Aloisi wrong on South Coast Rail, Phased service makes sense, commute times are getting worse
NEARLY A DECADE AGO, former transportation secretary James Aloisi assured the residents of the South Coast region that South Coast Rail would become a reality. “This is not just a vision anymore; it’s a plan . . . We’re building platforms for the future,” he said in a talk with the Standard Times editorial board. The platforms he referenced were never built, and the trajectory of the region’s economy and residents were left in the dust.
In a recent article in CommonWealth, Aloisi urges reconsideration of the Baker-Polito administration’s approach to providing rail service to the South Coast region. With all due respect to the former secretary, we unequivocally disagree. We fully support the phased approach to South Coast Rail.
Aloisi suggests that phasing the project by first running trains using the Middleborough-Lakeville line will have “the unfortunate consequence of harming more riders than it helps.” This kind of thinking explains why restoring service to the South Coast has taken so long to implement. How could providing service to Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford by the end of 2022 have such a negative impact on the residents of southeastern Massachusetts, who have heard vague promises for more than 30 years?
Phase 1 simply extends an existing service line and won’t impact current riders. Phase 1 is a downpayment on the full build and, in the meantime, will better connect our residents to economic opportunity and will make our region more competitive going forward.
The former transportation secretary raises several concerns, which we address below:
Will the project advance beyond phase 1? Gov. Charlie Baker has committed to designing and permitting the full build alternative (via the Stoughton Line). To date, the governor has exceeded expectations in advancing this project, and we applaud his administration for its work.
As we’ve seen with large infrastructure projects like the Big Dig, it is difficult to have certainty on long-term outcomes. However, one thing is certain. In regards to transportation infrastructure, we are at a tipping point.
Commuters driving into Boston from anywhere south of the city, from Weymouth to New Bedford, are experiencing some of the worst traffic congestion levels in the country, costing us considerable time and poor air quality. Additionally, gas prices continue to remain high. Parking in Boston is the equivalent of a small rent in and of itself. As we saw recently with Amazon, increasing numbers of requests for proposals for company site selection are now requiring direct access to rail. Neither New Bedford nor Fall River’s proposals could check this box. Residents and businesses are demanding increased access to, and investment in, public transportation. This demand will only increase in the coming years, providing the necessary political capital to achieve full build.
That being said, the demand for increased infrastructure investment is statewide, and with no significant federal investment or political will to increase taxes, the competition for these dollars will be steep. Phase 1 will construct 56 percent of the full build project, including the essential southern triangle. This is a good start. Or we could doubt the governor’s intent, reconsider the plan, conduct some more studies, and the region could wait another few decades. In reality, there is far greater risk that the full build is never realized if we don’t act now.
We are confident that this is just the first step in reconnecting our region to Greater Boston.
Trip length and frequency. A 90-minute commute is not ideal, and we encourage MassDOT to identify time-saving measures. The frequency of the trains (for phase 1) is also not ideal – three peak period AM and PM trips, with 13 trips total per day.
Despite the low number of trains, we endorse this plan based upon the current trip times endured by our commuters. In a survey conducted by Gatehouse Media and the SouthCoast Development Partnership in fall 2016, 85 percent of respondents responded favorably to a 90-minute train commute from Fall River or New Bedford. The alternative is over two hours in traffic during peak periods. Time on the train can be used productively; the same cannot be said of time in the car.
Anyone who regularly commutes on Route 24 and Interstate 93 into Boston expects a 90-plus-minute commute in total gridlock. They also know that this inherently stressful commute can also easily grow to 120 minutes in bad weather or because of accidents, road construction, and traffic volume.
Commuter bus lines connect Fall River and New Bedford to Boston, but given the current high traffic volume they are also subject to delays, even with the use of the high-occupancy vehicle lane on the expressway. A decade ago, the DATTCO 6:50 a.m. bus from Fairhaven to Back Bay arrived at 8:20 a.m., a 90-minute commute. Today, that bus arrives at Copley at 9 a.m. – a 130-minute commute. The trip time has increased by 44 percent. This commute is getting worse.
Finally, by starting the service earlier, in 2022, it will grow ridership for the full build, which will be more direct, thus faster, and will also serve Back Bay.
Cost and service implications. Aloisi claims that the cost per rider is $200,000. If at first blush this seems outrageous, that’s because it is outrageous. The state does not build a commuter rail line to run for a single day, which is what this math suggests. It’s misleading to take a project cost and divide it by the number of daily trips; the state would never build almost anything using that math. The Green Line Extension is a special case since it will serve one of the most densely populated communities in the nation. Southeast Massachusetts is also a special case since it needs both the transportation and the economic development that the rail connection to Greater Boston once supported. South Coast Rail is an economic development project with commuter rail as the engine.
