Greenbush opposition has ceased as the reality approaches: Trains start rolling Wednesday, and region awaits the impact
At 5:44 a.m. this Wednesday, a locomotive pulling six cars is scheduled to leave Greenbush station in Scituate. About an hour later, the train should arrive at Boston's South Station - the first passenger service on the line in almost half a century.
The return of the trains this week marks the end of a long and sometimes bitter controversy, played out in courts, town halls, and state and federal bureaucracies. Along the way there were local and regional referendums, public opinion polls, and demonstrations in the streets and along the tracks.
In the nearly 25 years since local lawmakers first proposed a commuter rail expansion for the South Shore, the cost of Greenbush has escalated steadily. It is now pegged at $512 million by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which owns and runs the line. That is almost twice what it cost to build the other two legs of the expansion - to Middleborough/Lakeville and Kingston. Those lines (combined price tag: $537 million) opened a decade ago.
For many who were a part of the Greenbush saga, an anticlimactic air surrounds this week's opening, which will include a ceremonial trip on Tuesday for dignitaries, the media, and invited guests.
In Cohasset, where controversies over Greenbush issues went on for years, "now, we're trying to figure out what kind of ceremony we'll have in the parking lot when it starts," said William R. Griffin, town manager.
Scituate Selectman Joseph Norton at first supported Greenbush, then opposed it. Now, he is mostly relieved that the trains are about to roll.
"I think on the whole whether you were pro-train or anti-train - those were the terms that were used - the bottom line is the project is here and ready to start up, and we hope it goes well," Norton said.
The MBTA estimates that 76,000 automobile miles a day will shift to the train, although no one is predicting dramatic or long-term relief for the chronic congestion on routes 3 and 3A. Southeastern Massachusetts is the state's fastest-growing region, and new vehicles are expected to take the place of those whose drivers switch to the trains or other public transportation.
While no one knows for sure the effect the trains will have on the region, many believe it will be far-reaching.
Real estate specialists expect the new access to Boston to bolster property values and spur development. Until now, the South Shore between East Braintree and Marshfield was the only large tract of suburban Boston not linked to the city by commuter rail or other rapid transit. Already, several housing developments are being built near Greenbush stations. From January through August of this year, home sales fell 4.7 percent in Massachusetts, but in four towns on the Greenbush line - Cohasset, Hingham, Scituate, and Marshfield - sales increased from 2.5 to 59 percent.
Peter V. Forman, president of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, said the trains will lift the regional economy. Stores and entertainment venues will open to serve the expanding population, and eventually large employers will relocate here, he said.
"We think we are hitting a tipping point where the labor pool is so significant, big companies are going to want to move down here," Forman said.
Opposition to Greenbush centered on fears that the trains would disrupt communities that had changed significantly since the original commuter service ended in 1959. To ease those concerns, the MBTA built a $40 million, 890-foot tunnel under Hingham Square, as well as a shallow tunnel in Weymouth Landing on the Braintree line.
As the T prepared last week to start service, a number of issues remained unresolved. A rotary near the Greenbush station was still under construction, although MBTA officials said it would be ready by Wednesday. Officials in Weymouth and Braintree were concerned that a parking lot and access road at Weymouth Landing were not finished.
While many people remain uneasy about the return of the trains, and there are concerns about congestion and safety at the 28 grade crossings on the line, active opposition appears to have ended.
"It's accepted now," said state Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican who fought the project for many years. "It's reality."
Martha Bewick of Hingham, a longtime opponent of Greenbush, said the trains will harm the character of the communities they pass through. New traffic jams will appear at crossings and on streets near the stations, she predicted.
"People are going to have to drive to almost every station," Bewick said. "This is not a clean air project."
Other transportation options could be affected by Greenbush, most notably the commuter boats, which travel to Boston from Hingham, Hull, and Quincy. Ridership on the boats has been up and down over the years but has been fairly strong lately. The boats should be able to withstand this new competition, according to Alison Nolan, general manager of Boston Harbor Cruises, the principal ferry operator in the region. The boats have a number of advantages over trains, including nonstop service, more frequent trips, and food and beverage service.
"We feel there are certain amenities that are unique to water transportation," Nolan said.
MBTA general manager Daniel Grabauskas stressed the benefits to commuters who now have the option of leaving their cars at home.
"Residents throughout the Greenbush Line corridor can now join the tens of thousands of people in Massachusetts who've already replaced their motor vehicles with MBTA commuter rail passes," he said.
The Greenbush trains will run on the same tracks used by the other two branches of the Old Colony Railroad from Braintree to Boston. The tracks will be close to capacity at peak times, which will limit the possibility of expanding service on any of the Old Colony branches.
Even critics of the trains predict they will be popular. When the plans for the line were drawn up in the 1980s and 1990s, they were designed for demand in 2010, which seemed a long way away then, but is now just around the corner.
"It'll be at capacity," predicted Hedlund. "The trains will be full."
State Representative Frank M. Hynes, a Marshfield Democrat, was among the lawmakers who in 1983 proposed Greenbush, and he is the only filer still in office. He greets this week's Greenbush launch with a long view of the project's controversial history.
"I think the trains will be seen as very important to the economy and to the life of these communities," said Hynes. "My hope is that it will be integrated into the neighborhoods and be seen as a positive addition."
Robert Preer can be reached at email@example.com.