Will it be electric buses for Chelsea or a one-seat train ride from Boston to the Berkshires?
The very notion of billions of new dollars in federal infrastructure funds — much of it geared for transit, rail, and electric vehicles — sets planners to daydreaming and politicians to promoting pet projects.
President Biden’s $2 trillion proposal hasn’t had a vote yet in Congress, but to hear some of the more powerful members of the delegation talk, it sounds as if the checks are already in the mail.
They aren’t — far from it — but that’s not to say Massachusetts shouldn’t be putting together that wish list of must-haves, nice-to-haves, and a “dream big” project just in case.
The dream big project the state’s congressional delegation seems to have settled on is East-West Rail — a shiny object of a transit plan that would carry passengers from Boston to Springfield and possibly beyond. Since the last regular passenger service ended in 2004, only one pokey Amtrak train a day has served the route. Part of its current appeal can be found in the political clout of House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, who represents most of western Massachusetts, and Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern, who represents Worcester — where the MBTA’s commuter rail now ends.
Sure, for years, the western part of the state has been neglected, while the South Coast commuter rail and Green Line Extension proceed apace. But geographic equity and political clout alone can’t make the case to prioritize a venture estimated at somewhere between $2.4 billion and $4.6 billion.
Federal dollars only fall out of the sky so often, and the state needs to carefully rank its priorities. Shoring up existing commuter rail lines and improving public transit in urban centers are among the competing needs. Far more backup will be needed than an “if we build it, they will come” promise of prosperity along the new corridor for East-West rail to top the list.
Now the president’s American Jobs Plan is still just that, a plan, not yet drafted into legislation. But it does promise $85 billion to “modernize existing transit and help agencies expand their systems to meet rider demand,” including “rail service to communities and neighborhoods across the nation.” Another section would set aside $80 billion for passenger and freight rail service, a large chunk for Amtrak, to improve existing service and to “connect new cities.”
So it’s easy to see why members of the state’s congressional delegation are starry-eyed about future funding for East-West Rail.
Representative Seth Moulton, newly arrived on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wants to go one better — promoting the notion of a high-speed rail line.
“If we could have a 25-minute ride from Boston to Springfield, that would be huge,” he told the Globe. “That would be transformative.
“And if you could get from Springfield to Chicago [via high speed Amtrak] in four hours that would be good for Boston and good for Chicago and even better” for cities in between, he added. “It’s a better policy choice for housing and for economic development.”
Even the most expensive option evaluated by the state in its East-West rail study comes nowhere close to the kind of speed Moulton is talking about.
Chris Dempsey, Director of the coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, is more focused on maintaining some of those must-haves. He estimated that based on traditional federal funding formulas, the state is likely to see about $3 billion in new federal funds from that $85 billion transit pot.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said in an interview. “It could be transformational for the MBTA in particular. But we’re not going to turn into Wakanda,” the futuristic fictional homeland of Marvel’s Black Panther.
The $174 billion proposed by Biden to advance the use of electrified vehicles, included replacing diesel buses with electric ones, could certainly be a boon to, say, Chelsea and communities where asthma rates are high.
Electrification of the Providence Line, Fairmount Line, and a portion of the Newburyport/Rockport Line — backed by the MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board in 2019, but estimated to cost more than $2 billion — might also qualify.
But when it comes to the transit section of the bill, “We’re still going to have to be thoughtful about making trade-offs,” Dempsey said. “We have to remember that any expansion means we’re also signing up for enormous operational costs.”
If the state does indeed go for East-West Rail, the new infrastructure bill is likely to provide “only a down payment on it,” he added.
In its latest report on the project issued this January, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation described a number of “next steps” — each a potential pitfall:
▪ It would require an agreement with freight rail operator CSX about using its rights-of-way for passenger lines. A complete separation of passenger from freight tracks adds $1.5 billion to the project.
▪ The current cost-benefit analysis (how many riders vs. total cost) would not qualify the project for federal funding. MassDOT said it will “work with the congressional delegation and other key stakeholders to advocate for changes to the cost-benefit analysis method to better capture all of the potential benefits. . . "
▪ What entity will govern and run this system is still unknown. “MassDOT does not have the capacity to operate as a railroad or to manage rail operations,” and the MBTA’s legislative mandate to operate ends in Worcester.
None of the problems are unsolvable, but none of the solutions will be easy. And key to making a sound economic decision will be a study that looks at changes in travel patterns, in work-life patterns (including a post-pandemic analysis), possibilities for housing and economic development along the new corridor. Those things truly matter and no smart politician should make a decision without knowing the answers.
MassDOT has committed to getting the answers, but as of its last report had “not yet identified either the state or federal funding to support such a study.”
That must be Step 1 for East-West Rail. The prospect of this much money coming from Washington calls for a statewide evaluation of where it can do the most good. That’s not sexy. It’s not a bright shiny object. It’s just common sense.
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