THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Report on rail routes due soon

May hint at top South Coast option

If the Stoughton expansion route is selected, officials may demand a lowered track in downtown Stoughton to ease traffic congestion from the additional trains. If the Stoughton expansion route is selected, officials may demand a lowered track in downtown Stoughton to ease traffic congestion from the additional trains. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File)
By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / March 17, 2011

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Local leaders anxious to know whether a public transportation expansion to the South Coast would require rail tracks through their communities may have their answer in the next week or so, when the Army Corps of Engineers releases its long-delayed draft environmental impact statement.

Three options were studied by the federal agency, which will determine which method is the least harmful to the environment while remaining affordable and buildable.

On the table are a rapid transit bus service with dedicated lanes on the highways to Boston; the so-called Attleboro Alternative rail expansion through Norton and Mansfield southward; and the Stoughton track expansion through Easton and Raynham, the front-runner in a study conducted in 2002.

While New Bedford and Fall River leaders are eager to have a commuter link to Boston, the sentiment in most communities in between ranges from less than enthusiastic to downright opposed.

Army Corps biologist Alan Anacheka-Nasemann said the upcoming report is simply a draft and may not clearly identify how the transportation network will be expanded. The public will have time to comment, and study will continue. “We won’t make a selection until the final report, which could be a year or more after the draft,’’ Anacheka-Nasemann said.

But Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, said he believes the draft report will make the top choice obvious. Smith’s agency has been working with communities on ways to plan for the challenges and capitalize on the economic benefits associated with transportation hubs.

Smith predicts the corps will select the Stoughton option, since the Attleboro proposal would require the construction of a third rail track for a 20-mile stretch, which would be both expensive and time-consuming. The rapid transit bus, he said, would run into traffic issues.

While the Stoughton option requires a crossing through the environmentally sensitive Hockomock Swamp, Smith called it the best route. “The crossings of streets and wetlands issues can be mitigated, and the benefits of the project outweigh the issues,’’ he said.

Leaders in communities along the route disagree with Smith. Stoughton Selectman John Anzivino said his board is already strategizing with attorneys in closed-door sessions. “We’ve got to be ready,’’ he said.

Stoughton’s downtown, where traffic snarls are frequent, would be heavily affected, local officials have said. Stoughton may demand a lowered track in downtown, similar to Hingham’s setup along the Greenbush line, so train service doesn’t disrupt traffic flow and public safety service.

Easton would be slated for two train stations if the Stoughton Alternative moves forward: one near the Roche Bros. parking lot and the other in historic North Easton Village.

“We had great concern over the impact to a large aquifer, along with public safety concerns and huge abutter impact concerns,’’ said Easton Selectwoman Colleen Corona. “None of those has gone away.’’

Raynham Selectman Joseph Pacheco said a past referendum vote showed residents didn’t support trains through town but preferred “mitigation to litigation.’’ One mitigation item the town would seek is construction of a fire station in north Raynham.

“The town has a single police and fire station, and response time would be about nine minutes in an emergency,’’ Pacheco said.

Meanwhile, the Attleboro Alternative has been vigorously opposed by a citizens group with members from Mansfield, Norton, and Taunton.

Heather Graf, founder and president of Citizens Concerned About Tracks, said the group doesn’t oppose a transportation expansion but strongly opposes the Attleboro Alternative based on its impact on public safety and the environment. “While the Army Corps’ draft may not designate a preferred alternative, we do expect it to further prove the Attleboro route is unfathomable,’’ Graf said.

The Commuter Rail Task Force, with representatives from across Southeastern Massachusetts, delayed a scheduled meeting for a week in anticipation of the Army Corps’ release of its draft statement. The group is now slated to meet at 3 p.m. next Wednesday in the New Bedford Public Library.

“We hope the Army Corps will have the report ready by then,’’ Smith said. “Pinning the corps down and getting them to meet any schedules has been hard. We’re all anxious to see what they have to say.’’

Kristina Egan, project manager for the South Coast Rail, said the draft will analyze impact to environmental, historical, and cultural resources and provide some preliminary mitigation options. “The information is very complicated,’’ she said. “It’s not a straightforward, silver-bullet solution.’’

Egan said her office will have the Army Corps’ final environmental impact statement in hand by this time next year. Her department will use the federal document as its required submission to the state, under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act. “On the state side, they perform reviews very quickly,’’ she said.

She said the transportation expansion should be ready to open for business by 2016 or 2017, with its $1.4 billion cost covered with both state and federal funding.

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