Delays in Service

Originally published in Commonwealth Magazine

July 6, 2011
Gabrielle Gurley (Reporter, Commonwealth Magazine)

Late into a May evening in New Bedford, commuters told three stone-faced federal officials about their daily 90-minute plus treks up Route 24 to Interstate 93 toward Boston, a stressful gumbo of traffic bottlenecks, distracted drivers, and too many fatal accidents. State lawmakers and local officials chimed in with appeals to economic justice and opportunity. The message from more than 40 speakers to the US Army Corps of Engineers was crystal clear: Build the long-delayed commuter rail line between Boston and the South Coast now.
The laments over long drives to Boston and the region’s economic distress are hardly new. Nearly 20 years ago former Gov. William Weld went to the South Coast promising to ramp up passenger rail, declaring, "Sue me if it doesn’t happen." His successors kept the dream alive, but never got it built. Now it’s Gov. Deval Patrick’s turn, and he’s made South Coast commuter rail one of the transportation priorities of his administration.
Many residents in the region believe that Patrick’s enthusiastic embrace of the project has finally given the proposal real momentum. When asked about the initiative, Patrick ticks off his administration’s accomplishments: acquiring rights of way from freight company CSX, rebuilding the rail bridges in New Bedford, and getting the Army Corps to weigh in on the routing of the line and environmental issues. "I want the project to happen," Patrick says.
The economic growth fueled by the state’s knowledge economy over the last three decades, which drove up incomes in Greater Boston, did not reach New Bedford and Fall River. Southeastern Massachusetts has "a special claim" on a new commuter rail line given the fact that it has been chronically one of the state’s poorest performing economic regions, says former governor—and inveterate rail enthusiast —Michael Dukakis.
Ken Hartnett, the retired editor of The Standard-Times, the New Bedford area newspaper, has followed the issue for decades. "Rail is the way of ending the economic isolation of this area," Harnett says. "It’s a very important point, psychologically."
Hartnett actually makes two very different points, and captures some of the conflict over the project. As he points out, there are both economics and emotions in play: the claims of tangible economic benefits commuter rail would bring and the psychic wounds it would heal in a region that often feels left behind.
The argument that the South Coast should get its just due is compelling. But it’s far from clear how the state can pay for a project whose economic benefits are uncertain and whose cost could approach $2 billion. With the state in a multi-year budget crunch and the MBTA struggling to run the trains it already has, the governor and his top transportation aides act as if they’re running their leg of a long relay race that has been going on for 20 years. It’s a race that never seems to end. When it comes to extending commuter rail to the South Coast, governors can’t quite deliver the bad news that Massachusetts simply can’t afford it.
The last frontier
The tentacles of the commuter rail network extend out in all directions from Boston, reaching every major city in eastern Massachusetts—except Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River. To get to Boston, South Coast commuters currently have several options: the highways, driving and parking at a MBTA commuter rail station about 20 miles away, or a bus. "We’ve been promised [commuter rail] for umpteen years, the time has come," says Denis Lawrence, the vice president of the New Bedford City Council, who has done it all, commuting to his office near Boston’s South Station for 15 years by car, by driving to catch the commuter train in Lakeville and, now, via the commuter bus. Residents fume that the capital of Rhode Island has better links to Boston than they do. Last year, the expansion of the MBTA’s Providence/Stoughton Line to TF Green Airport, built with Rhode Island and federal funds, irritated the South Coast even more. "You don’t know what salt in the wound that was," says Robert Mellion, president of the Fall River Chamber of Commerce.
But more often than not, politicians are looking to appease, not antagonize, South Coast residents. Appealing for votes in the region means passing the commuter rail litmus test. Deval Patrick certainly got high marks; Charlie Baker, who opposed the project in last year’s race for governor, not so much. Outside the region, the issue barely registers, but the pressure from regional leaders is relentless. South Coast commuter rail has become the political football that governors carry for a few years and then hand off to the next corner office denizen. "We've been promised for umpteen years, the time has come," says New Bedford City Councilor Denis Lawrence."Politically, it becomes difficult for governors to walk away from it and say, ‘No, we are not ever going to be able to afford it,’" says Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "In the case of the current governor, it becomes irresistible to say, ‘Yes, we think it makes sense.’"
