WESTPORT — State leadership is “100 percent committed” to bringing long-discussed commuter rail service to SouthCoast and soon, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito told a room full of local business leaders last week.
“It’s our administration’s priority to make sure this becomes a reality within the next five years,” she said at the SouthCoast Chamber’s 131st annual meeting Nov. 16, sparking an enthusiastic round of applause.
The breakfast at White’s of Westport was the lieutenant governor’s first stop on a daylong SouthCoast tour that she and other state officials used to check up on the progress of various projects and make announcements. The highway administrator was part of a group that visited the Padanaram Causeway to survey the work there. State energy officials visited Dartmouth High School.
The South Coast Rail team has proposed a preferred line to Boston through a new Middleboro station. The plan was to be the subject of a Monday night meeting between team officials and Middleboro selectmen, who argue the town has not had enough input on the matter.
Polito said while the “focus” will be on building out a Middleboro route, the state is also looking at strengthening the infrastructure farther south. She said a notice of intent was recently filed for a New Bedford layover facility and others nearby would follow. The project team is working on station design and talking with property owners about potential acquisitions, according to the lieutenant governor.
Once an environmental impact report is filed in January, more information about costs will be available for study, Polito said.
“This progress shows real commitment, real work being organized and done to set this project up for construction,” Polito said, noting that meetings with project stakeholders would remain a key feature throughout the process.
The state leader from Shrewsbury, in office with Gov. Charlie Baker since 2015, also listed some of the benefits a rail connection to the capital would bring, some of which project proponents have touted for decades.
A line to and from Boston would make SouthCoast “an even more desirable” place to live and work, would ease traffic congestion and emissions, and bring more people to Boston for work and cultural activities, Polito said.
“You have so much to offer in terms of quality of life, communities that offer such a diverse range of experiences from rural and agricultural to cities like New Bedford and Fall River,” she said.
Polito was a last-minute replacement at the chamber meeting for Baker, who was attending the funeral of Medal of Honor recipient and Fall River native Thomas Hudner.
Polito also used her address to talk directly to small-business owners, noting that 10 statewide listening sessions over the last year yielded concerns about the cost and difficulty of doing business that the state is now putting an action plan together to address.
Polito closed with a “call to action” in the statewide and nationwide opioid epidemic, pressing for tougher legislation and more aggressive treatment and prevention initiatives.
She referred to a pending bill that would bring manslaughter charges to drug dealers who sell fentanyl-laced heroin and other drugs. Fentanyl is a powerful substance, lethal in small doses. In 2016, 15 percent of all opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts “had a fentanyl component,” Polito said. In 2017 so far, 81 percent of opioid-related deaths included fentanyl.
In other business, the SouthCoast Chamber, chaired by Joseph Michaud of Dartmouth, put the spotlight on several successful member businesses.
• The Economic Impact Award went to Milhench, an 85-year-old New Bedford supply company, and E for All, a development program for local entrepreneurs. The Ed
• The Education Leadership Award went to Five Star Companies Inc., a medical instrument repair business, for its support of local high school students through internships and career immersion programs.
• The Outstanding Service Award wen to Pete Wilde of New Bedford for his advocacy of local businesses and activism for veterans, the homeless and needy.