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MassDOT Pumps $210M?Into Rails in Hopes of Increasing Connectivity

A long-dead mode of transportation is coming back to life in several cities in Massachusetts.

Tue August 11, 2015 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

A long-dead mode of transportation is coming back to life in several cities in Massachusetts.

Months of summer work have begun to repair vital rail bridges in the Fall River area, part of the 120-month South Coast Rail project that is restoring 52 mi. (83.6 km) of commuter rail service between Boston and the Massachusetts South Coast. The entire cost of the decade-long plan is estimated to be $210 million.

“We are thrilled about the three Fall River bridges and the Wamsutta Bridge in New Bedford. These are solid investments that will provide immediate benefit to the expanding freight rail sector, along the same route as the future South Coast Rail commuter line,” said Jean Fox, project director of MassDOT.

“From similar bridge replacements conducted in the past, we have seen that these improvements are transformational. They can change the complexion of an urban area quite remarkably.”

Since service to this area stopped in 1959, Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford are the only major municipalities within 50 mi. (80.4 km) of Boston that do not have transit access to the state’s capital and other communities.

When the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) finishes the 10-year plan that is already through year two, South Coast Rail will reconnect this economically depressed region, spurring new jobs and a kind of vitality to the area that hasn’t been seen since its major textile factories and mills closed decades ago.

The proposed South Coast Rail service will be an extension of the MBTA’s existing Stoughton commuter rail line to the new terminal stations in New Bedford and Fall River. The route will extend from Stoughton Station along an inactive section of right-of-way from Stoughton to Taunton, then onto the active freight railroad corridor from Taunton to the terminus stations in Fall River and New Bedford.

The project will include the reconstruction of existing Canton Center and Stoughton Stations and the addition of 10 new commuter rail stations and two overnight layover facilities. The new stations will be located in North Easton, Easton Village, Raynham Park, Taunton, Taunton Depot, King’s Highway, Whale’s Tooth, Freetown, Fall River Depot and Battleship Cove. A new overnight layover facility will be located in both New Bedford and Fall River.

When it is done, a total of approximately 42,000 rail ties and thousands of spikes will be installed along the 14 mi. (22.5 km) of track leading to Fall River and 19 mi. (30.5 km) of track leading to New Bedford.

“We know that these bridges will be true enhancements. All of the bridges are currently structurally deficient, so they would need work anyway. Full replacement will help the freight operator in the short term and pave the way for future commuter rail service,” said Fox. “For pedestrians and vehicular traffic, the removal of the center island on President Avenue will enhance safety and aesthetics, by removing a line-of-sight obstacle and replacing the 1900-era structure.

Railways Long Dead

Rail networks popped up all over Massachusetts and became a popular way to commute and travel. The South Coast region was originally connected to Boston with rail service via the Fall River Branch, the Taunton Branch and the Easton Branch railroads built in the mid-1800s, ultimately operated by the Old Colony Railroad. The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad leased the Old Colony Railroad system beginning in 1893 and was successful for many decades.

In the early to mid-20th century, the United States experienced an automobile revolution and a societal shift toward auto-oriented urban planning. Interstate highways were booming. Private automobiles replaced commuter rail as the popular mode of transportation. As a result, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad encountered financial problems. While the Commonwealth of Massachusetts provided an emergency subsidy to continue service to the South Coast in 1958, it was not enough. Passenger service on the Old Colony line was abandoned in 1959, with the exception of the main line between Boston and Providence, R.I.

The current one-year phase of the project is seeing railways shored up for the first time in 56 years.

With the first year design phase complete, involving state discussions with communities from Stoughton to Fall River, tons of soil samples are being taken over many months to discern toxic content and other vital information. When the design phase is complete and the samples in hand, MassDOT will begin replacing four bridges — New Bedford’s Wamsutta Bridge, Fall River’s Golf Club Road, President Avenue and Brownell Street bridges.

“Brownell’s bridge replacement will be much more pleasing to the eye than the current structure, as well. Golf Club Road had to be closed several years ago because of its poor condition. The temporary access road installed just before the closure unfortunately provided easy access to trespassers,” said Fox of the ongoing design work. “Trash disposal and vandalism were becoming a significant issue in that area and along the right-of-way, which is not a public way. In fact, no one should be walking along the tracks or near the tracks at any time. Once this bridge is replaced, the temporary road will no longer be necessary, and access can then be safely restricted.”

New Rail Crossings

Some of these bridges have inadequate vertical clearance over roadways, while others are in poor condition and have been out of service for decades. DOT crews — with workers from Cardi Corp. and other sub-contractors, have been removing and replacing these older bridges to support freight service while staging the area for commuter rail to Boston.

Through summer and autumn, MassDOT, now under the supervision of the MBTA, is constructing grade crossing upgrades, railroad bridge replacements, track improvements and shoring up the bridge areas over major arteries like President Avenue in Fall River.

The following $16 million phase of the construction project will upgrade five grade crossings (three in Freetown, one in Taunton and one in New Bedford), rebuild approximately 10,500 ft. (3,200 m) of track in Freetown and install approximately 6,000 ft. (1,828 m) of new track in New Bedford. The locations are: High Street, Elm Street and Copicut Road along the Fall River Secondary in Freetown; Dean Street in Taunton; and Nash Road in New Bedford.

The project also will make signal improvements at the Dean Street/Arlington Street intersection in Taunton and the Nash Road/Church Street intersection in New Bedford. The grade crossings will be equipped with the latest safety warning technology and will accommodate future commuter rail service.

The estimated travel time between New Bedford and Boston (South Station) is about 77 minutes. From Fall River, the trip is estimated to take around 75 minutes. This will be a boon for commuters who routinely take two hours to get to the city where parking also is at a premium.

The 120-month timeline, which began in June 2014, held for two years of preliminary engineering and permitting, two-plus-years of final design, and five years of construction, with the timeline subject to change.

The Mass. house and senate authorized $12.7 billion to finance a number of improvements to the Commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure system in 2014, including a $2.3 billion bill for South Coast Rail. The first year funding of $12 million is to secure data collection, preliminary design to support the environmental permitting process through the summer of 2015.

Soil Samples

In some areas, the soil borings collected reveal that additional structural support from footings, piers and other aids must be incorporated into the construction design. The new rail route that has been selected is called the Stoughton (after the city) Electric Alternative. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified this route as the least “environmentally damaging practicable South Coast Rail alignment and mode.”

The agencies made such determinations based on a comprehensive evaluation of multiple factors, including ridership, travel times, biodiversity, wetlands, land use, noise and vibration, water resources, as well as visual and socioeconomic impacts, which will include a new vital lifeline to three cities that desperately need a boost.

An electrified system has been approved, which offers many economic and green benefits. According to the MBTA literatures, electric trains have several key advantages over diesel trains: Zero emission vehicles run more cleanly and efficiently, resulting in reduced corridor air pollution emissions; electric trains accelerate and decelerate more quickly, resulting in better commute times; and they generally require less maintenance. Electric energy that powers the trains can be sourced from wind power and other green sources.

When the project was announced, then-Gov. Deval L. Patrick said, “south Coast residents deserve the benefits of a reliable and convenient connection to Boston and points in between. This work is another step in a methodical, comprehensive process that will move South Coast Rail forward.”

Patrick left office after eight years in January.

The MBTA is working with new Gov. Charlie Baker on future improvements and South Coast Rail maintenance as the project will not be finished by the end of Baker’s first term.

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