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There’s a lot riding on ridership projections for South Coast Rail

Some people are skeptical about ridership projections for the South Coast based on past experience with the Greenbush Line project. Some people are skeptical about ridership projections for the South Coast based on past experience with the Greenbush Line project. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / June 20, 2010

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The South Coast Rail line that would restore commuter rail service to Fall River and New Bedford is the biggest transportation project in the works on Beacon Hill in years. The projected cost of $1.4 billion or more would exceed the combined cost of the recent Old Colony/Greenbush Line projects and be more than double the estimated cost of the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, which is slated for 2014.

As a result, it is the subject of election-year debate about whether the state can afford it, heightening attention on the cost-benefit analysis that determines whether a project like this lives or dies.

Its ultimate ability to win funding from Beacon Hill lawmakers and federal officials will hinge on projected ridership and other economic and social benefits weighed against taxpayer investment.

So when Governor Deval Patrick reaffirmed his commitment to South Coast Rail this past week, promising it would be in place within seven years, he drew accolades from that region’s residents, officials, and business leaders — and sharp criticism from Republican gubernatorial opponent Charles D. Baker and his running mate, Richard Tisei, who called it an unaffordable “election-year gimmick.’’

Patrick’s administration is not yet at the stage of applying for federal funds or seeking authority to borrow for the project. But it has committed $20 million in federal stimulus funds for related bridge work in New Bedford and put up a larger amount of state money to buy tracks from CSX, a private rail and shipping company, that will form the backbone of the route.

The $100 million CSX deal is half complete and comprises a variety of moves intended to enhance MBTA commuter rail service.

The state paid $50 million on June 11 to acquire 37 miles of South Coast track as well as 2 miles of track in South Boston and an 8-mile band from Allston to East Boston, known as the Grand Junction, that provides a roundabout link between North and South Station lines.

The remaining $50 million won’t change hands until September 2012, after public and private projects are finished that will allow CSX to move its substantial Allston operations — where cross-country rail shipments are transferred to trucks — to Central Massachusetts. The state will then take over CSX tracks east of Worcester, allowing it to expand commuter offerings beyond Framingham.

Tisei called that CSX deal “reckless.’’ US Senator John F. Kerry and other South Coast Rail supporters called it “historic’’ and farsighted, applauding Patrick and thanking CSX.

Supporters say the sociocultural benefits of restoring rail to a long-struggling region — and the only area within 50 miles of Boston that lacks train service — are myriad, if not entirely quantifiable.

Still, they project that by 2030 the service will inspire enough new development around stations and facilitate commuting to Boston to generate $448 million to $487 million in new annual economic activity, with 3,500 to 3,800 new jobs.

They expect 8,040 to 9,580 one-way trips a day (representing 4,500 to 5,900 people, most of them taking round-trips), depending on the final route and the speed of the trains, which would take about 75 to 90 minutes to run to New Bedford or Fall River from Boston. And they would remove up to 297,000 vehicle-miles a day from roads and highways, saving fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

The projected cost starts at $1.4 billion but could surpass $2 billion. Much of the route is defined by the CSX tracks, which start in Taunton, travel south to Berkley, and split there to form two legs, one descending to Fall River and one to New Bedford. But the state is awaiting a Clean Water Act permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, expected this fall, that will determine whether the route between Taunton and Boston’s South Station goes through Attleboro or Stoughton.

Using electric engines instead of diesel would make the trains cleaner to operate and more than 10 percent speedier, but would add $400 million to the bottom line, requiring construction of overhead wiring and infrastructure to power them.

Some are skeptical about the projections because of the Greenbush Line, the South Shore route that was planned as part of the 1990s Old Colony expansion but delayed until fall 2007 because of complications. Greenbush ridership has yet to meet state projections.

A reader named Judy in Marshfield called South Coast estimates “pie in the sky,’’ e-mailing to say she had just driven past a pair of largely empty Greenbush parking lots. “[As] far as I’m concerned, that didn’t work and neither will Southcoast, it will just be another big mess for the State,’’ she wrote.

But state officials say the art and science of projecting ridership has come a long way. The South Coast figures were developed by the Central Transportation Planning Staff, the staff for the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization that is responsible for transportation planning.

“It’s far more sophisticated [than the model used for Greenbush] and utilizes literally tens of thousands of data points,’’ said Andrew Brennan, the MBTA’s director of environmental affairs. “When other regions around the country are thinking about developing a model, the Boston Region’s is one they look at. It’s typically considered one of the best.’’

Bicyclists can now hop a train to Newburyport or Rockport

Fans of multimodal day-trips and the beach have a new option this summer, with the addition of bike coaches on the Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail lines on weekends and holidays now through Columbus Day.

The bike coaches look like regular commuter rail cars, but inside some seats have been removed and replaced with bicycle racks that hold between 10 and 45 bikes.

The MBTA and the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., the private partnership that operates the T’s commuter rail system, have offered the bike coach on the Rockport branch since 2006, but the Newburyport coach is new this year.

That means bikers have more options for exploring without needing to return on the same train where they started.

The T experimented with the bike coach last year on the South Shore’s Greenbush line but it proved less popular than the North Shore coach.

The outbound trains from Boston equipped with bike coaches leave at 9:30 a.m., 10:15 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 2:15 p.m.

The inbound trains from Newburyport leave at 10:48 a.m. and 2:48 p.m., and from Rockport at noon and 5:10 p.m.

That allows a biker to get on at North Station (or any of the stops along the route) for Newburyport and then cycle along the coast through Newbury, Ipswich, and the towns of Cape Ann before returning on a Rockport train.

Do you have a driving desire for a low-number plate?

If your pulse quickens at the thought of cruising around with R12, F17, 55A, or even 2002 on your license plate, now is your chance.

The state is accepting applications for its annual low-number license plate drawing, which will be held Aug. 28 at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline.

This year there are 179 low-number plates available. That’s nine more than in last year’s lottery.

But competition has been increasing. According to the Registry, a record 6,634 people applied for the drawing last year, up from 4,350 in 2008 and 3,972 in 2007.

Applications are available at all Registry of Motor Vehicles branches, or they can be downloaded at www.mass.gov/rmv. Applications must be postmarked by Aug. 9 to be considered.

To the uninitiated, the available plates are either number-only registrations with four or fewer digits or combination number-letter registrations with two numbers and one letter.

They represent the newly available plates — freed up as a result of the automobile owner’s death or other reasons — among the so-called reserve registrations, which number roughly 15,000. (That’s out of 5.9 million registered vehicles in the state.)

Those low-digit plates have cachet because they originally were issued to the state’s first automobile-owners — starting in 1903, when Massachusetts pioneered the license plate — and to people with political clout.

The plates rarely become available, because owners can pay a fee to keep them in a family from generation to generation.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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