South Coast Rail as economic development

Rail project director Kristina Egan describes corridor’s long-term potential.
Kristina Egan

Kristina Egan leads the Patrick administration’s South Coast Rail project, which in 2008 issued a plan that many have called a model for rational regional land use planning.

The plan aligns development patterns with the proposed new rail line. If implemented, this approach could reduce congestion, lower public infrastructure costs, and preserve undeveloped land.

MassINC’s executive vice president John Schneider spoke with Kristina about the connections between the plan and growth and economic development in the region. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

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J: Tell us a little bit about the plan to extend commuter rail service to Fall River and New Bedford.

K: Sure. It’s been a plan long in the works to run trains from South Station to Fall River and New Bedford through Taunton. Trains used to run to these communities until 1958, but then the tracks were torn up. The plan is really about economic development. We’re looking at three older industrial cities (Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford) that were served by rail, were very prosperous, and had a lot of commerce transported by rail, as well as passengers. We are looking at ways to revitalize these communities.

So, we have put together a plan, called the Economic Development and Land Use Corridor Plan, which looks at the entire 50 mile span and looks at places where we can really invest some resources to create new jobs, new development, and new homes. It also looks at places that we need to preserve for future generations: the farms, fields, and forests that make the South Coast special.   

J: South Coast advocates say the plan will revitalize Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton as you just mentioned. But opponents often point to Brockton, Fitchburg, and Worcester as examples of cities where the rail hasn’t delivered on its promise. How is the South Coast different?  How is this plan different?

K: Well I don’t think that the South Coast cities are that different from the other cities – the criticism being that just introducing commuter rail is going to spark lots of life into these cities – and that’s not necessarily the case. You really have to build commuter rail intentionally and do the land use planning intentionally. In fact, David Luberoff, who is often a critic of commuter rail, has shown that land use doesn’t necessarily change around commuter rail stops.

We agree, to some extent, that you have to work with local partners to create the zoning that would allow for more housing and more jobs to be right around those stations. So we think that the rail is one part of the economic development puzzle. The cities of New Bedford and Fall River have a lot of different problems. They have crime, lower education rates, job training challenges. Commuter rail can help address some of these issues, it can help get people to jobs of course, and also to training opportunities, medical institutions, cultural opportunities. But these communities really need to apply multiple strategies. MassINC has worked on recommending different things that could help revitalize Gateway Cities, and the train is definitely a piece of that puzzle.

J: How many communities are in the project’s economic development and land use corridor?  

K: Thirty-one. We didn’t just look at a mile on either side of the tracks because we know that a rail corridor like this can affect the future of the region for decades and maybe even centuries to come. It’s going to be one of the core spines of the transportation system for the Southeastern region. So we are working with all 31 cities and towns, even if they do not have stations. Ten of our communities have stations, but the other 21 do not. We recognize that commuter rail systems usually spawn residential development.

A lot of the communities between Fall River and New Bedford, and particularly Taunton, are fairly rural, small towns with 4,000 to 5,000 residents, with a lot of open space, forest land, wetlands, and other types of land that are very vulnerable to development. So, we have been looking at ways to help those communities develop in a way that makes sense around village centers, but doesn’t overwhelm them with new housing.

J: How will the project change the character of the South Coast and of these communities in particular?

K: Well, if you start south and really look at Fall River and New Bedford, these are cities that have tremendously good bones. They’ve got great ports, a lot of beach area, old historic buildings. In only the course of the time I’ve been on this project, about three years, I’ve seen a change in downtown New Bedford. New artist galleries have gone in, new funky restaurants and cafés. I have two friends who told me in the last couple days that they’re moving to downtown New Bedford. So, I think that the rail is going to be a real boost to those cities.

For the communities in between, we have seen a lack of planning, and a lack of capacity. Many of the towns don’t have planners. They’re small. They don’t have very many resources. When I started, Freetown had general free use zoning for the entire municipality. So they have a shopping distribution center next to a house, next to a lumber yard, and the residents are concerned about what their community is going to look like in the future.

