Budgeting for the transformation of commuter rail

The Gateway Cities Journal

MassDOT’s Rail Vision team presented a long awaited set of scenarios for the transformation of commuter rail at a joint MBTA/MassDOT board meeting this week. Their analysis provides more information about what it would take to run trains every 15 minutes to urban centers all throughout the day. It also gave us a sense of what it might cost.

Before we unpack this figure, it’s important to appreciate the magnitude of the vision. Fifteen minute headways are the Holy Grail. If people can count on a train to show up and get them where they need to be without a long wait, transit becomes a viable option for many more travelers. Real estate markets take notice and mixed-use development concentrates around stations. The end result is a cluster of smaller cities tapped into the global economic center that Boston has become. Rather than Boston sucking in all of the economic energy with an insatiable thirst, a symbiotic relationship forms. The entire metropolitan area is more productive and globally competitive. Growth is more geographically balanced; economic inequality is less pronounced.

Under Secretary Pollack’s leadership, MassDOT has invested substantial time and energy trying to figure out what it would take to transform commuter rail into the regional rail network needed to make this vision a reality. It’s a complex question and the project team is clearly struggling to figure out the best way to tackle it. The information they presented to the board this week was a minor breakthrough in terms of offering us a ballpark estimate of what kind of resources this effort will require.

For roughly $30 billion, Gateway Cities would get trains every 15 minutes all throughout the day. South Station would expand and North Station would also see significant improvements to accommodate all of this new traffic. Riders coming in from the west would have a direct route to Kendall Square via the Grand Junction spur across the Charles River. Stations would have high-level boarding platforms, making trains accessible to all and significantly reducing the time it takes passengers to enter and exit at each stop. And of all of the diesel engines would be replaced with far cleaner and much more reliable Electric Multiple Units.

Gateway City leaders and all of those who appreciate the urgent need to connect Gateway Cities to the vitality of the state’s growing knowledge economy must understand how this resource requirement compares with the transportation revenue debate picking up steam on Beacon Hill. Yesterday Governor Baker filed an $18 billion transportation bond bill to fund projects in the Capital Plan through 2025. The legislation directs $400 million “for improvements to the Commuter Rail system, including early-action implementation of recommendations from the ongoing Rail Vision planning process” and another $400 million for South Station expansion.

This math puts us on pace to spend approximately $200 million a year on commuter rail improvements (which is not that much different from the system’s recent annual capital investment program). The rail vision resource requirement is in the range of $1.5 billion per year over a 20 year period. With the discussion around how we meet the state’s larger transportation needs heating up, it’s time to start budgeting for the cost of truly transforming commuter rail.

Farewell note: This the last issue of the Gateway Cities Journal prepared by Rachel Adele Dec. Rachel is heading off to the University of Chicago to study public policy. We thank her for all of the great work and wish her well in future endeavors.


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