Boston — The decade-long, controversy-laden path for building another commuter rail line into Boston just got rockier as both federal and state agencies weighed in on a draft environmental impact report for the $2 billion project. The eco-concerns raised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may force adoption of a cheaper, less damaging rapid bus alternative, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which posted agency comments today.
At issue is the Commonwealth’s stated objective to build a rail line from Fall River/New Bedford to Boston that would plow through Massachusetts’ largest vegetated freshwater wetland, the Hockomock Swamp. In its official comments filed late Friday, U.S. EPA expressed “serious concerns…that the proposed project may have a substantial and unacceptable impact on aquatic sources of national importance.” These environmental concerns were also echoed by a state agency, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife which protects rare wildlife.
Significantly, EPA praised an alternative the Commonwealth has tried to avoid – running rapid buses along dedicated lanes added to the existing highways. In its comments, EPA concluded that “it appears that the Rapid Bus Alternative would be less environmentally damaging to the aquatic ecosystem than the remaining rail alternatives.” Moreover, EPA criticized the state’s report for using “incomplete and inaccurate numbers to make it appear that buses would not be the most cost-effective alternative on a per-rider basis.”
“This rail project is a rogue white elephant that has no means of financing, costs more per rider than limousine service and flies in the face of the Clean Water Act,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist, attorney and wetlands specialist who formerly worked for EPA, who pointed out numerous inaccuracies, inconsistencies and omissions honeycombed through the state draft report. “There are so many flaws in the state’s voluminous draft report that it is best used as a doorstop.”
Setting financing questions aside, the state’s preferred rail alternative has a number of regulatory hurdles to overcome and this legal obstacle course just got much steeper as a result of the EPA concerns. Given the undeniable impacts on protected waters, Massachusetts must choose the “Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative” for bringing public transit to the South Coast (Fall River/New Bedford to Boston) corridor in order to obtain required federal permits. The EPA findings on the environmental superiority of rapid bus service may force the state to choose the alternative it has heretofore resisted.
“As we read the law, this rail project cannot be legally permitted by state and federal agencies,” added Bennett, whose organization has a long history of environmental enforcement litigation. “The enormous expense of building and operating mass transit systems should force us to focus on realities, not bureaucratic fantasies, for how to best take cars off the road, reduce congestion and curb sprawl.”
Read the EPA letter
See the PEER letter
View the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife letter
Look at Draft EIS
Examine the shaky ridership figures for South Coast rail