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?)

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

98 replies on “Regional Rail”

  1. Thanks for putting this together – there are many very good ideas in here. I’d also like to suggest one more that will have little to no cost that might also be of interest to large employers as a nice perk to families. Why not shift starting times for their workers? Allow working moms and dads some extra time in the AM to get the kids off to school and commute later. This would also help alleviate overcrowded trains in the morning and evening rush hours.

  2. Most of my views (including the lack of common sense, have already been written earlier. I’ll touch on them here:
    1) Much money has been wasted on modernizing stations and lengthening trains, adding video and audio announcements, non of which make the trains run any faster.
    2) Boston’s Green lines have the disadvantage of being very old with tight, noisy, twisty tracks and no third track to use when any breakdown occurs, blocking the single track.
    3) Bus service appears to very inefficient with “out of service” vehicles seen running routes with no passengers.
    4) Bus Schedules should have “DEPARTURE” times, not “arrivals”. When buses get to any particular point on their runs, they just leave earlier, possibly so drivers can get to the end of the line to get coffee.
    5) Bikes making wrong turns, driving thru red lights and stop signs and otherwise messing up traffic with no way to report them since they are not licensed and cannot be identified. Now the rental bikes are adding to this mix.
    6) Bike lanes are wasting tax payer money since they end when a roadway narrows and there is no place for them to go, except to mix in with motor vehicle traffic.

  3. Thank you will. I live in Belmont and I drive to Kendall square because the commuter rail doesn’t run frequently enough to work with my schedule of picking up kids. I love your long term vision, but there is a lot of low lying fruit. Increased service during rush hour times on commuter rail and add a commuter rail station to Kendall square! There are already tracks along Binney street and a space for a station. There was talk of building a station a few years ago, but NIMBY efforts in Cambridge port stifled the effort. Maybe now there is more will. Thank you for starting the conversation.

  4. Will: Thanks for the thoughts. I agree with the basic thrust of your analysis (including the desirability of the regional hub scenario over the other two options), but feel like the future is likely to surprise us almost no matter how good our analysis. So I’m moved to do some blue sky brainstorming about both what might happen without intervention, and other ways we could address transportation issues. I am not necessarily arguing for any of these ideas, just trying to help expand the conversation.

    + I note you didn’t mention self-driving cars in your list of possibilities. I’d think they’d make congestion worse but make people more tolerant of long commutes (both because they make driving easier). I could imagine both effects being weak or pretty strong; the strong end is a little scary.

    Related: an essay on car technology and its social implications from a while ago that I found thought-provoking: https://www.ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2017/3/20/cars-and-second-order-consequences

    + One thought I keep having is a cross between Uber/Lyft and a bus: I.e. a ride-sharing app which automatically plots a bus route based on requests from users. There would be both technical and economic challenges of such an app, but the result could be improved efficiency, congestion, and service. It’s not immediately clear that such a thing should be done by government, but busses are historically run by government, and I would imagine at least some of the same advantages would apply on the more flexible side.

    + I am continually frustrated with zoning issues around dense housing, but they make sense: The benefits of dense housing acrue to the region, but the deficits to the municipalities they are in, and the municipalities have the control. Any way to better incentivize denser housing from the state level?

    + Is there some way for the state to encourage Work-From-Home and coworking areas? I think of broadband deployments (good for other reasons) as well as zoning categories (though, again, that’s mostly municipal).

    + An obvious thought that you don’t mention explicitly is revamping tolls on the major roads to encourage ride sharing. This should probably be linked to efforts to make it easy for people to find rides to share–maybe a transportation website that people could register their commutes with?

    + I could imagine encouraging biking (more, and more protected, bike lanes, more partnering with bike-sharing companies, better ability to transport bikes on public transit, including during rush hour) to help solve the last mile problem.

    + I wonder about traffic structuring on the large highways to help even out load to reduce congestion. The areas of CA I visit have stop lights for entry onto the freeways that I presume are calibrated based on the traffic on the freeway; how much could one gain from smart analysis of traffic flows on the highway and limiting ingress in response?

