THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Stoughton looks to Hingham for rail tips

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / August 27, 2009

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The town of Stoughton, whose center could be seriously affected by the state’s plan to expand its public transportation network south to Fall River and New Bedford, is looking to take a page from Hingham’s playbook should the expansion channel more track and trains through town.

Stoughton officials say they will demand a depressed track bed downtown, similar to the hard-won tunnel Hingham eventually secured during construction of the Greenbush commuter rail line several years ago. That battle not only tied up the Greenbush project for years, it also added nearly $40 million to the price tag.

The state is looking at two alternatives for rail expansion and one for a rapid transit bus service along dedicated lanes for Southeastern Massachusetts. The expansion proposal known as the Attleboro Alternative would route trains through Norton and Mansfield before channeling them southward; the Stoughton Alternative would expand the rail through Stoughton, Easton, and Raynham.

A preliminary report, based on a state and federal environmental study, is expected to be released this fall and will probably identify the preferred method of transportation for southward expansion. That alternative will then undergo several more months of scrutiny before being finalized next spring.

“We want to be prepared if we don’t support what comes out,’’ said Stoughton Town Planner Joe Laydon.

A Stoughton contingent recently traveled to Hingham to check out that town’s depressed track bed and discuss how local officials had persuaded the state to construct it.

Stoughton Town Manager Mark Stankiewicz said the purpose in meeting with Hingham was to put together a strategy for taking on the state, should the Stoughton Alternative be selected. “But putting that strategy in the Boston Globe would be counter-productive,’’ he said.

The state’s Executive Office of Transportation, as well as area residents and officials, had expected to find out by Labor Day which of the options for expansion had been selected. But the Army Corps of Engineers recently pushed that deadline until sometime this fall.

“Everyone is just in a holding pattern,’’ said Kristina Egan, manager of the South Coast Rail project. She said she expects to post many of the environmental impact documents, upon which the Corps decision will be made, on the project’s website in the next few weeks.

Stoughton selectmen recently appointed a 17-member committee to look at what impact a rail expansion would have on the town. The downtown area is particularly vulnerable and already has traffic congestion. Officials want a depressed track through the center so train service would not disrupt traffic and public safety operations or affect businesses and residents located in the downtown.

“We’re looking at what kind of mitigation we could require if the train comes through, and what we should do if the state doesn’t provide it,’’ said study committee chairman Lou Gitto.

Gitto said Stoughton officials have also talked to their counterparts in Easton and Raynham, and more meetings will be held.

But while many in Easton are concerned over a rail expansion in their community due to the potential impact on the town’s historic section, Hockomock Swamp, and municipal wells, Easton selectmen chairwoman Colleen Corona said residents, in a past referendum vote, said they didn’t want the town to hire lawyers to fight the project.

Raynham voters have indicated in a referendum that they were not opposed to a rail expansion through town.

Stoughton voters, at a Special Town Meeting on Sept. 30, will be asked to approve $20,000 for the town to hire engineers to review documents released as part of the environmental impact study being conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers. The article also says selectmen may use the money to prepare for litigation that would keep the track from extending through Stoughton unless the mitigation requirements specified by the town are included in design and funding for the expansion.

Meanwhile, Governor Deval Patrick and other state officials, along with lawmakers for Southeastern Massachusetts, unveiled a 100-page “economic development and land use corridor plan’’ in New Bedford two weeks ago, boasting that expanded commuter service would add up to 3,800 jobs and generate $500 million in economic activity annually by 2030.

The projected cost of the rail expansion is between $1.4 and $1.8 billion. The state is hoping some federal stimulus money can help get the job done; the best-case scenario has the network up and running in 2016.

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