That’s because Montigny, like many advocates for a rail line to connect New Bedford to Boston, has seen these kinds of bills become law before.
In the long and tortured history of the still defunct local rail line, the state Legislature has passed not one, but four bond bills authorizing a total of $1.3 billion for the project.
None of it was ever spent.
“The Legislature can bond all we want, but it’s literally funny money until the governor decides to spend it,” Montigny said.
If history repeats itself, SouthCoast’s transportation future could be a grim one, despite the current bond bill including $2.2 billion for the project. But some advocates say headway made in other areas like environmental permitting and the state’s transportation budget could mean this bond bill is more likely to be spent than the ones that came before it.
The fifth time just might be the charm.
The year 1996 was supposed to be a good one for South Coast Rail. That August, Gov. William Weld signed a transportation bond bill that included $136 million to help bring commuter rail to SouthCoast.
To many, it looked like Weld was putting his money where his mouth was. Four years before, in 1992, the governor had famously promised South Coast Rail to residents, challenging them to “sue me if it doesn’t happen.”
But the thing about bond bills is that all they actually do is authorize — not require — a governor to spend the money.
In this way, bond bills — be they for transportation, housing or something else — are essentially wish-lists cobbled together by legislators. Getting a project on a bond bill means the local delegation has done its job. But once the bill becomes a law, the issue is out of the representatives’ and senators’ hands and into those of the governor.
“In every bond season there are billions of dollars being authorized, and you couldn’t actually bond it all even if you tried,” Montigny explained. “You can bond the whole world but unless the governor makes it a priority, it doesn’t happen.”
In 1996, the South Coast Rail project ran into just that situation. Weld, who declined to comment for this article, was authorized to spend the money, but questions about what route to use meant the rail line fell behind other projects like the Big Dig on the priority list. South Coast Rail was never funded.
It wasn’t until 1998, when Weld was out of office, that state officials agreed the rail route should go through Stoughton.
Rosemary Tierney, who was mayor of New Bedford at the time, said many were hopeful that Weld would stay true to his word.
“In the end, though, it was all lip service,” she said. “He meant well, but the money wasn’t actually there, so it never got funded.”
By 2000, when the New Bedford delegation could get more funding for South Coast Rail bonded, they had learned their lesson and came at it with a new strategy.
The language passed by the Legislature and signed by the late Gov. Paul Cellucci bonded $225 million specifically for the design and construction of the tracks south of Cotley Junction in Taunton. Not only that, but the law authorized the state to take the money out of its operating budget.
Montigny said that language was placed in the bill to force Cellucci’s hand. At the time, Cellucci was adamant about not raising the amount the state was actually bonding each year. To Montigny, allowing rail construction to be subsidized by the state operating budget was a way to call Cellucci’s bluff.
“I never actually thought he would wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, I’m taking $50 million out of the state operating budget,’ ” Montigny said. “But it was an attempt to force their hand to try and start appropriating the bond money.”
The bill explicitly directed the money to be used on tracks south of Cotley Junction because they were not anywhere near the controversial Hockomock Swamp and would have to be used no matter what final route was decided on for the line.
But, again, the money was never appropriated.
A similar process repeated itself two years later, in 2002. That time, Gov. Jane Swift signed a $600 million bond bill to design and build the line south of Cotley Junction. That money, too, was never spent. Swift did not respond to two requests for comment.
By that time, it was clear to those following the project that a bond bill passed did not mean money spent.
Attorney Matthew Thomas, who was city solicitor for Mayor Frederick Kalisz, remembered it this way: “Publicly, everybody was excited. Privately, people had reservations because they knew what was actually being passed was not going to be appropriated.”
The New Bedford delegation came up with a new strategy: Go after federal money and spend as much as possible in an effort to force the state to act.
From 2000 to 2004, the Kalisz administration built the Whale’s Tooth Station on Herman Melville Boulevard. Though it was a station where the MBTA commuter rail trains were expected to stop, the station was designed and built largely with federal funds.
“We worked with the MBTA to make sure the design was up to their standards, but the state was not willing to actually do it,” Thomas said. “They didn’t have the funds.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of the SouthCoast legislative delegation. Between 1998 and 2004, the team got more than $3.7 million passed and spent it on things such as permitting costs. The money funded important steps for the project, but was never enough for construction.
