Lang Mulls Options on Rail

Mayor Renews Idea of Lakeville Route
By Jack Spillane, Standard-Times Staff Writer

New Bedford Mayor Scott W. Lang has quietly begun exploring the possibility of connecting the long-sought SouthCoast commuter rail line to the Lakeville/Middleboro station.

Mayor Lang says the connection might be more economical and have New Bedford-Boston trains running sooner than waiting for construction of the preferred route through Raynham and Stoughton.

The first-term mayor’s interest in re-examining a rail route discarded nine years ago (after an extensive study) has raised concerns among the legislative delegation, as well as with Fall River Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr..

Though SouthCoast lawmakers have given him a green light to have the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District reanaylze the Lake-ville alternative, they are skeptical. They believe that nothing but the long-planned Stoughton route will transport commuters quickly enough to attract significant ridership.

They also are worried that a division on SouthCoast over the rail route could cause Boston-area lawmakers to delay the two-decade-old project further or decide in favor of a cheaper Lakeville route that will never be fast enough to attract commuters.

“I appreciate the intellect Scott Lang has brought to some of the regional issues,” Mayor Lambert said. “My sense is that he’s just thinking out loud. That’s not bad, as long as it’s only thinking out loud.”

Mayor Lambert said Mayor Lang has committed to the region being unified behind the Stoughton route. And Mayor Lang told The Standard-Times that the more direct Stoughton route makes the most sense in the long run.

Still, Mayor Lang insisted that the Lakeville route could be a less expensive, interim connection to Boston until the state is willing to fund the Stoughton route.

“What I’m simply saying is that as we build the rail, I’d like to see every option and opportunity explored,” he said.

Connecting New Bedford and Fall River to the Lakeville commuter station could break the deadlock over the high cost of the Stoughton route, as well as the time-consuming environmental permits needed for it, Mayor Lang argued.

The Lakeville connection would cost an estimated $350 million, rather than the $800 million to $1 billion price tag of the Stoughton route, he noted. He also contended that the previous studies of the Stoughton route may be outdated now that automobile commute times have increased as Route 24 has grown increasingly congested.

“All I’m saying is let’s get a dialogue going,” Mayor Lang said. “I think everything should be looked at.”

He advocated the possibility of the Lakeville route to all the gubernatorial candidate this fall and the entire delegation, along with the two mayors, discussed the Lakeville alternative at a Boston meeting this past July.

Mayor Lang’s advocacy for a Lakeville option drew a worried reaction from his longtime former law partner, Democratic state Rep. William Straus of Mattapoiset.

Rep. Straus said a short-term Lakeville connection would kill any chance of ever completing the Stoughton line.

“That would be all you’d ever get,” said Rep. Straus of the connection to the Lakeville station.

Rep. Straus, a seven-term legislator, is a former vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

SouthCoast will only get one chance in the forseeable future at an expensive project like commuter rail, he contended. “That’s the way major capital projects work,” he said.

He also pointed out that the MBTA’s environmental justification for the shorter Stoughton route is based on the Lakeville route’s commuting times being too long.

One rationale for Mayor Lang’s advocacy of the Lakeville option is the state government’s track record of favoring Boston-centric mass transit projects over those from outside the Route 495 area.

The MBTA — the Boston-based rapid transit agency that undertakes mass transit and rail expansions — is already committed to extending the Green Line subway to Medford (a Boston suburb) and connecting the Red and Blue lines in downtown Boston.

There is also speculation that the MBTA wants to build costly double tracks between Boston and Braintree in order to speed up the commute on the new Greenbush train to the South Shore, which will come on line next year.

The MBTA examined the double-track option six years ago. At the time, it was estimated to cost $200 million and now the MBTA says it would certainly cost more.

Double-tracking for the Greenbush line also would shorten the commuter trip to Boston for all the routes south of Boston, making both the Lakeville and Stoughton routes quicker commutes than if they were built under current track configurations.

Double-tracking could reduce the commute time from New Bedford on the Lakeville route — currently estimated to be 1 hour, 37 minutes — making it a viable commuting option for the first time.

Double-tracking could make the already shorter Stoughton route even quicker.

Joe Pesaturo, the MBTA’s spokesman, left no doubt that double-tracking south of Boston would help all the proposed rail lines, including the ones to Fall River and New Bedford.

“Double track is the greatest help in minimizing trains delays,” he said in a written statement.

While SRPEDD’s executive director acknowledged that the time differences between the Stoughton and Lakeville routes could have changed in the decade since the original rail study, he doubted it.

“The same arguments still stand as to why (Lakeville) line is not a good option,” said Stephen C. Smith, explaining that the Stoughton route will still be able to accommodate more train cars than Lakeville.

In addition, Mr. Smith said that the environmental impediments to the Stoughton line are nothing compared to the property-takings necessary to build double tracks from Boston south to Braintree.

“I don’t think things have changed significantly,” he said.

State Sen. Mark C.W. Montigny said his first preference remains for Governor-elect Deval Patrick to use $425 million in bonding authority already set aside to build the Stoughton route. Sen. Montigny put that money in the state budget five years ago when he was Senate Ways and Means chairman.

At the governor’s discretion, the bonding authority can be used to build the Stoughton route at any time, but neither former Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift nor present Gov. Mitt Romney has used it.

“My sense is the best thing we can do it to urge Deval Patrick to take a fresh set of eyes and look at this,” Sen. Montigny said.

While he has some “concerns and hesitations” about Mayor Lang’s plan, Sen Montigny said he doesn’t believe there is any downside to discussing it.

“We’ve been so long at this with so little progress that we’d be irresponsible not to listen to any ideas,” he said.

Still, “I’m skeptical,” he said. “My personal priority is to keep the focus on the direct route.”

Sen. Montigny said he especially does not want to spend another decade re-studying the issue. And if the region ever convinced the state to build the $350 million Lakeville connection, it might be stuck with it.

“Be careful of what you wish for,” he said. “You get that line and it may foreclose discussions on the more direct route,” he said.

Mayor Lambert, who leaves office next year, said he will not support what he sees as a second-rate rail connection.

“I certainly don’t think we should accept something less than other regions have been given,” he said.

The Fall River mayor was referring to the fact that the MBTA has built commuter rail extensions in other parts of the state over the past several decades that efficiently transport commuters to Boston.

“I think we’re going to get one shot at this and we want to have it done the right way the first time,” he said.

Mayor Lambert said he is worried that if the SouthCoast starts talking about alternatives, it could be interpreted by Boston lawmakers to mean the region hasn’t yet decided what to do about commuter rail.

“I think we need to speak with one voice,” he said.

Contact Jack Spillane at jspillane@s-t.com

Date of Publication: December 10, 2006 on Page A09