Regional Rail’s Visionary Dreamers
The Gateway Cities Journal
There’s an old Japanese proverb: Vision without planning is a dream, but planning without vision is a nightmare. We live the proverbial nightmare on the Bay State’s roads and public transit systems, but this week we got a signal that the future may be brighter. On Monday, the MBTA Financial Management Control Board (FMCB) passed five resolutions to set in motion commuter rail transformation. Lumbering old trains that have operated chiefly to schlep suburban office workers will become a robust regional rail network with bi-directional subway-like service, steadily moving people along lines between Boston and Gateway Cities throughout the day.
Emanating from MassDOT’s first-rate Rail Vision planning process, the resolutions come a week after Massachusetts business leaders released revenue raising proposals to generate the funds required to upgrade the rail infrastructure, expand and modernize the fleet, and sustainably operate dramatically enhanced service.
A strong sense that they would have the backing of business leaders put Rail Vision planners in an enviable position to think bold. The planners also received a clear directive from the Governor’s Future of Transportation Commission, which one year ago singled out regional rail as the kind of investment the state should carefully consider as it looks to maximize the movement of people rather than single-occupant vehicles.
The way the FMCB deftly balanced the tension between a big, comprehensive plan and the urgency to actually get things done is another notable departure from the past. Moving forward immediately with electrified high-frequency service on the Fairmont, Providence, and Newburyport lines can deliver relatively quick improvements while the MBTA gains much needed expertise and staff. Phasing the delivery of a robust regional rail system also builds in flexibility so that the system can adapt to rapidly changing technology.
This process of setting a vision and creating a plan that serves as a guide to implementation but allows for adjustments as conditions change aligns with how Toronto has delivered regional rail service with trains every 15 minutes. With each incremental investment, they are demonstrating the economic AND social benefits of their larger rail vision.
All of the above should give Gateway City leaders reason to be hopeful about the prospect for a rail system that weaves together the Commonwealth’s regional economies. However, celebration is premature. The legislature must pass a revenue package that delivers the capital investments to electrify and improve the system and allows the MBTA to cover the operating costs of enhanced service on all lines. Without revenue, this rail vision is nothing more than a dream.
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