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Long-Pledged Mass. Commuter Rail Job Faces Fiscal Woes

Fri July 03, 2009 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) Massachusetts Treasurer Timothy Cahill is cautioning the Patrick administration to think twice before moving ahead with a long-promised commuter rail project linking New Bedford and Fall River to Boston.

South Coast communities have pushed for the rail for decades. And Gov. Deval Patrick is the latest in a string of governors to promise to build the $1.4 billion project.

But Patrick made that promise back in 2007 — before the depth of the fiscal crisis was clear.

Now Cahill, a possible challenger to Patrick in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, said the state may need to put the brakes on the plan. With tax revenues plunging and lawmakers forced to make deep service cuts, the state can’t afford a major new transportation project, he said.

“I understand the frustration, but the math just doesn’t add up to me,’’ Cahill said. “You really do hate when the state giveth and then the state taketh away.’’

Even if the state could cobble together the federal funds to build the project, Cahill said he’s concerned about whether Massachusetts could afford the costs associated with maintaining and running a new rail line.

Cahill pointed to the cash-strapped MBTA, which has warned of service cuts and higher fares as it struggles to close a $160 million budget gap.

“I am not an opponent of the rail, I am just preaching caution given our fiscal situation,’’ he said.

The administration said it’s forging ahead.

South Coast rail manager Kristina Egan said with the project still in the environmental review and planning stages — and construction not slated to begin until 2012 — there’s time to pull together the financing.

The project began with 65 alternatives and has been narrowed to three, with a final proposal expected by Labor Day. The administration is also preparing to release an updated economic and land use plan for the project.

Egan said the state is eyeing non-traditional funding sources for the project.

Besides federal transportation money, the state hopes to plumb federal housing and environmental money — selling the project as way to cut greenhouses gases and encourage the clustering of homes around rail stations.

“This is not just a transportation project, it’s a long-term economic generator linking the economies of New Bedford and Fall River with Boston,’’ she said. “There’s a broad range of funding pots that could be available at the federal level, not just transportation funds.’’

When finished, the project will help create green jobs, affordable housing, reduce pollution and preserve open space across 31 cities and towns, she said.

“This is one of our top priorities,’’ Egan said. “We can’t have large infrastructure projects like this subject to temporary fiscal cycles.’’

Patrick has proposed funneling 6 cents from his proposed 19-cent per gallon increase in the state gasoline tax into a fund for regional transportation needs, including 3 cents for commuter rail projects.

Lawmakers have balked at the gas tax hike, although the House and Senate have backed a 25 percent increase in the state sales tax with a portion of the money going to the state’s crumbling roads, bridges and public transportation.

Cahill, who has tried to position himself as a fiscally conservative alternative to Patrick, said there’s no political motivation behind his skepticism. If anything, the Quincy Democrat said, courting the ire of residents in what should be friendly territory makes little political sense.

“If this is an announcement for governor, it’s probably not that smart because the South Coast has been good to me politically. It’s part of my base,’’ he said. “I’m not trying to position myself, but to tell the truth.’’

Still, Cahill has managed to ruffle feathers.

Fall River Mayor Robert Correia first sponsored an amendment calling for a commuter rail feasibility study when he was a Beacon Hill lawmaker 24 years ago. Since then, the state designed and built Boston’s massive Big Dig highway project, but Fall River is still waiting.

“It has been put on every back burner you can think of,’’ Correia said. “When do we get our turn?’’

New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang echoed that frustration and said he understands how some would want to pull back on the rail project in the midst of a recession.

But Lang said the state has to take a longer view, even during tough times.

“To break out of the cycle of oil dependence and the economic stagnation, we need to take on projects that are grand in scope,’’ he said. “We want to be penny wise, but we don’t want to be pound foolish.’’

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