Thomas Cahir is making the case that now is the time to extend year-round commuter rail service to the Cape.
That possibility, studied in 1997, 2007 and 2016, is again being explored in a Massachusetts Department of Transportation feasibility study that will be published this summer.
But Cahir, a former state deputy secretary of rail and current administrator of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, isn’t waiting for the newest report to push for the extension of year-round service to Bourne.
He plans to meet with Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler to discuss the need for Cape commuter service later this month.
“I hope the study says good things, but if it doesn’t, it’s not going to deter my efforts to do something that I think would provide options for people in the Upper Cape to get to Boston without their cars,” Cahir said this week. “I think we have a real cogent argument we can make.”
Still, Cahir expects the findings of the Cape Rail Study, some of which will be presented at a public meeting of the Cape Rail Study Advisory Group today, will ultimately validate the need for a service he’s advocated for years.
“It just makes all the sense in the world,” he said.
What routes are being studied?
The Cape Rail Study, launched in 2020 by MassDOT, zeroes in on two different commuter service scenarios, both of which would connect existing stations and tracks in Bourne to a commuter line that currently runs between Middleborough and Boston.
The first scenario would end service just north of the Cape Cod Canal in Buzzards Bay. The second would take riders south of the canal, further into Bourne, a town that has pursued MBTA commuter rail service for years.
At today’s meeting, MassDOT officials and consultants with the engineering company VHB will present new data on each scenario, including potential costs, as well as estimated ridership, travel times, emissions impacts, and effects on job access, Cape Cod Commission Transportation Program Manager Steven Tupper said.
At a November meeting of the Cape Rail Study Advisory Group, many participants supported crossing the canal, but Cahir believes rail advocates should focus their efforts on getting to Buzzards Bay.
Cahir cited the complicating factor of marine traffic, and the involvement of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the Cape Cod Canal.
“There’s no easy way to get that done in the short term, so I’ve tried to stress pretty vociferously, let’s get to Buzzards Bay,” Cahir said. “We’ve got to be realistic in what our asks are. I’ve had conversations with very key people at the T recently that have said, ‘If the governor told me to run this train from Middleborough to Buzzards Bay, I could get it ready in a week or two.’”
Cahir believes that if the commuter train reaches Buzzards Bay and ridership numbers show the service is successful, it would become easier to extend the line over the canal in a future project, given looming canal bridge construction plans.
The idea of exploring an extension to Hyannis was floated at earlier Cape Rail Study meetings, but Tupper said existing rail infrastructure beyond Bourne would need expensive upgrades to accommodate a fast-moving commuter train, a prospect that caused the state to narrow its study focus to terminating service in Bourne.
Housing workers off-Cape easier with rail service
Tupper said the Cape Rail Study is primarily focused on exploring the value of providing a rail transit option for Cape commuters traveling to Boston for work.
But with the Cape’s affordable housing crisis contributing to what has become a severe workforce shortage locally, officials advocating for the extension of commuter rail service to the Cape are also starting to discuss the importance of getting commuters who live elsewhere to Cape Cod by train.
“Just looking at pure flows, the numbers are greater heading toward Boston,” Tupper said. “That being said, there is a steady commute onto Cape Cod. We certainly have seen that each time there’s a major bridge construction activity. Affordable housing is certainly a big issue on Cape Cod and transportation options certainly change that conversation.”
Cahir said he’s been working with Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy Northcross to figure out how the Cape Cod RTA, in cooperation with partners including Peter Pan Bus Lines, could help get workers from places including New Bedford and Fall River to and from the Cape for work.
A commuter rail stop in Bourne, he said, could make getting workers to fill Cape jobs easier.
Northcross said that in considering how a commuter rail connection on Cape Cod could help funnel workers to the area, discussions about rail schedules must factor in the actual work hours of employees in sectors like food service and hospitality.
Cahir said the Cape Cod RTA has already begun building out its connections within Buzzards Bay, in part to prepare a service that would be able to connect workers using the commuter rail with their final destinations up and down the Cape.
“Our general manager told us today that of all of our routes in the post-pandemic era, the Bourne run is the one that’s experienced the most success in ridership increase, and that’s without the train,” Cahir said. “We are very ready.”
Bourne ready for a commuter stop
Whether a commuter rail stop is located north or south of the canal, officials in Bourne say their town is prepared to welcome riders.
“People look for transit-oriented development where they have access to different modes of transportation to meet their needs,” said Bourne Town Administrator Anthony Schiavi, who said bringing a commuter rail stop to Bourne ranks very high on the town’s list of economic development goals.
“I think all in all, it’s something that would be what I would say is a great positive, certainly for Bourne, and likely for other parts of the Cape as well,” he said.
Cape Cod Canal Region Chamber of Commerce CEO Marie Olivia said that after years of pushing for the extension of commuter rail service to Bourne, her team is eagerly awaiting the publication of the Cape Rail Study.
If the final data shows adding a local stop is viable, Olivia said the first thing she’d do is organize a party. Then, she’d get to work advocating for implementation.
“We’d evaluate the report, of course, and then make sure that all our legislative delegation is on board to support it,” she said. “We do have a lot of support in the community for commuter rail, so we don’t have to go down that road again. Once we get the study done we’d lobby for implementation and ask how soon could we have it implemented.”
Cahir is confident that the area’s legislative delegation understands the economic value of getting year-round rail service to the Cape, adding that Sen. Susan Moran has been a champion of the prospect.
“If we can make the case with evidence that it makes a great deal of sense to the right decision-makers, legislators, the governor and the like, that’s what we’re trying to do, and I think we can do it,” he said.
Barnstable County Commissioner Mark Forest, who has said the county should play a larger role in orchestrating regional solutions to Cape problems, in part because the county government can help towns obtain federal money, said the timing of the Cape Rail Study’s publication is good.
“There’s going to be growing congressional interest in providing dollars specifically for rail improvements,” he said. “There’s a huge window of opportunity for Cape Cod right now and it’s important that we act on it.”
Members of the public interested in attending today’s 5:30 p.m. meeting of the Cape Rail Study Advisory Group can learn more here.
Jeannette Hinkle is a reporter for The Cape Cod Times. Reach her at email@example.com.