You’ve heard of the soon-to-launch South Coast Rail and the long-sought East-West Rail into the western reaches of the state. But how about what we’ll call the Cape Connector?
A group of lawmakers from Cape Cod and the islands want to make their region the next hub for regular passenger rail service, pitching it as a way to relieve locals from crushing traffic congestion and the greenhouse gas emissions that come with it.
Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Falmouth and Rep. Kip Diggs of Barnstable filed legislation (HD 4555) that would instruct the MBTA to launch commuter rail service between South Station and Buzzards Bay within one year.
That route already accommodates the Cape Flyer, which runs on summer weekends from Boston through Buzzards Bay to stops on the Cape, so supporters believe sufficient infrastructure is already in place.
Unlike the Cape Flyer, however, lawmakers behind the bill want to launch an option that would provide more predictable and regular service for the region’s residents rather than what Fernandes dubbed “another tourist train.”
“It’s time for commuter rail to come to the Cape and islands and be accessible for Cape and island residents,” Fernandes said in an interview. “There’s nearly 300,000 people that live here, millions of people that travel here every year, and we need increased rail access to the region for economic opportunity reasons, for congestion reasons that are a big deal down here, and if we want to do our part to combat climate change, that’s a part of it as well.”
Under the legislation, the MBTA would be required to operate at least three morning peak trips and three evening peak trips along the route to Buzzards Bay each weekday.
The proposal would build on the ongoing South Coast Rail project, which is expected to begin running service later this year from New Bedford and Fall River to Boston along the existing Middleborough/Lakeville Line.
Fernandes said running regular service to Buzzards Bay would require “minimal investment,” describing what’s needed as “not so much dollar funding as it is political will.”
Although the MBTA has spent years in the spotlight for service and safety issues, Fernandes said he’s confident the transit agency can handle the additional workload of running service to Buzzards Bay.
“This is not a big ask. The route from Buzzards Bay to South Station is not a very complicated one, and it also comes in line with the plans to open South Coast Rail by the end of the year, so there’s synergies to this effort,” he said. “What’s more is that Bourne is an MBTA community. They’ve been paying into the MBTA for years now, so it’s time for the MBTA to start offering service.”
In the longer term, the legislation calls for the MBTA and the state Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of running year-round daily rail service connecting Boston to Falmouth, Bourne, Barnstable, Yarmouth and Sandwich.
Some rails already exist on the Cape side of the canal, Fernandes said, but they are not graded for the higher speeds typically associated with commuter rail travel, so more investment would be needed.
Residents of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, as well as the tourists who flock to the islands each year, could also reap benefits from the expanded service, according to Fernandes. He said people would be able to travel entirely via public transit between the islands and Boston, taking more cars off the road.
The Cape Cod Commission and MassDOT in 2021 published a 118-page study examining passenger rail service to the region.
That report estimated that connecting Boston and Buzzards Bay with 14 trips would draw an average of 1,710 passengers per day, cost $67.2 million in capital costs and about $5 million per year. Service between Boston and Bourne would attract 2,540 passengers per day, with about $102.6 million in capital costs and a yearly cost of $9.3 million.
On an annual basis, the train trips would eliminate the need for about 295,000 motor vehicle trips – a figure that Fernandes’s office estimated is “enough to drive around Earth over 600 times.”
“The demographics here have changed considerably just in the past decade. Now, just around 50 percent of the workers here travel over the bridge[s] to come to work on the Cape and islands, and so there’s now bridge traffic year-round,” Fernandes said. “Anything we can do to have fewer cars on the Cape and make it give residents more transportation options to choose from – people want that and, honestly, I think they deserve it.”
Fernandes unveiled his proposal Wednesday in Hyannis alongside Diggs, Republican Rep. Steve Xiarhos of Barnstable, and local officials.
Top House and Senate Democrats have not yet carved out a position on the legislation, though Fernandes said he’s in regular communication with Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett.
“Cape Cod needs this. The tracks are already here, we’ve had passenger rail in the past, and with the completion of South Coast Rail it’s more important than ever,” Diggs said in a statement. “With our lack of infrastructure, we need additional ways to get to the Cape other than using a car.”