  5. Will et al.,
    A vision is necessary to stop the destruction of downtown neighborhoods. The housing is unaffordable and getting worse not better. Developers and speculators are reaping big profits as the situation deteriorates. Hubs outside the central area with free high speed rail would open up affordable housing for those who have worked so hard and are priced out of the city they created. Hour plus drives on congested streets to get to low paying jobs is a cruel hardship. A major movement toward equity is necessary for all of us. Keep pushing for your vision of a solution.

  6. Thank you Senator for sharing a thoughtful vision for our transportation future. You’ve obviously given a lot of thought to this issue and described a compelling vision of a transportation future that could potentially benefit all Massachusetts residents. That said, I’m not convinced that making significant investments in regional rail is the best way to address the transportation issues your constituents face.

    First, I am concerned about the costs of developing a rail system. It is not difficult to point to recent examples of rail investments resulting in enormous per mile and (more importantly) per rider capital costs. To give just one example, the Green Line extension will cost $500 million per mile. Surely there are more cost effective ways to address congestion, improve accessibility, and incentivize economic development.

    What are those ways? The bus rapid transit improvements you’ve championed are a good start. Buses are much more cost effective than trains. Dedicated bus lanes can be established at the fraction of the cost of a rail line. Buses can be nice too. They can have wifi and be electric. If they run frequently enough, they needn’t be crowded. Perhaps most importantly, buses are far more flexible than fixed rail. A robust bus network can respond to changes in population and job growth in ways a rail network cannot. With advances in information technology dynamic demand-responsive bus routing is becoming increasingly feasible. Finally, while dedicated bus lanes are great on high frequency routes, on lower frequency longer distance routes, buses could share managed lanes (e.g., high occupancy toll lanes) with cars.

    This brings me to a second point – if your goal is to reduce congestion – pricing and other operational strategies can be used to manage demand, optimize existing capacity, and generate revenue to support efficient investments. It is possible to imagine a much “smarter” roadway system equipped with adaptive signals, dynamic electronic tolling, accurate traveler information systems, and improved incident management services that significantly more reliable and convenient for both auto and transit riders. A smarter roadway system will also bettter position Massachusetts should connected automated vehicles become the dominant mode of travel in the future, as appears increasingly likely.
    This is not to say that Massachusetts can’t do more to support rail ridership. However, here the place to start, as others have noted, is by addressing the massive maintenance backlog on our rail transit system and improving service frequency and reliability along dense corridors, not expanding capacity. This will be of far more benefit to your constituents than a regional rail network.

    Finally, I appreciate that your vision includes land use considerations. Its not an overstatement to say that there is a housing affordability crisis in the greater Boston area. While workers benefit from our strong regional economy, a significant portion of those benefits are captured by land owners who benefit from the artificial scarcity created by restrictive zoning laws managed to the benefit of a propertied elite. Creating greater density along existing transit routes through upzoning, transit-oriented development, and deregulation will allow our regional economy continue to grow by allowing workers to move closer to job growth areas. It will also allow workers, rather than capital owners, to benefit from that growth. Oh, and this strategy can also help address traffic congestion!
    I know I’ve written way too much and I appreciate your time. Many of the strategies could be applied concurrent with investments in a regional rail system. However, given funding constraints, it’s important that we have the right priorities and start with the most cost-effective, adaptable, and equitable strategies.

  7. Will, I love your on-going attention to the issue of transportation and I thank you for your efforts in that area. I think that rail planning for regional hubs makes a lot of sense. We can’t guarantee that “if you build it, they will come” but we can pretty much guarantee that if you don’t build it such development is much less likely. Infrastructure investments are a great approach to leveraging other investments. It is so hard to predict the future. Telecommuting is on the rise and its long-range impact is unknown on our commuting needs, and, I’m not convinced that the Lyft/Uber model of ride-sharing is as viable as everyone things. As the write-ups around Uber’s IPO reminded me this week, Uber is still significantly subsidizing the cost of its product and it’s not clear that they can ever turn a profit — especially if riders have to pay the full cost of the service. Strengthening public transportation — commuter rail, along with subways/light rail bus service (and that includes the RTAs around the state) — is more likely to bring us the long-term economic development throughout the Commonwealth that we desire.

