I am increasingly convinced that the state should make a massive investment in upgrading its regional rail network, well above and beyond the necessary maintenance investments. The conversation about that possible investment is happening at multiple levels. No decision is imminent and there are many uncertainties to struggle with, but I’m interested in starting to get feedback from my constituents.
The Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation identified two fundamental uncertainties about our future: First, how fast will new ride-sharing technologies be embraced and how far will that trend go? New ways to organize shared transportation could help reduce congestion.
Second, how will expected residential and commercial development unfold across the state? We can conceptualize three scenarios: It could be concentrated in and around Boston; it could be concentrated in multiple hubs across the state; or it could sprawl across cities, suburbs and rural areas.
Upgraded regional rail could encourage the multiple hub scenario. Currently we have very limited regional rail service connecting Boston to surrounding cities – Framingham, Worcester, Lowell, Fitchburg, etc. We are building a connection to New Bedford and Fall River. There is talk of a connection further west to Springfield. If we completed those connections and were able to provide faster and more frequent service, more of the cities in the state could perhaps share in the vibrant growth we are currently experiencing in and around Boston and Cambridge.
Here are the reasons why the multiple connected hub vision for our future and the related regional rail investment may make sense for Massachusetts:
First, Massachusetts, especially Boston and its surrounding communities, is expected to continue to grow over the next couple of decades. That growth may accelerate through the coming century. The likely impact of climate change is to drive population north, both within the United States and across our borders. Southern states are becoming hotter and more vulnerable to extreme weather. Harsh Massachusetts winters are becoming milder. Our world-class academic and health care institutions and biomedical community give us sustainable advantages and unless we make bad mistakes, we are likely to remain attractive.
Second, density is generally more efficient than sprawl. If jobs and residences are both widely dispersed, then people have to commute from everywhere to everywhere, and it is harder to share rides. Public transit will be less cost-effective and so will technology-enabled ride-sharing services. Most use of Uber and Lyft currently occurs in the inner core of Greater Boston, the same area served well by public transportation.
Third, density helps advance a vibrant knowledge economy. While telecommuting is easier than ever, it appears that biotech and other knowledge businesses still want to cluster in places that support a continuous face-to-face exchange of ideas. And many who work in knowledge businesses are drawn to residential living in walkable urban areas.
Yet, fourth, there are limits to how much density is desirable. Not everyone wants to live on Manhattan; some people want to hear birds in the morning. And our Massachusetts communities are older and not laid out for unlimited density. Continually increasing density within the urban core would require the destruction and redevelopment of existing neighborhoods and communities. Further, while walking, biking, shared rides and better public transportation can somewhat alleviate congestion, we are already seeing unacceptable congestion in many areas — I doubt we can count on transportation changes so effective as to both alleviate congestion and support unlimited growth in the urban core.
A multi-hub model offers the possibility of efficient density while not forcing over-congestion in the urban core around Boston. If regional rail is good enough, the other hubs will be able to “borrow scale,” to be an extension of the concentrated knowledge economy that exists in Boston. Biotech businesses that are tired of the congestion in Cambridge and Waltham will locate in, for example, Lowell, but maintain vibrant connection with inner core collaborators. People who want lower density will have the option of living around smaller hubs rather than enduring long-distance commutes to the core of Boston.
Additionally, if all of our economy sits in coastal Boston, we are more vulnerable to the possibility of increased flooding due to sea-level rise. I am hopeful that we will get carbon under control within a few decades, but creating the possibility of long-term diversification to higher elevations appears prudent, given our global failure to control the rise of emissions.
The north-south rail link is an important part of the multi-hub vision. Currently, the core of Boston sits at the center of radial transit connections and so is uniquely privileged as a location for development. Other hubs can now only connect to Boston. While circumferential rail on 128 or 495 is often dreamt of, there are huge challenges to making that happen. A connection between North and South Stations would allow new through connections between multiple hubs.
