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Monorail Mania in Massachusetts

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Highway monorail offered as Plan B to commuter train

By Joanna Massey, Globe Staff, 12/21/2003

First he gets laughs, then the inevitable references to Disney World. But state Representative David Flynn accepts that pushing the idea of long-distance monorail service to Southeastern Massachusetts comes with bumps in the road.

"Some people have ridiculed it, but I'm completely serious about this," he said. "This is a new century; it's time for new thinking."

With the long-beleaguered proposal for MBTA commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River dead in the water, Flynn has asked state officials to consider building a monorail from Boston down the median of Interstate 93, Route 24, and Route 140. Flynn represents several suburban communities opposed to the train extension, including Easton and Raynham.

A monorail would provide a "pioneering, leading-edge mass transportation carrier" that would be cheaper, equally as fast and efficient, and less environmentally destructive than the train, Flynn said. He said the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority recently set aside funding to study the feasibility of monorail service from Boston to Springfield and should do the same for this region.

"The Pike wants to build a monorail. Residents in Raynham and Easton have concerns about the commuter rail. But Fall River and New Bedford desperately need commuter help," he said. "Authorizing the building of a monorail would solve a number of problems at one time."

A spokesman for the state Executive Office of Transportation and Construction said state officials "would be happy to sit down and discuss the possibility of a monorail." But Jonathan Carlisle said such a proposal is likely to face some of the same financial, environmental, and right-of-way challenges as a commuter rail.

Funding for the $720 million proposed commuter rail extension to New Bedford and Fall River was not included in a five-year capital plan released by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority last month.

Flynn, a Bridgewater Democrat, said he believes it is time for proponents and opponents of the decade-old project to come together and "act now" in the development of alternatives to the commuter rail.

Reaction to the monorail proposal among those groups varies. Some applaud the idea as "intriguing" and "forward-thinking," while others raise a laundry list of concerns about its practicality.

"One of the biggest arguments against the commuter rail is price; I don't think it would be any cheaper having a monorail," said Steve Keohane, an Easton resident and member of a regional citizens group against the rail project. "It might be better environmentally, but the cost per rider to build it would be as high or higher."

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Development District, an agency in Taunton, said constructing a monorail down the center of existing highways would present a number of engineering difficulties. Bridges and overpasses are obstacles, as is building stations for riders to board in the middle of a highway, he said.

They are nothing more than "engineering boondoggles" in the mind of Fred Moore, president of the Association for Public Transportation in Boston, an advocacy organization for car-free transportation. He said monorails cannot travel faster than 35 miles per hour, do not contend well with snow and ice, and are difficult and costly to repair. "Even the deep pockets of Disney does not build them any more because of the cost," Moore said. "People get all caught up in the futuristic, but the reality is that there's nothing a monorail can do that a light rail can't."

Monorails travel on a single rail and often are elevated; light rail is an outdoor trolley running on traditional train tracks.

But some residents in Canton, Easton, Raynham, and Stoughton who are concerned about the environmental impact of the proposed commuter rail extension say a monorail could be a better option. If it was constructed in the middle of Route 24, it would not cut through the Hockomock Swamp like the train would, they said.

"It makes a lot more sense to run something that is fast, clean, and can hold a lot of people in the same corridor that has already disrupted the environment, than rebuilding a long-abandoned rail track through wetlands," said Jim Ross, a Raynham resident and former member of the town's Conservation Commission.

Protecting the 17,000-acre Hockomock Swamp, one of the state's largest contiguous wetlands, is key, said Easton Town Administrator Martha White.

"We feel [the swamp] was designated an area of environmentally critical concern for a reason, and that designation should be taken seriously," White said.

Kyla Bennett, director of the Easton-based New England chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said she believes a monorail would have less impact on wildlife as well.

Raynham Selectman Gordan Luciano praised Flynn for being "out in front" with his proposal.

"Sometimes local representatives are our own worst enemies because they're so focused on the [commuter rail] project and totally ignore alternatives," Luciano said. "In other regions of the state, officials have been more progressive in planning, and that's why the money is going elsewhere."

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