  8. I think the vision of multiple economic/housing hubs served by rail makes sense. Also add quality of life factors into the equation. (1.) Thoughtful investments in K-12 and higher education in the multiple hubs; (2.) Investment/infrastructure to encourage cultural centers in the multiple hubs; (3.) Strategies to increase liveability of high-density neighborhoods, both rental and townhouse/condo. New construction should address issues of greenspace, outdoor space, high quality construction that includes soundproofing and smell/smoke barriers, and amenities for pets, bicycles, gardens and other factors that add to quality of life.

  9. All good thoughts. Most importantly, a strong desire to brainstorm an optimal decision.
    Fully agree that one big win can be a tunnel between North and South stations.
    Light rail is also important and the extension of Green Line into Cambridge is a good step. Unfortunately, MBTA’s operations are severely underfunded, their investment program is underfunded too. As a result, trains break all the time and reliability is low.
    Some suggestions:
    1. It is time to start re-thinking our communities. We have sleeper communities (like Belmont), where the ratio of jobs to residents is well below 1. Then, you have Boston, where the ratio jobs to residents is well above 1. Ideally, each town should be have a ratio of about 1. In other words, it should be commute flow neutral. The number of people entering the town to work there in the morning should be ~ the number of people that exit the town to work in another one.
    2. Telecommute. Granted, not all jobs can offer telecommute, but State should promote and make it really attractive to employers to allow employees to telecommute. Technologies allowing this are already mature and inexpensive.
    3. Think patterns. If one lives in Belmont and has to commute to Newton, using public transit is simply not an option – it will take hours to get there. Therefore, our Cambridge and Boston hubs are not enough to address the fact that there are too many nodes to connect.
    4. Bus service. I think that we need much more bus service, connecting many more nodes (hubs, towns etc.). Expanding MBTA may not be necessarily the most efficient approach. We need to think about public-private partnerships for certain lines. I don’t know enough about this, but I hear that MBTA has somehow negotiated exceptionally generous employment packages for its employees and this drains the financial resources rather quickly. A public-private partnership will not be hindered by such contracts and will have a much more market-based flavor. Obviously, part of MBTA’s subsidy will need to be shared with the private sector, but the State will have much stronger hand in such environment.
    5. One more thought on the bus service. During the morning and evening commute hours our buses seem to be the right size. However, for most of the day these buses are very empty. There should be a way to use more than one bus size, making it less expensive to operate with smaller ones. Or, alternatively, MBTA buses can handle the peak traffic hours, whereas private companies can nimbly handle the off-peak hours.

  10. Hi Will. As always, thanks for opening up these issues for discussion by the wider public. While I totally agree with the thrust of your arguments, the single largest issue will be financing of whatever is decided. The North-South rail connection should have been done when the Big Dig was underway, but false cost-saving arguments nixed that project and now we face a much more expensive fix; we need an effective lobby for public transport to offset the car/road building crowd!

    The primary focus has to be to upgrade the existing commuter rail system. For example, you cannot have level grade crossings on high-speed rail lines as we do in Belmont on the stretch between Porter Sq and Belmont; those roads have to either go under or over the rail line. The technologies already exist for high speed trains; one hour service or less between Springfield and Boston (it’s only 90 miles!!) with no stops is easily attainable. However, to increase capacity, and to differentiate between local trains (that stop at every station) and express services (that stop only once or twice on longer routes) may require a 4-track capacity to handle slow and fast trains safely. More money….

    The issue will be the will to execute whatever is decided in a timely fashion. The current MBTA and Mass DOT managers look at taking 20 years to do something that needs (and can be done) in much less time. We need more proactive thinking at the top, and this may require new “can-do” blood.

