“I hear the train a-comin’, it’s rolling ’round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.”
– Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues
Passenger train service from New Bedford to Boston has been coming back to the city so long that most residents long ago adopted an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude toward its resumption.
The city’s umbilical cord to the state capital was cut back in 1959, almost at the start of the interstate highway era, and before 30 years had passed, local planners knew that it had been a huge mistake.
It didn’t take long for the state and interstate highways (especially the Southeast Expressway) to become gridlocked with motor vehicles; so the professional classes that love a worry-free ride on a commuter train long ago abandoned New Bedford and Fall River as a reasonable commute to the region’s mega-city.
Every good effort to resume local rail service has met with, er … roadblocks. The train tracks were operated by private companies interested primarily in freight service; growing environmental awareness made building through the Hockomock Swamp a high hurdle; rapidly growing and politically powerful suburbs didn’t want high-speed trains coming through downtowns at grade-level anymore; and perhaps most daunting of all, the cost of rebuilding a rail line has seemed to balloon with each passing year. It went from several hundred million to $600 million to a billion dollars to $2 billion to $3-plus billion and more over the last three decades.
But just as nobody thought a resumption of rail service would ever actually happen, the region’s intrepid legislative delegation, the state bureaucracy’s professional transit-planning class, and a Republican governor intent on winning votes on the South Coast, made it come true. The stars finally aligned for the South Coast and it didn’t hurt that Mattapoisett’s Bill Straus was able to advance himself to being the co-chair of the powerful Transportation Committee for more than a decade.
The train we are getting is not a perfect train. Its circuitous route on climate-warming diesel engines means it will take about an hour-and-half to get to Boston. It is supposed to be replaced by 2030 by electrified trains traveling a more direct route, but the MBTA did not include any new money for that route in its latest five-year capital plan beyond some preliminary design money it had already funded.
Still, the train to Boston, such as it will be, really and truly is going to begin at the end of 2023. And at the last minute we are now reminded that, in order for that to finally happen, first the cities of New Bedford and Fall River must vote to join the MBTA.
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The MBTA, or Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, is mostly known these days for Boston area subways and commuter trains that are late; Orange lines that catch fire or operators that screw up; trains that get stuck in the snow; and worst of all, rapid transit that is too expensive and too unreliable.
You get the picture. It’s the poster child for government that doesn’t work.
But even so. Even so. Even so. New Bedford and Fall River still need to be reconnected to Boston by rail service.
The old methods of getting around simply don’t work anymore, and less and less so each year. In 2022, the lifespan of the internal combustion engine seems closer and closer to oblivion with each passing mega-hurricane, each passing mega-drought, each place in eastern Massachusetts where it is increasingly impossible “to get there from here” in any reasonable amount of time by way of a personal motor vehicle.
So on Nov. 8, the voters in New Bedford and Fall River will be asked whether they want to join the MBTA.
It might seem like a no-brainer that both cities would automatically say yes, and it probably is. But the train has taken so long to get here that the arguments for why it won’t be perfect are now clearer than ever.
In New Bedford, there are legitimate worries that a train service will grow the city’s upper-middle class in a way that will put even more pressure on the long sleepy real estate costs that have finally begun to escalate.
Then there’s the matter of the MBTA’s assessment fees on the almost 200-odd communities that belong to the “T.” That assessment is based on a combination of the amount of service and the population of a community. Thankfully for New Bedford and Fall River, the assessment is offset by the payments a community makes for any regional transit authority — specifically 100% for regular riders and 50% for paratransit riders. The contribution that New Bedford makes to the local transit service, SRTA, the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority — $1.3 million — is way above what the city’s current MBTA assessment would be — just shy of $700,000.
Of course the cost of public transportation isn’t getting any cheaper, and it’s hard to predict what the assessments will be in years to come — both SRTA and the “T” will undoubtedly grow larger and more expensive in the future. But mass transit is a necessity in contemporary society; New Bedford will not be able to avoid getting on this train in the long run.
Oddly, there does not appear to be any organized opposition in the city to New Bedford joining the “T.” Everyone from Mayor Jon Mitchell to City Council President Ian Abreu to the legislative delegation is on board with Charlie, so to speak.
Mitchell, who has tried to separate himself from his predecessors by emphasizing that passenger train service is a nice feature, but not a linchpin of the city’s future economic development, nevertheless says he supports joining. He noted it will not cost the city anything by way of local taxes for the foreseeable future.
“This is going to be a good thing for Greater New Bedford, he said. “It will be an important asset for the region.”
That’s true enough. But it’s a lukewarm endorsement for something that is so important to quality transportation and controlling climate change in the future. The train to Boston is finally set to arrive. But as with many things in life, it’s not going to be near perfect and it’s not going to be what we would have wished in a perfect world.
And yet we still have to do it.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.