Imagine this: High-speed rail via Worcester and Springfield that whisks passengers to Western Massachusetts in a matter of minutes, to New York City within an hour. Sound impossible? It’s not. And who better than Governor-elect Charlie Baker to initiate it?
Baker downplayed his role in conceiving and implementing the Big Dig during the campaign. He shouldn’t. The long bend of history will prove that the investment was well worth it — even with the spiraling costs and problems with construction. The submerging of the interstate has helped to transform our city and its access to the harbor, launching the Innovation District, and rebooting downtown.
The new Boston-New York rail connection should be the crown jewel of an ambitious Baker administration transportation plan. Transportation is the one policy area that will have the most transformative effect on the state’s economy, growth, and job creation. From projects large to small, investments made to improve existing, or build new, infrastructure will bring the biggest rewards. (Disclosure: My law firm has represented the state Department of Transportation.)
Case in point: Just the whiff of news that the MBTA was extending the Green Line into Somerville and Medford caused housing prices to spike over the last five years by 37 and 25 percent respectively compared to 9 percent statewide, according to the real estate website Zillow. As one Somerville real estate agent told the Globe Magazine, “[Y]ou could put a cardboard outhouse near a Green Line stop, and there’d be a bidding war.”
Then there’s the project to straighten the Massachusetts Turnpike, which will result in 60 to 65 fresh new acres to develop in Allston — close to Harvard, MIT, Kendall Square, and virtually every transit corridor. Or, as former Transportation Secretary Richard Davey calls it, an “innovation district on steroids.”
Another game-changer? The expansion of South Station — now appropriately named for former Governor Michael Dukakis, himself a tireless advocate of public transit.
That project would accomplish several goals at once: It would free up prime real estate for development, and it would unlock a neighborhood or two along Dorchester Avenue — essentially stretching the Fort Point Channel’s waterfront from South Boston well into Dorchester. The expansion could also eventually serve to accommodate an Olympic bid requirement for greater transportation bandwidth.
All of these ambitions, however, will require Baker’s leadership, especially when it comes to financing them. Launching new capital investments of any scale has only become harder with November’s repeal of future gas tax increases, which will remove up to $2 billion from state budgets over the next 10 years. And despite wishful thinking, it doesn’t appear that Beacon Hill will pass new revenue measures any time soon.
And some see investments made in transportation infrastructure as gentrifying forces that price out the poor. Yes, that might happen. But the trick to creating more housing — affordable and otherwise — is to create more housing, not limit progress by stopping transit projects. When the state builds transit, the city must respond with density — not single family homes at the rail terminus as we’ve seen in places like Hyde Park.
In recent interviews, Baker has said his early priority is the growing opiate addiction epidemic. That’s an important issue, to be sure (the state’s recent success with social impact bonds illustrates an excellent route to go). Other observers might suggest his administration tackle education or human services. And, in fact, a strong state government must successfully implement many different initiatives all at once in order to be effective.
Indeed, the new governor will have plenty of projects on his plate come January. Let’s hope, however, that figuring out a rail plan to get Bostonians to New York within an hour is among the first out of the gates.
Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.