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Commuter route options trimmed

Attleboro proposal dropped; 1 bus, 2 rail plans still open

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / November 23, 2008
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The Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation has recommended that state and federal environmental officials limit their upcoming study to three options for expanding commuter service from Boston to New Bedford and Fall River. Two are via rail, powered by diesel or electricity, and one by rapid bus.

Those recommendations, announced last Wednesday, drew mixed reviews from communities in southeastern Massachusetts.

The Office of Transportation recommended the following options:

  • Expanding the current Stoughton line, through Easton, Raynham, and Taunton southward. This option allows for six peak-hour trains, with three traveling to and from Fall River and three to and from New Bedford. Some wetlands impacts, however, related to Pine and Hockomock swamps, will be weighed during the environmental study.

  • Expanding the Middleborough line, but without improving infrastructure to the existing Old Colony Main line. The downside of this alternative, according to South Coast Rail manager Kristina Egan, is that there would be only three peak-hour trains. State transportation officials are aiming for the expansion route to provide at least six peak-hour runs. "But the environmental impacts are much less than the Stoughton Alternative," Egan said.

  • Providing rapid bus service from Fall River and New Bedford, using a dedicated lane along routes 24, 128, and 93. The option would be the quickest to build and offer the shortest commuting time - about 65 minutes. It would also be the least expensive to construct. Objections to this option have come from officials in New Bedford and Fall River, who prefer the rail. It also offers few opportunities for growth along the commuter corridor.

    All three options recommended by the Office of Transportation would keep the trip time to 90 minutes or less for any of the runs.

    Officials and residents in Mansfield, Norton, and Taunton were happy to learn state transportation officials had dropped the so-called Attleboro Alternative. In Taunton, the Attleboro Alternative would have required 15 at-grade road crossings.

    Egan said the Attleboro Alternative was deemed too impractical and costly.

    "During our analysis, we discovered we would have to add a third track from the Readville section of Boston all the way to Attleboro," Egan said. "That would take a really long time and cost a lot of money." The option would delay the 2016 target date for rail service start-up to 2020.

    The Attleboro Alternative would also have required construction of a 700-foot bridge for the third track in Canton.

    "I think it's terrific," said state Representative F. Jay Barrows, a Mansfield Republican, after Egan told lawmakers that her agency had eliminated the Attleboro plan.

    Rail expansion through southeastern Massachusetts has been discussed and studied for nearly 20 years. Over the last year, South Coast Rail staffers have whittled the list of rail expansion alternatives from 35 possibilities down to the current three.

    The US Army Corps of Engineers, along with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office, will decide by the end of January whether to limit their environmental review to the three options favored by state transportation officials or include others previously on the table. Their suggested front-runner for expanded commuter service is expected to be announced sometime next spring.

    Residents and officials in Easton, who would be affected by the Stoughton Alternative that is still on the table, were neither surprised nor happy about the recommendations. This option had been deemed the best expansion method in a study that concluded in 2002.

    "They're going to drive right through downtown Easton, cutting our town in half for emergency service," said Easton Historical Commission Chairman Melanie Deware. According to Deware, 15 historical properties will be affected by the rail.

    "This whole process has been flawed," said Kyla Bennett, an Easton resident and member of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Instead of getting ridership figures to see if this service is necessary, it was one of those 'If you build it, they will come' things.

    "They're asking taxpayers to spend $2 billion to bring a couple thousand people back and forth. To me, it's economically irresponsible and environmentally disastrous."

    David Colton, Easton town manager, said selectmen will prepare a written response to the Stoughton Alternative's inclusion on the list of recommendations.

    The Middleborough option has been welcomed by officials in that town, since it would help revitalize the downtown and transport casino patrons, if that facility is built.

    Heather Graf, a Norton resident and founder of a group called Citizens Concerned about Tracks, said her organization intends to remain vigilant until January, when the US Army Corps of Engineers and staffers from the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office make their decision on the scope of their coming study.

    Those agencies will hold two sessions to gather public input, on Dec. 2 and 3. Jan. 9 marks the end of the public comment period.

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

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