New Bedford, Fall River Still Must Vote for South Coast Rail to Happen
After more than 30 years of waiting, the people of the SouthCoast cities of New Bedford and Fall River are on the cusp of having rail service to Boston sometime next year.
The only problem is, someone forgot to ask them if they wanted it.
On Thursday night, the New Bedford City Council unanimously voted to add a referendum question to ballots in the city for the November 8 general election that will ask residents, “Shall this city be added to the Massachusetts Bay Authority?”
If the answer is no, it could mean no South Coast Rail service in 2023.
The referendum is part of the process of officially getting MBTA rail service, under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 161A, Section 6. The law requires that the certified votes in the affirmative of becoming an MBTA district must be turned in by January 1 of the year that service is expected to start. Since South Coast Rail is set to launch sometime in 2023, that means New Bedford has until the end of this year to get it done or the rail service couldn’t go into effect until 2024 at the earliest.
“I think it’s pretty crazy if you ask me,” City Council President Ian Abreu said in his weekly appearance on WBSM. “Over $100 million has been fused into this project already between permitting, design, legal work, (all) taxpayer funded money. But per Massachusetts General Law, if the voters actually come out and say, ‘no, we don’t want to be an MBTA district city,’ technically South Coast Rail could stop dead in its tracks, no pun intended, and we would not get rail service here in New Bedford.”
Abreu said he first learned about the need for the referendum two weeks ago from Election Commissioner Manny DeBrito. DeBrito himself only found out about it in June, Abreu said.
“I’m not sure why it came to us at this point. All I know is our election commissioner called me and said we have to do this according to Massachusetts General Law, and we put it on (the ballot),” Abreu said.
WBSM reached out to DeBrito and received word back from City spokesperson Michael Lawrence that the City would have something to say on the matter next week.
The question remains, why wasn’t this known to be part of the process sooner?
Former New Bedford City Councilor Tom Kennedy called into WBSM’s Barry Richard Show Friday and said he remembers former Mayor Fred Kalisz’s administration talking about the need for a referendum vote on the matter back in 2000 or 2001.
Considering the infrastructure is now in place, stations are being built and businesses and property owners are making plans for whatever commuter rail service could bring to New Bedford, all of that effort is now being placed in the hands of the voters at the 11th hour.
“I think putting it at the last minute like this could upset some people, or make them feel as though there’s something going on, and maybe it would incite people to vote in the negative, which could really throw a wrench into the whole process,” Abreu said.
“I would agree that maybe this could have been done sooner, and if it was done sooner and it was a negative vote, it would have given time for the city and the state and our delegation and all of us to pivot and figure out the next approach to get this going,” he said.
It’s not just a New Bedford issue, either. Fall River also has not yet voted to become an MBTA district yet, for the same reason.
“We just found out about it from our Corporation Counsel back in April, and the city council adopted an order to have it placed on the November 8 ballot,” Fall River Election Commissioner Ryan Lyons told WBSM.
In Taunton, another city that will benefit from South Coast Rail, there doesn’t seem to be a plan to add a question to the Nov. 8 ballot.
“We are already in the MBTA service area,” Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell told WBSM’s Barry Richard. “I'm not sure that there was ever a referendum. I would have to double check. I think it might be that GATRA (Greater Attleboro and Taunton Regional Transit Authority) makes us an MBTA community.”
Longtime Taunton City Councilor David Pottier – who is also the Chief Financial Officer for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation – told Richard that he didn’t recall ever approving a ballot question on it.