they can put more trains on tracks along the Attleboro route. They are also considering a bus route, using dedicated lanes along major highways from the south coast to Boston.
The next step in the process is set to begin this fall with a full environmental review at both the state and federal level. The front-running alternatives will be reviewed over the winter, and state officials plan to release a draft of the preferred option next spring. The selection will not be formalized until spring 2010.
After meeting with Egan a week ago, some are holding out hope that the Attleboro Bypass will be taken off the table before the extensive study begins. Egan said the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency will announce which routes will be studied when they file the required environmental notification forms and schedule their scoping sessions in September.
"There's a possibility a route may be found not to be practical to go forward," said Heather Graf, founder and president of Citizens Concerned About Tracks. "I would see the possibility of the Middleborough route dropping out, but we can only hope that it's the Attleboro route so there's an end to this foolishness."
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.