Poll: Massachusetts residents support major changes to rail service, restructuring fares

Residents see opportunities to expand rail overall, improve the Commuter Rail system, and show interest in Gateway Cities development possibilities this could unlock

Massachusetts residents support major changes to the Commuter Rail system and several ways to pay for them, according to a new poll from The MassINC Polling Group. The survey, which was conducted with input from MPG’s parent think-tank MassINC, was funded by the Barr Foundation.

Three-quarters of residents statewide support moving the commuter rail towards a “regional rail” model, with more frequent service to and from Boston throughout the day, at night, and on weekends (see figure). Majorities also support other significant rail projects, including electrifying the system (84%), extending rail to Western Massachusetts and the South Coast (76% each), and building the North South Rail Link (81%).

Majorities of residents think shifting the commuter rail towards a regional rail model would likely increase train ridership (85%), decrease traffic congestion (80%) and greenhouse gas emissions (69%), and spread jobs to places along the rail lines beyond Boston (80%).

“Residents seem to appreciate the potential of this the rail system to do more than it does right now,” said Steve Koczela, President of The MassINC Polling Group. “They see rail as part of the solution to other problems, too: congestion, climate, and economic development outside Boston.”

Residents also support tapping several potential revenue sources to pay for regional rail. These include contributions from real estate development near rail stations (71%), the so-called Fair Share surtax on income over $1 million (61%), regional ballot initiatives (52%), and the Transportation Climate Initiative currently being discussed by Massachusetts and other northeast states (67%).

But majorities oppose asking riders or drivers to pay more to fund the project through higher fares (67% opposed), parking fees (64%), congestion charges (58%), or raising the state’s gas tax (68%). Half of residents think current Commuter Rail fares are too high, and majorities strongly support lowering fares across the board (58%) and offering discounts to low-income and off-peak riders (52% each).

“Our research has found evidence that high commuter rail fares are discouraging low- and middle- income residents from riding, and that lower fares might bring new riders,” said Dr. Tracy Corley, MassINC’s research fellow for Transit-Oriented Development. “It’s encouraging to know that the public sees the problem posed by high fares and supports doing something about it.”

Assuming regional rail is built out, 79% of residents think building Transit-Oriented Development – districts of housing, office space, dining, and retail near rail stations – in the Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities would be a good idea. Two-thirds would support state incentives to seed those projects. And many residents, statewide and in those Gateway Cities, say they would likely consider living, working, shopping or going out in those TOD districts.

“Our research suggests TOD in the Gateway Cities could generate hundreds of thousands of new jobs and housing units,” said Dr. Corley. “This poll suggests that if we build TOD in our Gateway Cities, residents will use it. There is a potential market here ready to be tapped.”

About the Poll

These results are based on a survey of 1,430 Massachusetts registered voters, including an oversample of residents from 16 of the state’s Gateway Cities. Responses were collected via online survey interviewing August 14-23, 2019.

The final survey data were weighted to known and estimated population parameters for the state’s residents by age, gender, race, education, geography, and political party identification. Responses from the oversample cities were weighted to population parameters for those cities and then downweighted to their true proportion of the state’s population.

The survey questionnaire and sample were designed by The MassINC Polling Group with input from MassINC. This project was made possible thanks to support from The Barr Foundation.

About The MassINC Polling Group

The MassINC Polling Group is a nonpartisan public opinion research firm serving public, private, and social-sector clients. MPG elevates the public’s voice with cutting edge methods and rigorous analysis. Based in Boston, MPG serves a nationwide client base.

Meet The Author

Rich Parr

Research Director, The MassINC Polling Group

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