In 2004, Gov. Mitt Romney signed yet another bond bill. This authorization would have allowed the state to acquire more tracks and repair them. More promising was that the authorization was for $425 million, close to the full estimated cost of the project at the time.
But aside from signing that bill, Romney was less than helpful on the project, Montigny said.
Montigny, who was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means committee at the time, said Romney asked him at one of their first meetings about the SouthCoast delegation’s strategy for funding the project.
“I said ‘Governor, it’s similar to what you do in business every day: We are sinking as much of the cost as possible so you have to build the rail,’ ” Montigny recalled. “He looked back at me and said, ‘Well, you’ve been doing a good job, but I don’t know that I can help you.'”
Indeed, the bond money Romney authorized was never appropriated. Romney did not respond to two requests for comment.
Kalisz, who was mayor of New Bedford at the time, said the Romney administration had a “priorities issue.
“He would look at something and say it was positive, but in reality he didn’t have the money to fund it,” Kalisz said. “He said South Coast Rail was a project that should be approached, but there were other ones he liked better.”
Thomas remembers it similarly.
“A lot of state money was still tied up in the Big Dig because of the overruns,” he said. “Most of the other projects they would authorize money for but it would be much more money than they actually had, so the projects like South Coast Rail fell by the wayside.”
WHERE WE ARE NOW
Technically, all of the $1.3 billion that was authorized for South Coast Rail over the past 20 years could be appropriated at any time.
Those bills do not expire unless the Legislature votes to de-authorize them, which hasn’t happened.
But a governor deciding to appropriate a bond bill that was passed 18 years ago isn’t likely.
That’s why Montigny said the SouthCoast delegation continues to push for new bond bills, like the one for $2.2 billion currently in conference committee.
“By continuing to bring it to the floor, that’s a way of putting it back in their face,” Montigny said. “It shows we aren’t going to go away.”
Many advocates of South Coast Rail say that there are many reasons to believe that this particular bond bill actually will be spent.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Straus, D-Mattapoisett, said this bond bill’s promise is “closer to becoming a reality” than ever before.
He said the transportation budget bill passed by the Legislature last summer will be instrumental to South Coast Rail’s future. Though that bill did not include any appropriations or authorizations for the SouthCoast project, it changed the funding mechanism for the MBTA’s operating budget, funding the agency through new taxes instead of bonds.
That move will, over the next five years, free up the state’s bond capacity and allow the next governor to appropriate money for other transportation projects like South Coast Rail, Straus said.
“There is a momentum now that exists that didn’t previously and that’s because of the policies we have,” he said.
More than that budget bill, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently gave its approval of the Stoughton Route for the rail line. Though that approval now must also be approved by the EPA, it’s a step that was a long time coming.
“For years, we waited for the Army Corps to finish its work,” Straus said. “Yes, it’s unfortunate it didn’t happen until 2013, but that’s how environmental permitting can be.”
Jean Fox, South Coast Rail project director, agreed that now the project is “strategically in a new place.”
“We are continuing to advance, and the federal and state agencies agreeing on the route is a good example of that,” she said. “The old bond bills were relying on a gas tax from 1991. The fact that the Legislature has gone back and figured out the transportation budget, there is no question about it that this is a huge first.”
Still, if the history of South Coast Rail bond bills has taught anyone anything, it’s that the fate of the project really lies in the hands of the governor. Bond bills can be passed and signed, but it’s the governor and his staff who decide whether or not to actually spend the money.
Many agree that current Gov. Deval Patrick has been the most favorable to South Coast Rail. It was Patrick who sealed the deal to purchase the necessary tracks in 2008, and Patrick who urged the Legislature to have the MBTA operate on taxes and not bonds.
But Patrick only has nine more months in office, meaning the next governor has the power to derail the whole project.
“If Gov. Patrick were magically serving an additional term, then you’d know that what the Legislature has funded would be implemented,” Straus said. “But that’s not the case. The next governor could completely derail all this momentum.”
He encouraged residents to keep that fact in mind as they decide who to vote for in this fall’s gubernatorial election.
“The veto power absolutely rests in the governor’s office,” she said. “That’s why no bond bill is ever a done deal.”
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