To demonstrate some progress on his commuter rail pledge, Weld and his successor, Paul Cellucci, did some early work on rail bridges. But Big Dig construction soon sidelined that and other transportation projects statewide. More than a decade later, Mitt Romney decided to temporarily freeze all MBTA capital projects, including South Coast Rail and the Greenbush Line extension to Scituate, which was already underway, until transportation officials could do a cost-benefit analysis using a scoring system for all state transportation projects.
Despite Romney’s doubts, the $534 million Greenbush project, mandated by Big Dig clean-air mitigation agreements, got the go-ahead to resume construction. But Romney, who was skeptical of commuter rail expansion generally, apparently thought that South Coast commuter rail actually had more merit than Greenbush. State Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, remembers a conversation with Romney about South Coast commuter rail at the governor’s Belmont home. "I said, ‘All things being equal, governor, if Greenbush hadn’t started before your scoring system, which project would rate higher: Fall River-New Bedford or Greenbush?’" According to Hedlund, who opposed Greenbush, Romney laughed and said that Greenbush came in dead last of all the transit projects.
Romney eventually declared that South Coast commuter rail was "going to get done," according to a Fall River Herald News timeline. But not before his plum transportation project, which involved connecting Route 3 directly to the Sagamore Bridge and eliminating the traffic-choking Sagamore rotary. South Coast lawmakers thought the governor was pulling a fast one, putting the so-called "flyover" project to benefit Cape Cod vacationers ahead of their commuter rail project.
The governor got approval from the Legislature for the flyover, but only after agreeing to mollify local lawmakers by paying for environmental permitting and additional development studies for the South Coast Rail project, a move Romney called "blackmail."
Patrick’s plan
In 2007, four months into his first term, Patrick laid out his to-do list for the South Coast Rail project with goals like acquiring rail rights of way and expanding track capacity at South Station. He hired Kristina Egan, a former head of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, as the first South Coast Rail project manager. By 2009, Egan had helped spearhead the creation of a smart growth-influenced "South Coast Rail Corridor and Economic Development Plan" to push communities along the line to think about new business and residential development opportunities, particularly around the train stations, while preserving open spaces. The plan called for construction to start in 2012, with trains running by 2016.
Three commuter rail routes are under consideration: one through Stoughton, Raynham, Easton and Taunton; another that goes around Taunton; and an option via Attleboro. A fourth option, express bus service using a combination of dedicated and existing lanes, is also on the table as a less expensive alternative. Because the project would affect wetlands and other water sources, the Army Corps determines the final route and issues a permit. In March, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced that the Stoughton route was its preferred course, a stand that may be based on state officials reading of a draft Corps report that seems favorable to the Stoughton option.
Whatever route they take, commuter trains to Fall River and New Bedford won’t come cheap. The MBTA has priced out two options for a Stoughton route: an electric train, pegged at about $1.8 billion, and a diesel train costing nearly $1.5 billion.
In the past year alone, the Patrick administration spent more than $150 million on South Coast Rail-related projects, acquiring track from CSX (the deal also included commuter rail service improvements north of Boston), and securing federal grants to rebuild rail bridges in New Bedford and to expand South Station in Boston. (Trains cannot run to the South Coast until South Station expands by adding new platform berths and other improvements.)
Staying on track
South Coast Rail boosters argue that rail would put the region into Greater Boston’s economic orbit, opening up southeastern Massachusetts to businesses and residents priced out of the Boston area. State officials and South Coast leaders are also careful to stress that while commuter rail provides economic benefits, trains are not the panacea for persistent economic troubles, failing schools, or crime. It’s hard to deny, though, that South Coast Rail has taken on a life of its own—even more than a long-sought after destination resort casino—and is pegged as the economic development project the region needs to spur its renaissance.
According to the South Coast Rail development plan prepared by the state, rail service will create $500 million in new annual economic activity. Construction is expected to generate up to 8,000 jobs, while 3,500 to 3,800 new, permanent, non-construction jobs are projected by 2030. However, only 2,500 of these are projected for the South Coast region itself. By way of comparison, new business and industrial parks planned for Fall River and Freetown are projected to bring up to 11,000 jobs to the communities.
