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A long-promised transit project is quietly chugging forward

By STEVE LeBLANCApril 27, 2019

BOSTON (AP) — While a new survey found that Massachusetts commuters are fed up with traffic congestion and transit delays, a long-promised public transit project has been quietly chugging forward.

State transportation officials say the South Coast Rail project — meant to link Boston with Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River — has reached two critical milestones.

The first hurdle was nailing down a funding plan, according to state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.

Under the plan announced Monday, the first phase of the project would cost just over $1 billion and be funded entirely by the state through a combination of general obligation and special obligation bonds.

Pollack was quick to point out that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority won’t be required to issue any revenue bonds that might impact the transit agency’s future operating budgets — essentially avoiding diverting funds from the MBTA’s operations.

Pollack also said there will be no reduction in the bond cap allocated to the state Department of Transportation because of the South Coast Rail Finance Plan.

“We are now well on our way to offering passenger rail service to the South Coast in a few short years with the financing secure, major permits in hand and infrastructure being built.” Pollack said in a written statement recently.

The second milestone relates to the project’s timeline.

An earlier estimate said phase one of the project would have allowed for passenger rail service between Boston and Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River by late 2022.

Based on the consensus of the three independent reviews, according to transportation officials, the date for start of service is now projected to be in late 2023, a year later.

Phase one includes: extending the existing Middleborough Line service using diesel-powered trains to New Bedford and Fall River; reconstructing 17.3 miles of the New Bedford Main Line and 11.7 miles of the Fall River Secondary; and upgrading the existing Middleborough Secondary track from Pilgrim Junction to Cotley Junction, a distance of just over 7 miles. It also includes constructing two new layover facilities and six new stations.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement that the announcement “moves the project further than it’s ever been before.”

Past administrations promised to push ahead with the project with little to show.

The move comes as frustration is growing among commuters.

The online survey of 1,200 registered voters, conducted statewide over a 10-day period last month by the MassINC polling group, found that some residents have grown so vexed by their commute that they are considering changing their jobs or leaving the region altogether. Some were receptive to the possibility of paying higher taxes to support transportation improvements — although they weren’t asked about specific proposals.

Baker isn’t a fan of new taxes.

“I don’t believe that raising taxes is the answer to this problem at this point in time,” Baker, a Republican, told reporters at the Statehouse on Wednesday.

The governor noted that the state plans to borrow $8 billion over five years to shore up the MBTA, the aging Boston-area transit system plagued by frequent breakdowns and delays. The infusion, he said, would be the largest transportation investment of its kind since the massive Big Dig project of the 1990s.

“We certainly believe that we have to spend more money on transportation and we’re putting our money where our mouth is on that one,” Baker said.

Baker also said the state Department of Transportation was conducting a review of traffic issues, including the possibility of “congestion pricing” — essentially a toll placed on cars driving into dense urban centers at peak hours.

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