    One last suggestion/thought. Back in the 1980s when the Red Line was extended to Alewife, the original intent was to extend that line through Arlington, Lexington to Bedford. That line is now a bike path, but maybe it should be part of the Red Line offering commuters reasonably reliable rail service from west of Rt 128 into the city?

    Thanks again for holding this discussion.

    1. You are right about MassDot and MBTA. They should not be making the transportation decisions. the people should. They should just carry out the wishes of the people.The old saying the fish rots at the head.

  11. I like this forum. it seems well represented.
    I like the idea of increasing rail to perimeter cities. Maby a test could be funded that doubles or triples the frequency of existing rail to Worcester to measure if use increases. I realize that a short test would not result in long term development, but it might test if people can be enticed out of their cars. I am not so sure. Unfortunately smart phones make car commuting more desirable than the non smart phone era.

  12. I overall am very supportive of the thoughts in this post. We need a more robust public transit system in the Boston area, and investment in regional rail is certainly an important step in that direction.

    The only concepts I would like to add are the following:

    1) We need more regional connections that do not pass through downtown Boston

    One of the biggest frustrations with trying to use public transit in Boston is the lack of routes which connect communities without passing through Boston. For example, I live in Melrose/Wakefield and work in Cambridge. It’s a 30 minute car ride, and 40-50 minute bike ride and a one-hour-fifteen minute mass transit ride with 3 transfers. So I drive, in a single occupancy vehicle during commute hours. I would prefer a mass-transit option, but there are no direct or semi-direct routes.

    Investment in transit should look to increase the number of direct point-to-point connections between city and town centers to turn the transit network into more of a grid-mesh and less of a radial-spoke shape.

    2) Buses routes need significant investment

    I’ve had significant frustration trying to use the MBTA bus system. There are significant, zero-cost and low-cost opportunities to improve the bus system.

    For example, buses often do not align with train arrivals at stations. I use the oak-grove station and I frequently find that the bus that I need to take will leave as the train arrives. This happens at multiple stations, and it prevents me from being able to rely on a bus as my last-mile option despite the fact that the bus basically goes to my house. This issue can be addressed by improving schedule timing and altering policy and training. This is a very low-hanging investment in culture optimization.

    Additionally, the bus system tends to run schedules that are incompatible with using the bus system. They aren’t anywhere near frequent enough. The transit schedules also assume that everyone just leaves Boston for work and goes straight home. If I go out for an evening, I tend to rely on a ride-share to get home instead of transit because the buses basically stop running.

    This can also be addressed in a budget friendly manner by optimizing the routes which are used, trimming low use routes and improving scheduling around actual modern commute times.

    3) We should be deeply skeptical of ride-sharing

    The issue with cars as a transit solution is one of geometry. People in cars take up a lot of space, which is the source of congestion issues. Ride-sharing fundamentally does not improve the person-density of cars. In practice it greatly reduces the geometric efficiency of cars since the drive spends at least a fraction of the time dead-heading, during which time it is a zero occupancy vehicle on the road.

    Combined the above, ride-sharing companies are deeply unprofitable and will need to raise prices in the future to stay in business. This means that ride-sharing will lose considerable market share in the future. We should be deeply skeptical of a vision of transportation that relies on ride-sharing as a pillar.

    Thank you Senator for focusing on this issue.

  13. I heard recently that the poor that are leaving Boston can’t even afford to live Brockton. They are forced to move to Fall River or New Bedford. It is my understanding that there are no jobs in those cities. If rail enabled those cities to be connected to Boston, would that simply give people a way to commute to Boston or create jobs in Fall River and New Bedford? I tend to think the former.

  14. Personal Comments on Thought Piece about Regional Rail and the Future of Transportation in Massachusetts

    Martyn Roetter, May 15, 2019


    Improved public transit of which regional rail is a component is essential under any plausible traffic scenario if the problems and associated consequences of the congestion and pollution caused by continued reliance on passenger vehicles, both privately owned and on demand, are to be tackled successfully. Improvements in public transit services include better coverage, higher frequency of service, and affordability at the point of service for residents at many different levels of income.

