Straus Agrees With Baker, SouthCoast Rail Soon a Reality
Considering the decades-long gestation of SouthCoast Rail and the repeated roadblocks impeding its implementation, there's no surprise that Governor Charlie Baker's assertion during his State of the State address Tuesday night that a rail route from New Bedford and Fall River to Boston would be completed by his administration was met with skepticism.
But Representative William Straus (D-Mattapoisett), who serves as the House Co-Chair of the State Transportation Committee, said the dream--some would say fantasy--of SouthCoast Rail is close to becoming a reality.
"Within a couple of construction seasons, we will have in the morning rush hour heading north, three trains heading up to Boston from New Bedford, and three from Fall River," Straus said. "I know people have every reason to be skeptical, given how long this has been pending, but I think (Tuesday's) comments by Governor Baker really put a capstone on what has been a legitimate permitting and design effort."
Straus said he is "grateful" and "appreciative" of Baker's comments, and that he supports the governor's promise.
"I've been watching from my vantage point as House Co-Chair of the Transportation Committee, and from Charlie Baker--politics aside--his words have been matched by action within the Department of Transportation, in terms of moving SouthCoast Rail along," Straus said.
Straus said the real change came in 2017, when local environmental permits were obtained, including for the station that will be located in New Bedford. He also said Governor Baker getting behind the plan to use existing tracks through the Middleboro route rather than waiting for a Stoughton line has been a big help.
"I think that was the key change, just being open to having a different approach to it," Straus said. "I compliment the governor on being open to creatively saying, 'How can we get this accomplished?'"
Baker also talked about establishing a commission to seek solutions for the state's transportation issues. Straus said he has "no problem" with an advisory process, but notes that in the end, it's going to be up to lawmakers to make the changes.
"In order to get things done, there's going to be needed work at the legislature and administration to make changes," he said. "The big issue, other than which projects to pursue, and on what schedule, remains with regard to transportation, money. There's nothing that will take away that debate that always needs to occur on how you pay for a transportation system, the one that exists, and the one you need in the future."
Straus noted how ignoring the existing systems while focusing on the future is what leads to incidents like three winters ago, when the MBTA experienced what he called "essentially a system collapse" due to winter storms. He notes that it takes a few billion dollars a year to operate the systems that are already in place such as roads, bridges, trains, airports and ocean ports.
Straus also said significant upgrades are likely needed in order to usher in the transportation of the future as well, such as the self-driving passenger vehicles that are expected to hit Massachusetts roads in the next few years.
"Those involved in the businesses tell us, at the state level, it requires good quality road systems, well-marked with the lines, the curving, the sign structure," Straus said. "And that level of quality road system takes money, and probably a quality of road system that we don't see in enough places around the state."