June 01--BUZZARDS BAY -- His speech and PowerPoint presentation focused solely on the CapeFlyer.
But when Thomas Cahir, administrator of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, wrapped up his remarks Wednesday at the Business to Business Expo in Onset, no one asked about the summertime tourist train, which returned last weekend after a widely hailed inaugural year.
Inside the Bay Pointe Club, the crowd instead wanted to know about what might arrive next: commuter rail to Wareham and Buzzards Bay.
When will it come, they asked. And where will the stops be placed?
No plans are in the works at the moment, but a year after the CapeFlyer's popularity whetted their appetites, Cahir said local and state officials are now asking the "right questions" about extending commuter rail service to Wareham and Buzzards Bay.
"Commuter rail is a huge opportunity for Buzzards Bay to just explode in a positive economic way," said Cahir, a former deputy transportation secretary and Democratic state representative from Bourne, who served as co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation. "It is so ripe and teed up for commuter rail. That's why you haven't heard anyone come out and say, 'I don't want trains.'"
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, however, has no such plans in the works but is willing to look into the idea.
"Commuter rail service to and from Buzzards Bay is an interesting idea that we will explore but it is not on our list of plans at this time," said Kelly Smith, an MBTA spokeswoman, in an email.
In an admittedly bullish projection, Cahir said commuter rail could be fast-tracked to arrive as early as 2016. More conservative estimates put commuter rail at least three years in the future, with the most cautiously optimistic supporters declining to even make a projection in light of the upcoming gubernatorial election.
"Of course, one of the big unknowns here, which isn't a transportation point per se, is who the next governor is," said state Rep. William M. Straus, D-Mattapoisett, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation. "You cannot build a project like this over the opposition of a sitting governor. It just doesn't happen."
A 2006 study prepared for the state Executive Office of Transportation estimated that the project would cost between $50 million and $100 million, a wide range that might include upgrades that have since been made, Straus said.
"It may be that many of the track improvements that have been going on the last year and a half, that made CapeFlyer possible, may have already accomplished some of the project costs," the Mattapoisett Democrat said.
Before commuter rail could ever be extended from the Middleboro/Lakeville station, the governor would first have to sign legislation to put Buzzards Bay on the MBTA's map. The map currently includes more than 150 towns but stops at Bourne, which would need to be included for the town to be assessed for the year-round rail service to Boston.
In the few meetings held to discuss commuter rail this year, the MBTA's formula for determining financial assessments -- which is based on population and level of service, among other factors -- has proved a conundrum for Bourne officials.
Cahir said he recently calculated that the annual assessment would fall between $75,000 and $80,000 -- a small price to pay, he added, to spur economic development and drive up property values.
"That's what the total assessment would be. You can't call it a 'pittance' or 'nothing' when you're talking about taxpayer dollars, but it's a pittance."
Last week, in his first meeting as the board's chairman, Bourne Selectman Peter Meier said commuter rail should be a priority for the town.
"The CapeFlyer was very popular last summer. And I think, from talking to people around the community, that it's something they would like to see more permanently," Meier said, before noting that the MBTA assessment would be "minimal at best" with the offset of the transit authority assessment.
Since neighboring communities are typically assessed as well, Meier said Bourne was lucky to not have been assessed for its proximity to the commuter rail station in Plymouth. The town would not be so lucky, he said, if commuter rail was extended to Wareham but not to Buzzards Bay.
"We might as well get the most bang for our buck," Meier said. "What's going to come out of this is the need for parking."
The transportation bond bill passed in April earmarks $75,000 for a study of the Buzzards Bay train station. Some of that funding could be used to investigate the parking needed for commuter rail at no cost to the town, Meier said.
The lines linking the Middleboro/Lakeville station to Buzzards Bay have long been welded together, allowing for the high speeds of commuter rail and for the idea of expansion to pick up steam. But as Meier and other officials are quick to note, parking is the missing piece of infrastructure.
"Parking is going to be the creative piece of the jigsaw puzzle," said Bourne Town Administrator Thomas Guerino.
Cahir and Meier said property near Main Street, between St. Margaret's Street and the "West Rotary," could house a parking facility with hundreds of spots. The property is owned by Vincent Michienzi, developer of the controversial One Trowbridge Place medical center.
As the end station, Buzzards Bay would need a parking lot larger than the one Wareham would have to build, Straus said. Bourne already has a rail platform, making the location of that infrastructure "readily apparent," he said.
"You don't always get that, where there's an obvious place to put it."
A Wareham stop was added along the CapeFlyer route for this year, though the station remains under construction to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That station sits in downtown Wareham, where Alan Slavin, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said there is too little room for a commuter rail station.
West Wareham, on the other hand, has open land and access off the highways.
"If you're going to get a stop to park and go up to Boston, you probably need a 600- to 1,000-car parking lot to do it right," Slavin said. "And West Wareham has enough land for that."
Slavin said the Wareham board is "completely behind this whole program."
At Tuesday's meeting, Meier envisioned Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadets hopping on trains to Boston, adding that the town will need to thoroughly study commuter rail.
"It's something I think really needs to be looked at. It could be an economic generator for that end of Main Street," he said. "For the positive impacts that this will bring to the community, I personally think it's a no-brainer."
Copyright 2014 - Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.