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South Coast Rail Brings Access to Boston and Concern About Housing Costs

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Daniel Ackerman
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MBTA engineer Dan Letendre oversees construction at the future site of the Fall River Depot.

It’s been a while since you could hop a train from New Bedford to Boston.

“Vern Stephens was the shortstop for the Red Sox. That I remember,” said Marilyn Hamel, 85. “It was in the ‘40s.”

When Hamel was growing up in New Bedford, her father rode the commuter rail each morning into Boston, where he worked as an engineer. After work, he’d arrive back at New Bedford’s waterfront station with a spring in his step.

“My dad was an athlete,” said Hamel. “We lived way up on the hill, Mount Pleasant Street. He ran home every night and he ran back the next morning.”

An idyllic—if ambitious—commute. But passenger rail service in the South Coast shut down in 1959. Since then, commuting to Boston has been a slog.

“Usually about two hours there, and then two hours home,” said Shane Burgo, who took the bus from New Bedford to his state government job in Boston. (Burgo’s office went remote during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

So Burgo says he’s excited for South Coast Rail—a project to revive commuter train service in the region. Construction on the $1 billion MBTA project is already underway. Once complete in 2024, one line of the South Coast rail will link New Bedford to Boston, and a second line will connect Fall River to Boston.

Burgo says the rail will give more South Coast residents access to high-wage jobs in Boston. But his enthusiasm is tempered by a concern shared by many in the region: that the same train that will whisk residents to Boston, could also price people out of their homes.

In New Bedford, rents are rising fast. And Burgo says the promise of easy access to Boston could push them even higher.

“That will displace a lot of the people that live here currently,” he said. “That's the concern that I have as a lifelong resident here in New Bedford.”

It’s not just renters who could be pushed out the door. Diana Painter is deputy director of the Coalition for Social Justice in New Bedford. She says that as the rail line barrels toward completion, corporate investors are buying out longtime homeowners, marking a major shift in the city’s housing market.

“New Bedford, especially being a gateway city—we had a lot of immigrant families and that was their way to build family wealth, was to buy a multi-family home and rent out a floor,” said Painter. “Now we're seeing more investment real estate. So people are buying up properties they don't intend to live in.”

Painter said the rail will provide an economic boost to the region, but rising housing costs are taking a toll on residents today.

“We're seeing already that people are doubling up,” she said. “Families are living more and more in dense housing. Or like seniors having to have roommates.”

Of course, there's a lot driving the housing squeeze, not just anticipation of the new rail service. Housing costs are rising statewide, due to low interest rates and an inventory shortage.

New Bedford’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, thinks the rail’s arrival could push prices even higher, but only modestly. Because, said Mitchell, the train won’t be much faster than the alternatives.

“The ride itself will be an hour-and-a-half long, and then of course there’ll be time on either end of that. So it isn’t something that I think a lot of folks will do five days a week,” he said. “But it’s there for the taking, and I think it’ll be a net positive for the region.”

The rail’s exact impact on housing costs will take years to play out. Meanwhile, construction is chugging along. Crews at more than a dozen sites across the South Coast are putting in new tracks, signals and retaining walls.

As Shane Burgo awaits the day he can ride the rail to work in Boston, he’s running for city council in New Bedford.

The concern he hears most frequently from residents in his neighborhood? “We need to find ways to keep our residents in their homes.”