In September, 2016 the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA announced the South Coast Rail project will cost $3.4 billion - a more than 50 percent increase over the original $2.23 billion estimate – and the original completion date of 2022 was extended to 2030. More recently, the MBTA began investigating an interim route via the Middleborough line using diesel trains while simultaneously pursuing development of the preferred Stoughton electric line.
The MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board and DOT’s Board of Directors have apparently directed the MBTA to pursue the previously rejected Middleborough route as an interim solution to provide commuter rail service to the South Coast.
Some Cape Cod officials favor this change because it offers the potential for service to Buzzards Bay and the Cape. Officials from Taunton are unhappy because they see the selection of this interim solution as a long term alternative that will eventually end the Stoughton line project and leave Taunton out in the cold. The Taunton officials are rightly concerned.
Suddenly, forty years of study and public hearings are invalidated in an instant. The Control Board is undoubtedly seeking to lower cost and minimize risk. They can achieve those two goals but simultaneously the ride from New Bedford to South Station will increase to 95 minutes from 77 and only three morning and evening runs would occur due to congestion on the tracks. Though it may have lower capital costs its operating costs and environmental impact will be greater using diesel trains.
The increasing costs, extended timelines, and this sudden change are further reflection of DOT/MBTA incompetence that should make all parties leery of the project. More importantly, the underlying economic impact assumptions of the project reflect a cultural and economic mindset more fit to the 1900s than the 21st Century.
The mindset that advances a project like South Coast Rail supports a focus on Boston as the “Hub” of the universe. Economic development over decades has focused on that city to the detriment of Gateway Cities. It reflects an erroneous mindset that says economic success in the gateways is dependent on Boston.
Offering a few hundred commuters a 95 minute one way commuter train ride to the “Hub” is not going to change the economic outlook for the South Coast. The fundamentals of work are changing and investment in the past model of commuting is wrongheaded.
Economic development should focus on direct investment in infrastructure and people and business incentives to support economic growth. Many advantages accrue to companies that locate in Gateway Cities. The cost of office and manufacturing space can be one fourth of that in Boston. Median home prices can be one third that of Boston for employees. Linking the two and allowing people to live where they work is better for companies and communities.
The Commonwealth, Fall River and Freetown provided Amazon with tax incentives valued at less than $15 million that have resulted in the construction of a one million square foot Amazon Fulfillment Center in Fall River that is delivering nearly 2000 jobs today. That is economic development with a real regional return on investment.
Governor Baker faces a difficult battle should he cancel the project because so many political and community leaders have invested themselves in the South Coast Rail project over decades. The Governor must lead and those vested in this misdirected idea must challenge their own assumptions and biases. South Coast Rail is an idea of the past – invest in the future.