Egan, who stepped down from her post at the end of June, says although the numbers may be low for a job market like Boston’s, they constitute "important job growth" for smaller cities like New Bedford and Fall River. However, many critics suggest the South Coast would be better off with direct investments in job-creating projects and boosts to public education rather than a rail project. "Thirty-five hundred jobs is an incredibly small number of jobs against a $2 billion investment," says Widmer, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president. "What else can you do with $2 billion? That’s the piece that’s always ignored." To what degree commuter rail stations spur local economic growth is not well-documented.To what degree existing commuter rail stations have spurred local economic growth in Massachusetts is not well-documented. No studies of the question have been done by the MBTA or the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. Fitchburg, Brockton, and Lawrence have had commuter rail for years, yet each city continues to wrestle with drawing workers to their more affordable housing options and finding the right mix of businesses that will put long-time residents to work. Leaders in Worcester say commuter rail has been an unquestionable boon to their city. Commuter rail service "has been a major factor in private sector investment in central Massachusetts, in downtown Worcester, and also towns like Grafton and Shrewsbury," says Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, who served as Worcester’s mayor for three terms.
Inbound to Boston
For all of the debate over the economic benefits of South Coast Rail, it is first off a transportation project. From a transit perspective, however, ridership projections are hardly overwhelming. An electric-powered train on the proposed Stoughton route, the most expensive option at $1.8 billion, is also the option favored on South Coast. It provides the fastest trip to Boston, 76 minutes, and is projected to attract 4,790 riders. Slower diesel trains would take nearly 90 minutes, and attract 4,070 riders.
The Army Corps found that, from 1990 to 2000, work trips from the South Coast to Boston or Cambridge increased by nearly 40 percent. In 2000, however, those commutes still only represented about 4 percent of all work trips from the South Coast. (More than half of the region’s workforce is employed in greater Fall River or New Bedford.)
According to David Luberoff, executive director of Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, there isn’t much evidence that commuter rail is a major economic tool for cities like Fall River and New Bedford, which are 50 to 60 miles from the regional economic hub in Boston. "The state’s own numbers say that the project will have very few riders and an extremely small impact on employment," says Luberoff. "That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t provide transportation alternatives for the South Coast, but it does open the question of whether it might be possible to provide the needed alternatives in a more cost effective way."
Recent experiences with the Greenbush line have fueled further doubts about projected ridership for what promises to be a long daily commute. Opened in 2007, the Greenbush extension draws just over 1,900 riders during the morning peak compared to original projections of 3,230 inbound peak commuters.
Before any trains roll, South Coast Rail will have to clear environmental review hurdles, a step that is by no means a mere formality. The proposed Stoughton route involves constructing a trestle through the Hockomock Swamp, the largest freshwater wetland in Massachusetts.
Mass Audubon supports commuter rail improvements, but wants to see more information about the project’s costs and mitigation for wetlands. Longtime foe Kyla Bennett, the director of the New England office of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, announced in May at an Army Corps hearing in Mansfield that her group intends to sue the Corps if the Stoughton route gets the nod over an express bus, which she says is the option that would have the least environmental impact. The Corps’ final report is expected early next year. Not surprisingly, on the South Coast, where residents say they’ve long been treated like second-class citizens, the bus option is regarded as more of the same.
US Environmental Protection Agency officials in the Boston regional office, however, appear to share some of Bennett’s concerns. According to a recent letter to the Army Corps, the agency currently sees the bus as “less environmentally damaging,” and believes that the Corps may have understated the environmental impacts to “aquatic resources” of the Stoughton route and the route that would bypass Taunton, while overstating the impacts of a rapid bus.
As the courts sort out the inevitable challenges, years and dollars will get tacked onto the project. Greenbush, Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound, and the Hoosac Wind project in the Berkshires were each delayed by roughly a decade of court challenges by environmental groups or local residents. Some local governments also plan to fight South Coast Rail. Stoughton officials have allocated more than $200,000 to pursuing litigation. Easton and Raynham officials are pursuing mitigation projects after voters backed that strategy rather than going to court.
Adding it all up
Of all the obstacles facing the project, however, the cost and financing of a new commuter rail line loom as the largest. State officials say they are waiting for word on a final route before laying out a plan to pay for the line. Massachusetts could issues bonds to raise money for South Coast Rail, but transportation officials cannot finance sums large enough to build the line without running up against the state’s annual bond cap and jeopardizing other capital projects.
This "underscores the obvious," says Widmer. "The administration doesn’t know how to pay for this. The reality is the rest of the state would find it very difficult to accept putting this much money into South Coast Rail and would fight strongly against it."
