It’s become fashionable to say commuter rail between SouthCoast and Boston will never happen.
Those who have always thought commuter rail is an expensive waste of time, that the internal combustion engine will always remain the king of transportation, say it. And after 23 years of promises and no train, even those who see the wisdom of a rail link to Boston in car-gridlocked eastern Massachusetts, have begun to say it.
In that political environment, the professionals at the state Department of Transportation have drawn up a plan that faces the political, transportation and environmental realities. All of them.
A first-phase rail plan through the Middleboro route that doesn’t require expensive electric trains or environmental mitigation that could be tied up in court for years has now been recommended and approved.
That plan, DOT says, can bring commuter rail to SouthCoast in five years, by 2022. The reason is that the route uses the portion of train tracks that have already been environmentally permitted. It will be a diesel train — not as environmentally sustainable as an electric train in the long run — but a good, and far less expensive interim solution.
The Phase 1 Middleboro route will transport residents of Greater New Bedford to Boston in about an hour-and-half. That’s not as good as the hour and 10 minutes of the long sought Stoughton route. But the far more difficult and expensive to build Stoughton route now becomes Phase 2 of a longer range project. It will be needed eventually — not just for the quicker commute but because of its ability to deliver commuters to the Boston businesses in the Back Bay not served by South Station where the Middleboro train ends.
With the Middleboro plan, the perfect is no longer the enemy of the good. SouthCoast taxpayers within five years will finally have a level of commuter rail access that the rest of the state has long had. This is crucially important as increased population burdens the state’s highway infrastructure with more and more travelers.
It’s been a long process to this latest promise of commuter rail by 2022. It was 1995 when Gov. William Weld promised SouthCoast that the region could sue him if it did not have rail by 1997. This year, the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, as he gets ready to run for re-election, has now made another promise that rail will come in the near future.
So did a string of other governors, including Deval Patrick, who promised a train by 2016. Somehow this promise seems a little better. There is a concrete plan in place, a plan that does not depend on either very expensive financing or onerous environmental permitting.
Passenger rail service has to come back to SouthCoast at some point, the breathtaking someday promises of inspirations like Elon Musk’s hyperloop tube and driverless cars notwithstanding. You simply cannot transport enough people by means of highways in any kind of sustainable infrastructure.
Let’s hope this is a viable and sustainable short-term rail plan for SouthCoast’s long deprived residents.