South Coast Rail Dealt Mortal Blow by New Transit Plan
Years-Long “Moratorium” Puts Massachusetts South Coast Expansion into Dustbin
Boston — The Massachusetts Governor’s new transit “Action Plan” sounds the death knell for the decade-long, multi-billion dollar effort to build a commuter rail line from Fall River/New Bedford to Boston, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Without naming this South Coast Rail project, the plan calls for an immediate “moratorium on construction spending for system expansion, except for federally funded projects, until the 5 and 20 year capital plans are put in place.”
On April 8, 2015, a Special Panel commissioned by Governor Charles Baker delivered its final report for fixing a paralyzed Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, entitled Back on Track: An Action Plan to Transform the MBTA. The report found that the MBTA is in “severe financial distress,” bordering on insolvency while severely criticizing its management and decision-making.
In particular, the Special Panel faulted MBTA’s “shortsighted expansion program” for lacking a “clear-eyed understanding of the physical and financial capacity of the MBTA and the regional transit needs of the future.” It recommends shelving virtually all “system expansion” and prioritizing spending to tackle a host of “immediate needs.” This “temporary moratorium” would last until MBTA can resolve its swelling maintenance backlog and growing capital debt.
If followed, this recommendation would halt all South Coast Rail planning for years and possibly decades. This delay would send this expansion project back to the drawing board because –
- All of the economic and ridership analyses would have to be redone, especially if the fare increases recommended in the Governor’s report are implemented. Higher fares would make rail less attractive to Fall River/New Bedford residents, depressing already shaky ridership estimates;
- The project’s tortured path for environmental approvals would have to start anew, with a need to re-do many of the field studies and voluminous environmental analyses; and
- The cost for South Coast Rail, already in excess of $3 billion, will only go up year-by-year and may eventually eclipse the already massive $5.5 billion debt load staggering MBTA.
“South Coast Rail has just been taken off the front burner and flung out the kitchen window,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett. “This project is a prime example of wasteful spending – too much money for too little return – that we can clearly no longer afford.”
The Special Panel’s report similarly bemoaned that “Over time, the MBTA and the Commonwealth have spent billions of dollars on expansion projects, without a sound understanding” of system needs and decried the lack [of] a “rigorous, long-range system expansion strategy…”
“The wrong-headed planning propelling South Coast Rail was not anywhere close to an unbiased look at regional transit needs of the future,” Bennett added. “Now is the time to stop pandering to local boosters and instead develop a transportation plan addressing the system-wide needs for the Commonwealth as a whole.”