February 11, 2010
Contact Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org
Charlie Baker brought his Republican gubernatorial campaign to New Bedford and Fall River Wednesday but he did not come bringing good news for the two-decade-long local effort to bring commuter rail to the region.
Commuter rail, especially the preferred Stoughton route through the Hockomock Swamp, is unlikely to happen, in his opinion, Baker said. He called the swamp one of the most important wetland areas in Southeastern Massachusetts.
"I truly don't understand how it could possibly get permitted,environmentally, to run a train through it," he said.
A passenger train ran through the Hockomock Swamp for almost a century but was eliminated in the 1960s; much of the rail bed remains but suburban development has grown up alongside parts of it.
Many residents of the middle-class Boston suburbs of Stoughton, Easton and Raynham - which themselves already have nearby access to nearby commuter rail - have strenuously opposed the re-establishment of passenger train service to SouthCoast.
Baker said his comments last week on a Boston television station (Fox 25) about the Patrick/Murray administration wanting to build "mini-Big Digs all over Massachusetts" were not meant to include the South Coast Rail project, which is estimated to cost some $1.4 billion.
"I wasn't talking about, specifically, about that project," he said, adding he was more worried about the Stoughton route because "the permitting has always struck me as sort of ..." He did not finish his sentence.
Baker did not say which projects he was referring to in the "mini-Big Digs" description in the Fox 25 interview.
Baker, a former cabinet member for both Republican governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci, was skeptical that federal money would ever be available to fund part, or even all, of a SouthCoast rail project.
"The last time I looked, the federal government had the biggest budget deficit in the history of the United States," he said. "If there's one message that came out of the election a couple of weeks ago with that Senate seat, it's that people are terrified about deficit spending at the federal level."
Baker said he would rather spend state money cleaning up industrial brownfield sites in Fall River and New Bedford than on commuter rail.
"Maybe the state should be spending money to help clean up a lot of those (brownfield) sites so that small or big manufacturers would be in a position to make the investment where you could actually use them," he said.
Baker said he believes the waterfronts of both New Bedford and Fall River have "a lot of possibilities" for economic development, "but you have site cleanup issues associated with that that you have to deal with."
He also talked about developing local high-tech manufacturing in niche markets.
"I would much rather figure out some way to grow the local economy down here, and to create jobs down here, and create economic opportunity down here. Now," he said, "as opposed to spending another four, five, six, seven, eight years waiting for the federal government to fund the construction of the rail or waiting for the permitting process to get through."
Baker said a good state investment might be to expand Bristol Community College, a proposal that has been suggested locally in both downtown New Bedford and Taunton.
"Maybe we should be thinking about how to expand Bristol Community's footprint down here in a pretty serious way so the kids who either drop out of high school or graduate, but still need a lot of remedial education, can actually perform at a high school grad level," he said.
Baker's potential opponents in the gubernatorial race both on the Republican and Democratic side differed with his assessment of the need for SouthCoast's commuter rail and its connection to local economic development.
Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said it was Baker's "mismanagement" of the Big Dig as the administration and finance secretary for Weld and Cellucci that resulted in transportation infrastructure such as the local commuter rail project never being built. (Weld, when he was a gubernatorial candidate, guaranteed that he could re-establish the local commuter rail line.)
"(Baker's) mismanagement of the Big Dig, and their lack of honesty with the citizens of the state of the cost, and how we were going to pay for it, starved transportation projects in every region of the state," Murray said.
When the federal government refused to pay any more of the cost overruns at the $15 billion Boston Big Dig (central artery) project, state transportation funds were diverted to it.
Baker, however, in his Fox 25 interview, said that during his tenure as A&F secretary, the cost of the Big Dig remained at $11 billion.
Murray said commuter rail would not just help SouthCoast residents get to jobs in Greater Boston but Boston companies to migrate to SouthCoast where real estate is more affordable.
"For (Baker) to suggest now, that his economic plan for the SouthCoast is solely about cleaning up the brownfield sites, then he just doesn't fully understand what it takes in terms of economic development," he said.
Christy Mihos, a former state turnpike authority board member who is opposing Baker in the Republican primary, said he "absolutely, positively" supports SouthCoast commuter rail as an "economic development engine."
But Mihos said the federal government would have to pay for it because the state could not afford it, given the current budget crisis.
"These would be stimulus funds that really would be for good use,"Mihos said, stating that they would create construction jobs for the purpose of rebuilding the transportation infrastructure.
"This is the poster child of what federal stimulus funds should have been, and could have been used for, instead of being diverted the way
they have been," he said.
Significant portions of the federal stimulus money have been spent on preserving jobs in the government sector, including teaching and public safety (police and fire) jobs in New Bedford.
Like Baker, Mihos said he opposes building a rail line through the Stoughton route. He said that as a resident of Cohasset, he watched the South Shore lawsuits add millions to that commuter line to address environmental suits, and he thinks the Stoughton route would face similar problems.
"I see huge issues at the local level that would make it unaffordable," he said.
State Treasurer Tim Cahill, an independent gubernatorial candidate who opposes SouthCoast commuter rail construction and planning at the present time, declined comment for this column.