The South Coast Rail opportunity sitting right before our eyes
The Gateway Cities Journal
At a MassINC event held in New Bedford earlier this month, Jean Fox, MassDOT’s South Coast Rail Project Manager, reported that construction to reestablish train service to the region is finally set to begin. You could hear the room full of leaders from Southeastern Mass breath a collective sigh of relief upon receiving the long-awaited news.
But not everyone is celebrating; many still question the project’s utility. On the one hand, some skepticism is well-founded. Experience shows that commuter rail lines with high fares and low-frequency service don’t perform well, especially if the objective is to increase access to economic opportunity and produce more equitable development. On the other hand, if we actually want to make bold infrastructure investments to address Boston’s code-red housing and congestion problems and generate more geographically-balanced growth, we would be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity than South Coast Rail.
The argument for South Coast Rail is exceptionally strong precisely because the region has been cut off for so long. The path from Boston to Fall River and Taunton takes you down the Southeast Expressway, through the Braintree Split, and out on to Route 24. If your destination is New Bedford, you must traverse several more choke points, including the Route 140 exit ramp and the I-195 interchange. If you’re in doubt about how bad this journey has become, try this out: look up directions for New Bedford to Boston and set 9:00AM for your arrival time. Google advises you to leave at 6:30AM. That’s two-and-a-half hours to go less than 60 miles.
Together, Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton are home to a quarter million residents. And they each have substantial capacity to grow with infill development. The region is home to lots of smaller extremely livable communities where housing is affordable and developable land is plentiful.
But South Coast rail isn’t just about feeding Boston’s omnivorous economy. The South Coast has economic assets. If we want to tap them to make the state’s economy stronger and more resilient, the South Coast needs connections to Boston’s R&D, expert service providers, and international linkages. By tapping into these unique assets, the South Coast economy will be in a far better position to compete globally, especially in growing maritime industrial sectors.
Reliable transport is the way to forge these connections. Efforts are already underway to transform the commuter rail so that it provides the North Shore, Central Massachusetts, and the Merrimack Valley with faster, more frequent, and more dependable connections to Boston. The return on investment we could reap by providing this kind of service to the South Coast isn’t that difficult to make out, but sometimes what sits right before our eyes can be hardest to see.
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