What the state is bringing to the table is some money. We’ve been giving technical assistance to all 31 cities and towns to help them plan ahead, recognizing that they don’t always have the people or the tools to do it themselves. We are in our second year of technical assistance. We’ve got a variety of different zoning laws drafted, not passed yet. They haven’t gone to town meetings, but that is the next step to create a blueprint for long-term sustainability in the region.

J: You have to work in 31 communities simultaneously. That strikes me as an incredibly difficult and challenging task. Are you seeing collaboration, one town working with another, some kind of alignment on land use thinking? Is that a unique aspect of what you are trying to do – how you are encouraging planning, not just in a community, but in a region?

K:  At the city or town level, as you know too well, it is very difficult to get municipalities to cooperate on various issues. But that has started to shift. A lot of cities and towns are now collaborating around regionalization of services, which is the first step toward creating more regional thinking on land use.

We worked with each individual city or town to come up with a land use plan for their town. They said these are the places that we really want to preserve, they’re special for us, and these are places where we think development is good.

And then we brought it to a regional forum. We had the cities and towns break into small groups so that they could look at the borders between their municipalities and figure out whether this preservation area, say in Freetown, was really working well with a preservation area in Fall River. So they did that regional review, gave us recommendations from a regional point of view, and then we had the region adopt that map before we brought it to the state.

J:  What is the vehicle for a region to adopt that map? We don’t have any county government, other than the Cape Cod Commission.

K:  It was adopted by the regional planning agencies. We work with three. The main one is the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District (SRPEDD), but we also work with the Old Colony Planning Council and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

There is also a task force called the Southeastern Commuter Rail Task Force, and they reviewed the map as well. They provided us with comments, and then we took that regional map to all of the state agencies in the executive branch. Then, we asked the secretaries to basically modify the plan in a way that reflects the administration’s priorities. We ended up with a state plan that is very similar to what the region adopted.

J:  Critics talk about the cost of this plan. Approximately how much will it cost to expand rail service to New Bedford and Fall River? 

K:  It’s not a cheap project. We’re looking at about $1.4 billion to expand, if we were going to use a diesel train. But we’re also seriously contemplating electric trains, which would be the first time the commuter rail has had an electric powered system. And that would cost $1.9 billion. It is much more expensive to electrify in the short-term, even though you get long-term benefits and savings.

J:  And what does the financing plan look like?

K:  We don’t have an adopted plan yet. We are pursuing federal money. We know that there has to be some state money. We’ve had $23 million to do the planning from state bonds. And last month, we just won $20 million from the federal government to start rebuilding some rail bridges in New Bedford. So, we have a ways to go in order to assemble the financing package, but we’re optimistic because there is so much emphasis on rail at the federal level.

The other thing that we have been looking at is having some of the economic development catalyzed by the rail help pay for the project. We’ve done an assessment of how much new development the rail will bring. We used a couple of economic consulting firms to look at it. It’s about $500 million per year in new economic activity, which is fairly significant for the economy of southeastern Massachusetts. Now, we won’t get that benefit the day the train opens. Obviously, it is going to take time for the development to ramp up, for it to cluster around the train stations, but overall, we know that it is worthwhile and it will pay for itself in spades over time.

J:  What are the plans to make this project “green”?   

K:  We want to be “green” in every aspect of this project and make it a national model for how to make commuter rail super “green”. We’ve been looking at stations and we are committed to using the best energy efficiency technologies, of course, but we are also looking at solar panels to help run the lights, different types of electronic equipment that we have. We’re looking at making all of our parking lots into low impact development parking lots, which means that they will help recharge groundwater rather than have it run off into the drains and pollute our waters.

Probably the “greenest” part of the plan is what we call Smart Growth – trying to cluster development and preserve open space. We recently did an assessment for our federal environmental regulators that showed just doing a different land use pattern, even if we are only moderately successful in changing some of the land use, will take the equivalent of one car going around the earth 20 times off the roads every day. So, we are pretty excited about what the “green” potential is, and see this as part of a climate solution.

J:  Last question. When do you think I will be able to take the train from South Station to New Bedford?

K:  Well, if it’s an electric train, we’re hoping to open in 2017. So it’s still a ways off and it’s hard for people to imagine, but boy is there a lot to do between now and then. And diesel will be 2016. It’s a little simpler to build for a diesel train.

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