What are the important figures? Phase 1 alone will offer about 8 million trips before the full build is completed. Phase 1 will allow the region to begin to accrue the benefits of employment and economic development, job creation, and housing outlined in the South Coast Rail Economic Development and Land Use Corridor Plan. This is a smart growth project that will preserve the quality of life in the region.
In addition, fully three-quarters of the phase 1 funding is for work that will ultimately be needed for the full build. Completing all this work earlier avoids cost escalation and will save approximately $158 million on the southern triangle. Those savings pay for improvements to the Middleborough secondary. The Middleborough secondary improvements will also serve to support existing freight service to the region, advancing economic development.
Further, the Middleboro Line will not see degraded service. This extension of the line simply runs the same trains to areas that currently have no service. The extension only adds two trips per day. Aloisi states that this expansion of service would prevent any peak-hour service increases on this line, and it will hamper potential off-peak service increases. As a matter of equity, the choice is clear: expand economic opportunity by providing commuter rail service that gets the residents of southeastern Massachusetts to work before considering “off-peak service increases” for communities that already benefit from rail service.
Yes, Middleborough and Lakeville have questions. MassDOT has committed to working through these communities’ issues. They already have rail service that greatly benefits their residents and businesses, and we believe that MassDOT will address these issues — such as traffic and access to the new station – in a manner that is responsive to the towns’ concerns.
When considering cost factors, let’s not forget that the tax dollars of the residents of the South Coast have been paying for the MBTA since the 1960s – around the same time that rail service to the South Coast was discontinued. It is time for our residents to benefit from this overdue investment.
Mansfield — another distraction. Aloisi suggested a new route using the Mansfield-Taunton branch. MassDOT looked closely at the Mansfield option, which would be a new service, not an extension of an existing service as is the case with South Coast Rail. It would require building a new track along I-495, raising new permitting and environmental issues. MassDOT determined that, due to the limited capacity of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) and South Station, the addition of the many new trains on this corridor that this option would require would clearly necessitate very costly and complex rail infrastructure upgrades. Also, based on the analysis, MassDOT determined that it would be difficult to implement service in the densely developed Mansfield area, which includes a bike path and roadway.
Unlike the Middleborough tracks, which can easily be upgraded, this area has been redeveloped and is on a very different path. One can speculate that the residents of Mansfield would not be receptive to this change of course.
MassDOT has looked in detail at Attleboro, Mansfield, and other NEC options. Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, MassDOT and the MBTA agreed on the Stoughton Electric Route (the full build) as the most feasible and practicable alternative for South Coast Rail. Phase 1 is a down payment, with the administration’s commitment to keep moving forward to design and permit the full build. We agree with Aloisi that it’s the best and fastest option.
With talk of driverless vehicles, rapid buses, hyperloops, a Mansfield route along I-495 to the NEC, and other distractions, we risk losing the forest for the trees. The South Coast used to have reliable rail service. Our residents want it back, and we are seeking service as soon as possible. The phased approach accomplishes this goal.
Time to take a step forward, not back . The project has just reached an important milestone, securing a certificate from the secretary of energy and environmental affairs on the draft supplemental environmental impact report. At the current rate, the construction packages will be released for bidding in February, and construction will begin in summer 2019.
A new project plan would mean reopening the state and federal environmental review processes, spawning years more of delay. That’s not acceptable to the residents and businesses of our Gateway Cities.
At MassDOT’s fall 2016 six regional public meetings, the most consistent comment was to begin building South Coast Rail now. There was a clear consensus on the lengthy and unreliable commute that residents now endure. Our residents would like to ride a train for the same or less time than it takes to commute on the region’s highways. The train ride allows reading, relaxing, or working – and avoiding Route 24 gridlock.
Phase 1 is not a perfect solution. The South Coast Development Partnership would like to see the rail serve downtown Taunton without a shuttle bus, and we understand the benefits of electric service (faster trains, even cleaner air than phase 1) despite the high cost and complexity of implementing it. We would like MassDOT to proactively address the capacity challenges faced by the MBTA’s commuter rail system. But waiting for these steps would put our service back at least another decade.
Nicholas Christ and Dave Slutz are the cochairs of the SouthCoast Development Partnership. Christ is also president and CEO of BayCoast Bank, while Slutz is managing director of Potentia Business Solutions. Hugh Dunn is the executive director of the partnership.