THIS GUEST BLOG BY: Paul Chasse, Chairman, Rail-To-Boston Coalition

Paul Chasse/Facebook

There is a great deal of excitement in southeastern Massachusetts about resuming Commuter Rail service via South Coast Rail. MassDOT has filed an updated environmental document for Phase 1 service to begin in late 2022 via the Middleborough route.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack met with business and community leaders at a Rail to Boston Coalition event on February 21 and confirmed the aggressive startup plan, and MassDOT is hosting public meetings on the Phase 1 supplemental document to provide additional details. Comments on the Phase 1 plan are due by March 23. Work will continue on the Full Build, with service not expected before 2030.

The reason for the excitement is clear: after years of promises, the Commonwealth is on track to restore Commuter Rail. The project will reconnect the SouthCoast to Boston and cities and towns along the way, take vehicles off our overcrowded highways, improve air quality, encourage tourism, provide jobs and support smart growth in the region.

It will save an estimated 60 minutes a day over sitting in traffic on Route 24 and the Southeast Expressway. Phase 1 will serve more than 20 percent of Fall River and New Bedford residents who don’t own cars. It will serve 50 percent of Fall River’s Environmental Justice population, and 86 percent of New Bedford’s live within a half-mile of two stations. The benefits promised in the Economic Development and Land Use Corridor Plan will begin to accrue to the region.

Are there concerns? Middleborough officials, rail abutters and some skeptics have shared a number of worries, and we appreciate them. In her remarks, Secretary Pollack stressed the importance of consensus to moving the project forward. With agreement in place, the Baker-Polito Administration is committed to funding, building and putting the project in service.

In that spirit, we make the following suggestions to move forward in unity:

· We ask Middleborough’s leaders to work with MassDOT on their concerns, including a potential second entrance to the new Pilgrim Station, ways to treat storm water to protect groundwater, and intersection improvements. It’s likely that fewer riders will drive to the new Pilgrim Station when they can park and ride closer to home, but MassDOT and Middleborough can discuss potential sites for expansion, should they be required.

· Phase 1 will affect the existing Middleborough/Lakeville Transit Oriented Development (TOD) station. We hope that Lakeville town leaders will work with MassDOT to determine the best use of the site. Both communities can take advantage of MassDOT’s Technical Assistance to advance new TOD.

· Phase 1 will not prevent future expansion of Cape Cod Flyer service or addition of a Cape shuttle, important to our neighbors and to the region. We will support looking at ways to enhance this ride as well.

· Right-of-way abutters will learn more about safety, noise and vibration mitigation and grade crossings as design and permitting advance. You can get involved and ask questions about the service and mitigation. We will support you.

· The City of Taunton gains a new station in East Taunton, but the downtown station will wait until the Full Build construction is complete. We understand this disappointment. We suggest that the City and MassDOT protect the future downtown site and, in the meantime, work with GATRA to provide direct service to the East Taunton Station.

Many people express skepticism that the remainder of South Coast Rail--the Full Build--will ever come to pass. Years of disappointment are difficult to put aside. But the reality is that with their current obligations, MassDOT and the MBTA are in a much better position to allot $995 million for Phase 1 than to find $3.2 billion now for the Full Build. Service in 2022 via Middleborough permits time to resolve the design, permitting and financial challenges of the Full Build while 7 million trips happen during Phase 1. The Baker-Polito Administration has committed to this work, and Phase 1 shows it is coming through for our region.

Look at where we are: planning our first ride to Boston in only four short years; imagining what new rail service could mean for our businesses, education, housing and jobs. If we work together to solve these problems, we can build this project. The regional benefit is enormous. Join us in building consensus to move all our communities ahead.

Editor's Note: 'SouthCoast Voices' is a series of guest blogs from newsmakers across the region, on relevant issues that directly impact the people of Greater New Bedford and the surrounding communities. The opinions are solely those of the author. If you are interested in contributing, please contact tim@wbsm.com for more information.