    Achieving these improvements will require substantial additional investments from the public sector than are currently planned. These investments will likely prove to be politically unacceptable unless there is an effective messaging program to convince voters of their feasibility and benefits. This program will have to overcome a strong bias and skepticism towards the ability of the public sector to ensure that initiatives of this scope can be implemented and managed effectively and efficiently. These attitudes have been nourished by well–funded, persistent and powerful anti-government propaganda over the past several decades,


    The issue of transportation, and public transit services in particular, is intrinsically and unavoidably bound up with politics and with the fundamental questions of how we choose to allocate our resources within and across the public and private sectors, and how we design consciously or otherwise the structures and layouts of our communities. These choices determine implicitly or explicitly the relationships (physical and otherwise) between our places of work, where we live, and the other locations to which we wish and need to travel. Despite the advent of, and the amount of time we devote to the cyberworld and online activities, nevertheless location, distances, and the time required or conditions of mobility in moving from point A to point B do still matter .

    The challenge is how to make it as easy as possible for people – individually and in various groups, with varying amounts of “things” they want or have to bring along – to get to where they need and/or want to go (and return from) as comfortably, economically, and safely as possible, with minimum negative consequences for the environment (e.g. in terms of pollution), within a reasonable period of time, and in different weather conditions.

    Justification for Regional Rail Systems

    Assumptions about future traffic patterns are always problematic and open to questions, like any future forecasts. However, my own feeling is that in this case the need to do something substantial about public transit services is already obvious (noting the observable levels and frequency of congestion on the roads and the amount of automobile-generated pollution) so that there is no need to dwell on trying to construct alternative plausible scenarios or critique assumptions exhaustively.

    There are only two ways to combat congestion on the roads, namely to reduce the numbers of cars and to reduce the numbers of trips made in the cars that are based in or regularly used to travel to and from and within the Boston regions. Expanded use of public transit is central to achieving both goals, by making it possible for people, individually and in groups, to travel where and when they wish in conditions that convince them to forego owning an automobile, or for some trips to take public transit in preference to driving their own vehicle or calling for Uber/Lyft or a taxi.

    In the case of the Boston region, improved regional rail service (coverage, frequency, reliability, comfort, affordability at point of service) should and must play a significant role in this endeavor. But how much will this cost, how will it be paid for, and how can enough members of the public or voters be convinced that the expenditures are worthwhile especially if they will personally be paying directly for some portion of them?

    Who Pays and How?

    Decision making, notably the choices made and the priorities given to investments in alternative modes of transport, which vary significantly between countries, are subject to the impact of diverse cultural attitudes, institutional traditions and pressures from influential interest groups.

    In the US, including Massachusetts, decisions about transportation have been and continue to be influenced by the widespread and growing suspicion of Government, encapsulated in the notorious quote from President Reagan about the nine most terrifying words in the English language being, “I’m from the Government and I’m here to help.” The outcome since WW2 has been the favoritism shown in investment towards the private automobile and highways as compared to passenger rail. A pervasive cultural attitude in the US tends to emphasize individual autonomy and individual rights even at the expense of the needs of a community which require attention to others’ rights as well as any individual’s, which necessarily involve recognizing and acting upon obligations towards others. This attitude is sometimes manifested in behavior to the point of in(s)anity, e.g. the anti-vaccination movement which neglects to take into account the serious and even fatal consequences of its members’ individual decisions for the health of many other people with whom they come into contact. Extreme individualism also works in fuelling opinions against investment in public transit if perceived as providing no direct benefit to some groups or individuals who are nevertheless expected or would be required to contribute to its costs. I would argue that we all benefit if congestion – and pollution – are reduced, even if we personally would not make much if any use of new regional rail services. But if this message is to have a positive impact a view of our community obligations is required that often seems to clash with the extreme individualism that has come to dominate public discourse (perhaps I am being too harsh in the context of Massachusetts, but in the broader US context which affects the allocation of federal funds this is a significant factor).

