Joseph A. Boncore
State senator, Winthrop Democrat, Senate chairperson of the Joint Committee on Transportation
Connecting the Commonwealth is critical to our economic survival, a fact that becomes even clearer as our businesses struggle under the weight of the pandemic. East-West rail, the proposed expansion of MBTA commuter rail to Western Massachusetts, will provide new opportunities for the entire state. Investing in East-West rail will improve access to jobs and housing while reducing congestion and the environmental impact of driving.
Our Commonwealth faces a traffic congestion crisis, and Western Massachusetts is not immune. Over the last decade, traffic numbers on the Massachusetts Turnpike have grown at a rate higher than forecasted, leaving afternoon commutes tangled in traffic. Congestion on a stretch of Interstate 91 in Springfield can be up to twice normal volume in the 4 p.m. hour. This congestion creates inconsistent commutes, impacts personal finances, and reduces access to services.
Apart from driving to Worcester to board a commuter train -- a trek many Springfield and Pittsfield area residents make each day -- there are limited transportation options for Western Massachusetts commuters. The only rail service into Boston west of Worcester is Amtrak’s intercity line, which runs once a day and has poor on-time performance. There are also private bus lines, but they offer limited service that has not increased in nearly a decade.
The need to connect workers from the west with jobs in the east is critical during this moment of economic uncertainty. Further, as the east struggles with some of the nation’s highest housing costs, a western connection opens the state’s housing market. East-West rail makes Western Massachusetts an affordable and attractive place to live, while serving as an economic boon to the state.
East-West rail is not only feasible, but a necessary expansion of our transit system. Even with minor investment, we can connect the Berkshires’ beauty to the east’s economic engine with approximately four-hour train service. And with more investment, we can do even better: We should prioritize frequency and access with the understanding that as commuter options grow, so will ridership. The Commonwealth is neither unfamiliar with large transportation projects, nor the economic success that follows. East-West rail is an investment we must make in our Commonwealth.
Director of Research of the Beacon Hill Institute, which is based in Medway
In 2018, the state commissioned a consultant to conduct a study on the feasibility of an East-West rail-link. The proposed rail link would allow passengers to travel from Boston to Springfield or potentially further west to Pittsfield.
Western Massachusetts is dramatically underserved in terms of passenger train travel. As of today, the state’s westernmost commuter rail stations are in Worcester and Fitchburg. The MBTA and other state entities should unquestionably explore new ways to expand public transit for western Massachusetts and other underserved areas. But as preliminary data recently released from the study shows, the costs of the proposals put forth drastically outweigh the benefits, with estimated price tags ranging from about $2 billion to nearly $25 billion.
It is unclear exactly how the proposed plan would be financed or how long the plan would take to complete. Thus far, the state has not arrived at any consideration for financing the plan. Officials are reportedly evaluating different alternatives, but they have not been revealed yet.
Under the cheapest East-West railway link option proposed so far -- the $2 billion plan -- the Department of Transportation has estimated the service would attract a measly 36 daily riders. Even if underestimated, the increase in ridership would not nearly be enough to justify the hefty price tag of the plan. While an expansion of the MBTA would undoubtedly provide benefits through new cheaper and more convenient commuting options for workers and a reduction in roadway congestion, they will be severely outweighed by the substantial costs of even the smallest proposal.
The Department of Transportation needs to address the current situation faced by the MBTA, including a variety of issues such as time delays, overcrowding, and more recently undercarriage problems. In addition, the MBTA already faces issues covering its pension fund, with over $2.91 billion in liabilities and only $1.45 billion in reported assets, the Globe reported last June. According to the MBTA’s fiscal 2020 budget, it had a structural deficit of $36.5 million.
Easily accessible and affordable rail services are a significant issue facing the state’s economy. Lawmakers need to prioritize their policies to reflect the realities concerning actual utilization of proposed railway links.
This is not a scientific survey. Please vote only once.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact email@example.com.