Environmental review further delays commuter rail

New deadline has a domino effect

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2009

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FALL RIVER - From the start, the state’s effort to extend commuter rail service to Fall River and New Bedford was going to be a long and complicated process, fraught with competing interests among residents and officials in communities that would be affected by the expansion.

Now the process is probably going to take even longer, much to the dismay of locals who had hoped to get a fix on where and when construction would start. Deadlines for environmental reports have been pushed into the future, bumping other deadlines related to the project.

Norton resident Heather Graf, who has been fighting the Attleboro Alternative for rail expansion - which would cut through her town - since 1995 through two separate commuter rail studies, said she was “disappointed but not surprised’’ by the latest delay, announced at a status briefing on the project held in Fall River Wednesday.

“I was critical of this process from the beginning, when they started with 101 alternatives. Now it seems it could go on forever, if they have to provide technical studies every time the EPA wants another alternative looked at,’’ said Graf, founder of the Citizens Concerned About Tracks activist group. She said those who oppose the Attleboro Alternative will remain vigilant until the final choice for commuter service is announced.

What’s delaying the project now is the release of the draft Environmental Impact report, expected out on Labor Day but now put off until next summer. That also bumps the Army Corps of Engineers’ selection of the commuter expansion route, which it will base, in part, on environmental factors.

Corps senior project manager Alan Anacheka-Nasemann said the timeframe may be even further extended.

“I can’t stress enough that June 2010 for the release of the draft environmental report is the best-case scenario and could change,’’ he said following the briefing for residents and officials. “This is an inherently unpredictable process, and answers often generate more questions.’’

State transportation officials had hoped for a preliminary announcement of the Army Corps’ preferred route some time this fall, so design work could be done, but that announcement remains a good year off.

South Coast Rail Project Manager Kristina Egan said her office provided all the required technical data to the environmental experts some months ago, but they continue to request more. “I find it frustrating that the environmental review is taking longer than construction will,’’ she said in an interview.

Under consideration are two rail expansion alternatives and a rapid bus service along existing highways. The Stoughton Alternative would run train service from Stoughton, through Easton and Raynham southward. The Attleboro Alternative would take the rail through Norton and Mansfield on its way south.

While officials at the state Department of Transportation have not formally announced their preferred method of expansion, they have left little doubt about the frontrunner. Egan noted the Stoughton Alternative is the most cost-effective, generates solid ridership projections, and provides consistently short travel times, making it the most practical.

The track would cross the sprawling Hobomock Swamp in Easton, which has been of great concern to the region’s environmentalists, but this alternative would only have an impact on about 12 acres of wetlands.

The Attleboro Alternative, Egan said, is a logistical nightmare because it significantly increases the number of trains to and from Boston. “We can’t get them in and out of South Station,’’ she said. “It’s like a traffic jam that affects all trains south of Boston, and there’s no way to solve it.’’

The Attleboro Alternative also requires construction of a third track from Mansfield to the Readville section of Boston and would take seven years and $1.9 billion to build.

Taking a bus along dedicated lanes, Egan said, would take at least 100 minutes from the South Coast to Boston, making it unattractive to commuters, and it would add to the existing bottleneck on Interstate 93’s zipper lane just south of the city.

Easton resident Kyla Bennett, who represents the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility group and vehemently opposes the Stoughton Alternative through the Hockomock Swamp, expressed relief at the slowed process. She believes the route through her town is favored by the state, and said she hopes it will be taken off the table by federal authorities due to environmental concerns.

“I think it’s a complicated project with a lot of impact, and the analysis should be commensurate with that,’’ she said. “I don’t think it’s permittable.’’ If the Stoughton Alternative is ultimately selected for build-out, Bennett said her organization will go to court to stop the construction.

Egan said state transportation officials will try to keep to the target date of 2012 for construction start-up. “My hope is we can stay on schedule by overlapping some of the engineering and design with the environmental review,’’ she said. “If we can’t start construction on time, then we’ll have to cope with inflation.’’

The expanded service is projected to be running by 2016.

Christine Legere can be reached at