    In the US we have been trapped in a vicious cycle of poor, often deteriorating public transit services and facilities which in turn sap public enthusiasm for committing additional resources to expanding and improving it. When efforts are made to point out the benefits and potential of a better public transit system by drawing on foreign examples, such as by presenting unfavorable comparisons between the state of passenger rail service in the US and elsewhere, they tend to be dismissed as irrelevant or invalid because “it’s different here,” either because of geography and population densities, and/or because these other countries are subject to the kind of regime (e.g. “socialist”) that Americans reject.

    So if there are to be substantial additional investments in regional rail in Massachusetts, for which there is significant justification, then there needs to be an effective and creative messaging program to convince voters of the value of the purpose behind them and the benefits they will provide, for Boston and for other parts of the Commonwealth . The outcome of a referendum in 2018 in Nashville, which rejected a plan for expanded and improved public transit, is a sobering reminder of the challenges involved (see Appendix), as was the rejection by Massachusetts voters of an automatic or indexed increase in the state’s gasoline tax, which was last raised (I believe) in 2013.

    While of course the US as a whole has the resources to pay for projects such as a game changing regional rail investment in Massachusetts, and indeed in other areas in the country, it is regrettably unrealistic to expect any creative initiative or willingness to provide support from the Federal Government in the current toxic and dysfunctional climate in Washington.

    So creativity and ingenuity in both content and presentation of the cost/benefit equation to mitigate and overcome the opposition that can be expected will be required if any substantial regional rail projects are to go ahead.

    I have noted the latest estimate that the MBTA will require $10 billion to get to a point of providing reasonable service without any additional expansion. Presumably we should be thinking about additional sums beyond this amount, of the same or even greater magnitude, to pay for the North Station-South Station link and other projects.

    I do not have any comprehensive ideas about how or where to find the money. But I suppose it will have to come from some mix of taxes and fees on selected services, sale of bonds, and contributions from the private sector who will benefit sometimes directly (e.g. developers whose properties will increase in value if residents and workers there have easy access to public transit) and in many more cases less directly because they can recruit and keep staff who see that their commutes will not be impossibly lengthy and/or unreliable.

    Appendix –The Nashville Public Transit Referendum

    In May 2018, Nashville voters decisively rejected a plan to pay for a $5.4 billion mass transit system that would have included a new light rail system, expanded bus routes and the building of a downtown underground tunnel. A well-financed anti-transit lobby contributed to this result, but it would be misleading to ascribe the failure of support for the plan only to the “usual suspects,” such as automobile manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry. In the event a combination of political and individual perspectives from across the political spectrum ended up in opposition. Every African-American candidate running for mayor at the time came out against the proposal.
    The plan would have increased taxes to build a 26-mile (42-kilometer) light rail system on five major corridors, and to upgrade to the city bus system and the tunnel. A sales tax increase, along with a rise in hotel, business and rental car taxes would have paid for the system. Capital costs of the project were projected at $5.4 billion, but the total cost was about $9 billion with added debt and maintenance costs. All the funding was to be locally generated, with nothing from the Federal Government, which may have contributed to opposition.

  15. We need to rethink the term “rail”. Nothing has substantially changed with rail in the last century with the exception of fuel source. Diesel replacing coal. Still have infrequent trains with locomotives pulling passenger cars with conductors with tickets and ticket punches. We need to rethink the “train”. I seen these futuristic automated 8 passenger jpods even concept models like the bay state
    sun way fully automated solar powered mini monorail vehicles. This is the direction we need to go. The old traditional train is just not going to cut it in the next century. Stop thinking Boston centrist. From first hand experience I seen tech abandoning the city in droves because the transportation is (along with other things) is just plain inadequate and is fully built out. Not much thought is given to smart retraction. Everyone is saying growth, no one is saying mature sustainable size. We should be focusing on our final size after we grow up and how we can maintain our livable size.