There are 34 pending MBTA capital projects to keep the existing system running, totaling a staggering $4.5 billion, which should beat out South Coast Rail, according to Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board. These include replacing the middle-aged Red and Orange Line cars in the MBTA subway system. Another big-ticket expansion project, the nearly $1 billion Green Line extension to Somerville and West Medford, is mandated under the Central Artery mitigation agreement. The T doesn’t currently have the money to pursue any of these. Nor is it clear how the T could afford the estimated $14 to $15 million in net annual operating costs of a new South Coast Rail line once it is completed.
"We have people who have lacked courage to be honest with the South Coast," says Hedlund, the Weymouth state senator. "I don’t believe that it is ever going to get built."
But the arithmetic jujitsu needed to make South Coast Rail work does not faze MBTA General Manager Richard Davey. "South Coast Rail is not going to make or break the MBTA," he says. Transportation officials point to "value capture," which rests on the idea of a dedicated tax on future economic development spurred by the line, as one approach to covering costs of a project. Yet debt service payments and operating expenses will not wait for housing and business opportunities to grow around stations, and the potential revenue from a "value capture" plan comes nowhere close to covering the project’s price tag.
State Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan is mindful of the conundrum faced by state leaders. "It would be foolish of me to ignore the financial realities, but it also would be foolish of us to ignore an entire segment of the Commonwealth," he says of the administration’s vow to make good on the promise of South Coast commuter rail.
Looking for a way to move the project forward despite those "financial realities," New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang wants to revisit a plan that’s been kicking around for several years to build the line in three stages to divide up the cost and the construction. But Mullan is not interested. “We’re not backing down from our proposal to build the line as has been presented in the environmental documents and that’s where we’re focused,” he says.
Some rail supporters want Washington to save the day. But there seems to be little awareness that top federal officials aren’t keen on the project. Last year, Peter Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, told a MassINC-sponsored forum on transit issues that the federal government would not fund a rail expansion project if the transit agency involved could not afford to run its existing network, a thinly veiled reference to the MBTA. Indeed, in 2003 the T’s teetering finances effectively killed federal interest in funding the Silver Line III connection between South Station and the Tufts Medical Center.
Federal officials like rail projects that have dual uses, so they did award $20 million to reconstruct three century-old rail bridges in New Bedford, a project that benefits existing freight lines as well as the would-be commuter rail. Davey says the rail project could also be eligible for specific federal grants, such as ones for new vehicles or those directed at specific environmental or economic development goals. But any of those opportunities may be jeopardized by Washington politics: The Obama administration is transit-friendly, while the Republican majority in the US House is not. Meanwhile, Beacon Hill has assiduously avoided debating new revenues for transportation projects. New Bedford state Rep. Antonio Cabral has championed the idea of a Massachusetts Rail Transit Fund to pay for statewide projects, including proceeds generated through a “green fee” on car registrations, but it has drawn little support.
Final stop?
A study released earlier this year of rail transit in major US cities by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a Canadian research organization, says commuter rail can do the things that officials claim it would do for the South Coast, such as promote economic development, increase tax revenues, and give new transportation options to non-drivers. However, the report sounds a number of significant cautionary notes, warnings that read like they could be written for Massachusetts officials contemplating the wisdom of investing in commuter rail to New Bedford and Fall River. If rail is not "cost effective due to inadequate demand or unusually high construction costs," officials should consider other transit options, says the report. The institute also frowned on seeking rail "simply for prestige." Or, some critics here might add, simply to make up for past slights.
As the regulatory review plods ahead, the lawyers rehearse their arguments, and the clock ticks toward the next election for governor, time is likely to run out on Deval Patrick’s South Coast Rail promise. It will be up to whoever follows him to take up the cause—or quietly push it aside—with political calculations sure to be a healthy part of the mix, as they have been all along.
With ridership estimates low, job numbers slim, and costs that are potentially stratospheric, the South Coast commuter rail project seems, at best, a big gamble. But the push for the commuter rail line is not simply a battle over whether numbers and projections really add up. It has become as much about promises to people who feel that they’ve been shut out of their chance at prosperity and treated like a regional afterthought. So far, those pledges have kept the project alive, even if it’s been limping forward more than chugging most of that time.
Whether the line should get built is debatable. Meanwhile, whether it will get built is something those on the South Coast have learned to stop counting on, notwithstanding the recent promises that the state means business this time. Hartnett, the 76-year-old former New Bedford newspaper editor, does not expect to see the line built in his lifetime. "My youngest son is 25," he says. "I’m not sure it will be built before he’s 50."