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Expansion of rail faces fiscal wall

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2009
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State Treasurer Timothy Cahill recently cautioned that the cash-strapped state isn't in a good position to move forward with a $1.4 billion expansion of commuter service that would link Boston to the south coast cities of New Bedford and Fall River.

Those remarks have won some supporters as well as detractors in the Southeastern Massachusetts communities that lie along two contending routes being considered for commuter rail expansion: the so-called Stoughton Alternative and Attleboro Alternative.

New Bedford and Fall River have been clamoring for a Boston link for more than a decade. The current administration committed to it two years ago, shortly after Governor Deval Patrick took office. The three-year planning phase, which will wrap up next spring, will cost over $17 million. Plans have continued despite the sinking economy.

Easton's town administrator, David Colton, says Cahill's caution makes sense. "We appreciate the state treasurer throwing some fiscal sanity into the equation here," Colton said.

The Stoughton Alternative would run rail track through Easton's center, affecting its historic district, a municipal drinking well, and the environmentally sensitive Hockomock Swamp. Easton officials formally voted against this alternative some months ago, but it remains one of the front-runners.

"The state is in a financial mess, and the entire transportation structure is in chaos," Colton said. "They're talking increases to the gas tax and tolls to manage what the state already has. And they want to expand? It doesn't take a genius to do the math."

In a recent letter explaining his position on the south coast rail project to New Bedford's City Council, Cahill said that, as state treasurer, he has the "fiduciary responsibility to oversee the state's cash flow and debt burden, but more importantly to ensure the fiscal health of the Commonwealth and its citizens."

Cahill goes on to say the current economic downturn requires that the state make cuts to "even the most fundamental areas - including transportation."

State officials, meanwhile, are two years into a study of an expansion of commuter service to the south coast. Out of 65 initial options, the expansion alternatives have been narrowed to one rapid transit bus alternative along existing highways, and the Stoughton and Attleboro rail alternatives. A draft decision announcing the finalist is expected by Labor Day.

The Stoughton Alternative, which was the preferred route when a study of commuter service was done seven years ago, would run track through Easton, Raynham, and Taunton, and then head south. It's not just Easton that has been concerned over that option. The Stoughton Alternatve would increase the number of trains traveling straight through downtown Stoughton. Freight trains would most likely use the line as well.

"We are trying to revitalize our downtown," said Stoughton's Town Planner Joseph Laydon. "The last thing we want is for the rail to be a wall in our downtown."

Stoughton officials plan to lobby to have a depressed track through the town's center, similar to what was built in Hingham's downtown during Greenbush construction. But that would be costly. "We're very concerned that if the price tag needs to be moved south, the mitigation the town is looking for won't be available," Laydon said.

The option called the Attleboro Alternative would run the track through Norton, Mansfield, and Taunton before heading south. Officials in all three of those towns have already taken formal votes opposing this option, supporting instead the Stoughton Alternative.

Norton resident Heather Graf, founder and president of the Citizens Concerned About Tracks, expressed frustration over Cahill's remarks. "This has gone on for decades," Graf said. "And $17.2 million has been approved by the Legislature for funding the study. We're midway through that, and Cahill is now suggesting we shelve it and then start again later at a higher cost. That makes no sense."

But not everyone in Norton agrees with Graf. "In troubled times like these, we can't be looking at additional costs and more debt on the backs of the taxpayers," said Norton Selectman Robert Kimball. "I think people would rather work where they live. The Legislature should be looking at how to get more jobs to those two cities and put this project aside."

As a backdrop to the debate, Cahill is widely seen as a potential rival to Patrick in the 2010 race for governor.

South Coast Rail project manager Kristina Egan said the Patrick administration remains committed to the public transportation expansion project. "Nothing has changed, and we've got strong federal help," she said.

"From where I sit, I'm somewhat perplexed as to why this is the one project you can't fund," Egan said of Cahill's comments. "If you pull the plug on this right now, we'd have to start all over again. That would represent a huge waste of resources, especially when we're not very far from tying this up with a bow."

The project's timeline calls for construction to begin by 2012 and the rail expansion to open by 2016.

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