  16. Mathematic experts are dedicated to crunching the numbers for the state of MA budget. I claim no expertise in the field. My question addresses reasonable expectations for state support of individuals’ life styles.
    I understand that people with limited income often work in the city where there are more jobs with a broader skill set requirement including unskilled positions with lower wages. The housing market in Boston and contiguous towns, both homes and apartments, is higher priced than most MA municipalites. These employees often must commute to distant areas where they can afford to live. This involves automobile travel with its known profound economic burden or mass transit (if their homes are accessible by the T, etc.) Those individuals should receive significant transportation support in the form of refunds or lower cost T passes.
    My concern is that many individuals who work in the Boston metropolitan area hold jobs paying much higher salaries. They choose to live in the outlying municipalities for a different demographic, better schools, the bucolic loveliness as well as housing that is lower in cost. I believe those individuals should not demand that better service on the MBTA be funded by the state with no expectation of their own increased contributions.
    In my childhood home of Baltimore long ago, people lived at the level of their means. I took the public bus to school across town unaccompanied from the age of 9 years. On the few occasions when I lost my dime, I had to go without lunch and beg to borrow a dime to get home. Once again I ask that people take the broad view of the rest of the world where there is no transportation. Children walk miles on dirt or no roads to get to and from school.

  17. Has anyone ever looked into using water taxis on the Charles to help ease traffic congestion?

  18. “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.”—
    OR, is ride sharing a chimera, as once-upon-a-time, was adding super highway lanes. “If you build it, they will come.” If some join ride share, others will find that less congestion makes driving solo attractive. Further, urban communities are finding more congestion from the drivers of ride services.
    Really, are congestion/emission tolls the one suggestion to upset the high congestion balance—drive solo versus transit. Incredibly more comfortable, timely, and fast commuter rail financed by road tolls could affect commuter choice. Yet, how can the conflict be avoided: the car, with all its history of the advertising of “freedom of the road” and “See the USA in your Chevrolet”, almost an unconscious impetuous to conflict over transit funding.

  19. Great conversation here, Will. Thank you for initiating it.

    One thing I’d like to see discussed is a westward extension of the Blue Line. The current Blue Line ends as a downtown stub, which strikes me as a huge waste of potentially beneficial infrastructure. Extending the Blue Line westward would provide any number of benefits. It would provide a direct connection between the Red Line and the Blue Line at Park St. Station. It would provide a heavy rail alternative to augment the overtaxed Green Line both in the Back Bay and downtown. It would provide much-needed rail service to the West Fenway and the Longwood Medical/MASCO areas, both of which are burgeoning economically and demographically, but remain pitifully underserved by MBTA rail service. At Brookline Village, the Blue Line could easily connect to the current “D” Line tracks and continue all the way to Riverside Station, just shy of Route 128. It’s hard to overstate the regional impact of a one-seat train ride connecting Route 128 to the densest parts of Boston, then directly to Logan Airport and to parts beyond. It would be truly transformative.

    The costs would be large, but they would be mitigated by the fact that much of this infrastructure already exists. Examples include the Blue Line tunnel under Boston Harbor, the rail rights of way to Logan and northward, and the rail rights from Brookline Village to Riverside. The tunnel connecting Government Center Station to Park St., the Back Bay, the West Fenway, and the Longwood Medical Area would be expensive to build, but I have heard Ken Kruckmeyer and others speak of new boring technologies that make constructing rail tunnels much cheaper and more efficient than in the past. The positive impacts of this project would be enormous, since the Blue Line Extension would serve both the city and the surrounding region admirably.

    Other cities are making projects like this happen. Shanghai has expanded its subway service from zero lines in 1990 to a total of sixteen today. Mexico City has built twelve metro lines since the 1970s. London is another notable example. Bright minds there figured out how to integrate decrepit above ground rail infrastructure into the innovative (and useful) “Overground” service. Currently, they’re constructing the massive “Crossrail” project which will introduce high-speed east-west underground rail service in Central London as early as 2021.

    Boston has no shortage of bright minds. It would be great to see some of them embrace visionary transit projects like these. A plan for a Blue Line extension seems like a good place to start.

  20. I would absolutely never include Lyft or Uber in a list of reliable transport. These are springing up in default of decent affordable public transportation, and are not a green sustainable model (- unless they all become electric).

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