It is entirely possible that the multi-hub model will never be realized, that many of the possible hubs will forever be perceived as too inconvenient to densely develop. A whole range of factors need to come together for the successful creation of business clusters. But even if it turns out that Boston and Cambridge remain the uniquely vibrant center of our economy, regional rail is necessary to make Boston and surrounding communities more livable by reducing commuter congestion.
There is no question that reducing congestion depends on persuading people not to drive alone. But there is some debate about whether ride sharing (in cars or vans) or mass transit or some combination is the best long-term solution. I do not believe that there will be a universal solution — the solution has to depend on the particular region. But in greater Boston, the way forward seems clear: We have a rich existing network of rail and subway connections and very finite road capacity. We need to make the fullest possible use of the rail and subway network, increasing the carrying capacity of both. Of course, we also want to improve bus service and explore partnerships with shared-ride services to provide “last-mile” service.
There are important equity reasons for improving the rail network. In the scenario where development remains concentrated in Boston and congestion continues to increase because neither ride-sharing nor mass transit expands enough to absorb the growth, people with higher incomes will find their own solutions. They will price current residents out of the walkable, subway-served heart of Boston. And/or they will structure their lives so as to do their work at home and minimize commuting. People working in lower income service and labor roles will not have those options and will be increasingly forced to endure long and inconvenient commutes. We see these trends underway already. If we can build regional rail and ignite alternative hub development, we will need to assure that some of that development does, in fact, include affordable housing. Otherwise people with lower incomes will be continue to pushed out to more remote suburbs where their transit options and access to other services is limited.
Bottom line: Regional rail seems like the way to seed a multi-hub development pattern that will be more sustainable over the very long term. It also seems like an important strategy towards combating congestion even if our economic growth remains concentrated around Boston.
MassDOT has already initiated a Rail Vision Study. The Rail Vision team is trying to understand very specifically the rail network that already exists and the mechanics of expanding it in different ways. Towards the end of this year, that process will define some options and some order of magnitude costs associated with them.
The challenge will be to begin to move in the right direction with initial investments that offer the highest returns and the lowest project risks. It is neither intellectually honest nor politically feasible to commit to a single gigantic regional rail plan, but I hope we can reach consensus around first steps that are clearly sensible and roughly consistent with the longer term vision sketched here.
I think that there is a lot of upside for the district that I represent: Belmont, Watertown, Brighton, Fenway and Back Bay all stand to gain from improved rail connections. They are all residential sources of commuters; they are all the location of businesses to which people commute; and they are all cut-through communities for drivers who might be enticed to use higher quality rail. My hope is that the Rail Vision analysis will demonstrate clear feasibility and value for the urban elements of the regional rail vision, the elements that will bring better service to my communities.
There is a lot to talk about here — I’d especially welcome comments questioning my implicit or explicit assumptions.
Additional Thoughts, May 13, 2019
I am very grateful to all who have weighed in here. I have read all of the comments carefully from front to back. Some of them express concerns about my thinking. Some of them comment conflict with each other. I agree with all of the comments in the following sense: they all raise valid issues that we have to grapple with as we peer into the future. Having all of these thoughts together in one thread is great. Thanks again to all.
Just a couple of thoughts to underline.
- This post was not intended to cover everything we need to do about transportation, just to propose one element. There are many other critical elements.
- I especially agree with the “Fix it first” philosophy — reaching a state of good repair and increasing capacity on the core subway elements of the MBTA is the top priority.
- A few commenters emphasized increasing service frequency as an alternative to what I am advocating. But really, increasing service frequency would require substantial investment. That is what regional rail is really about — for the most part, it is not about entirely new connections.
- We should be more explicitly joining the conversation about state transportation investments together with the conversation about state involvement in local land use decisions. One useful resource identified by a reader was this one: Mitigating Climate Change Through Transportation and Land-use Policy — useful over view of possible strategies (should we be mandating zoning that permits increased density along rail lines?)