Why Massachusetts can’t scale back rail infrastructure

Why Massachusetts can’t scale back rail infrastructure

Last week, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack indicated it may make sense to slow down planned improvements to the MBTA commuter rail network. We wouldn’t want to make too much out of a single statement, but it did catch us by surprise. This seems like exactly the opposite course to consider if we’re looking for strategies to put Massachusetts on a path for a strong and equitable recovery.

The project known as “Rail Vision” will increase the performance of existing public infrastructure by allowing operators to run trains faster, more frequently, and with fewer disruptions. In a marked departure from the current service model, which mostly benefits suburban residents commuting to downtown Boston, Rail Vision would generate more equitable growth by delivering more reverse commuters to Gateway City employers. It would also make jobs, educational opportunities, health care, and other vital services located at transit nodes more accessible to low- and moderate-income Gateway City residents.

Secretary Pollack suggested these commuter rail improvements may no longer be an urgent priority because suburban residents are working remotely, and when the economy reopens, they may prefer the safety of their cars over trains.

This argument runs contrary to the project’s equity logic. At a time when economists say growing inequality presents one of our most challenging long-term threats, providing more mobility and access to opportunity for low- and moderate-income communities was the strongest rationale for major upgrades to commuter rail service. Both the Rail Vision advisory commission and members of the FMCB board, who voted to advance the project last fall, clearly articulated this goal.

Right now Gateway Cities are smoldering coronavirus hotspots. Chock full of the essential workers caring for our elderly in nursing homes, packaging our groceries, and delivering our takeout. Gateway City high school and college students have joined the ranks of frontline workers, foregoing their education to help their families make rent. By venturing out to do vital work, they’ve put themselves and those close to them in harm’s way. Telling residents of Brockton, Lawrence, Lynn, and other Gateway Cities that they will need to wait longer before commuter rail service opens up new opportunities seems like the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Now is the time to reassure those who have made sacrifices that we will redouble efforts to build a stronger and more equitable Commonwealth post-COVID-19.

Slowing down preparation for a vital infrastructure project is also bad fiscal policy. This week, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned that the pandemic could produce a sustained downturn that will inflict lasting economic damage without a coordinated government response. Fiscal stimulus from infrastructure investment can increase employment in the short-term while boosting long-term growth. When interest rates are extremely low, these gains can generate enough revenue to service the debt.

But two conditions are vital for this scenario to play out. First, construction needs to move forward fast while the economy is slack. And second, government must make smart choices, so the public infrastructure actually increases private sector productivity.

The Rail Vision planning process gave us a head start. Rather than contemplating delay, we should be looking at scenarios to move as quickly as possible, particularly given the likelihood of eventual federal stimulus funds for infrastructure projects.
Right now a lot of whip-smart students are graduating with uncertain employment prospects. MassDOT constantly struggled to hire the people it needed when the economy was blazing hot. Instead of hemming and hawing, they should corral as much of this talent as possible to come up with prudent strategies, expediting investments that will lead to a brighter future when we finally emerge from this terrible ordeal.

MassINC Resources  

Learn more about the effects of the digital divide on Massachusetts Gateway Cities, and how community organizations, residents and policy makers can support students during COVID-19 and beyond. 

COVID-19 Response

 MAPC and MassDevelopment launch an emergency grant program for transportation services.
The Brockton Interfaith Community starts a COVID-19 relief fund.
Leslie Dominguez-Santos explores COVID-19’s links to environmental justice in Chelsea.
Haverhill considers letting restaurants sell mixed drinks, groceries, and household items with their takeout orders.
The Emmaus organization installs a tent in Haverhill to help homeless sheltersfight against the coronavirus.
The Community Foundation’s SouthCoast Emergency Response Fund in New Bedford releases more grants for coronavirus relief.
The Quality Inn in Revere becomes an isolation center for people who can’t quarantine at home.
Springfield launches Millions of Meals, a virtual food drive, with help from the Antonacci Family Foundation.
Worcester closes the homeless shelter for COVID-19 patients at the DCU Center, transferring the 10 remaining residents to a state-run hotel in Northampton.
The Senate passes a COVID-19 data collection bill that includes Sen. Pacheco’s amendment to track care gaps in Gateway Cities.

Housing and Economic Development

A family-owned business in Brockton produces candy for relief effort meals.
Merrow Manufacturing in Fall River plans to continue making PPE after the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, assuming state and federal governments recognize the need for a US industry. The Herald News takes a local look at the business.
Massachusetts Design Art & Technology Institute collaborates with New Bedford organizations to prepare a line-up of public art for everyone to enjoy from a safe social distance.
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer asks the City Council to take $110,000 from the city’s Community Preservation Fund for emergency housing assistance.
The Quincy Planning Board hosts its first virtual meeting giving the public an opportunity to voice opinions on city projects.
MGM Springfield warns that it may lay off nearly 1,900 employees — almost all of its workforce — at the end of the summer, when furloughs expire.
Federal infrastructure spending is needed to revive the economy, according to Tim Murray, the head of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Construction projects in Worcester, including Polar Park, resume.
A Next City op-ed explores the concept of Local Economy Preservation Funds.


The MBTA board approves $159 million for South Coast Rail work, including a new station in Fall River.

A portion of the Lowell commuter rail will close for work on the Green Line extension.
The Telegram & Gazette takes a close look at what the Worcester Regional Transit Authority may look like when life returns to normal.
More people started driving and taking the T last week as state officials search for a way to open up the state’s transportation system in a safe way.
Studio111 blogs on reopening Main Street.


 Dr. Alberto Vázquez Matos, a deputy superintendent in Hartford, is named new receiver of the Holyoke Public Schools. After running a series on the first five years of receivership, an editorial in the Hampshire News Gazette says the work must continue.

Some community colleges, including Holyoke have already decided to move online this fall. Christina Royal, the college’s president, says the school is supporting students during the COVID-19 crisis but the school needs to be supported as well. The Urban Institute explores how we assist vulnerable community college students during this challenging time.
In a lengthy oversight hearing, education leaders gather to talk about the response to the pandemic with Revere Superintendent Diane Kelley providing a vivid description of the challenges Gateway City schools confront.
Quincy administrators consider alternatives after virtual graduation ideas draw backlash from parents and students.
Worcester teachers and students share their frustration with remote learning. The district finally distributes Chromebooks to students nearly two months after remote learning began.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation’s suggestion that the state could postpone disbursement of Student Opportunity Act funds spells uncertainty for Gateway Cities.
Joan Wasser Gish offers ideas for confronting early education challenges.
Writing for the Brown Center at Brookings, North Carolina’s leading Early College expert explains we should expand the model after the pandemic.

Energy & Environment

Schools in Fitchburg receive a grant for hydration stations to improve drinking water quality.
The Holyoke City Council declines a $275,000 clean energy grant from the Barr Foundation over Neighbor to Neighbor’s involvement in the project.
Lowell receives a $300,000 EPA grant for site planning at Ayer’s City Industrial Park.
The EPA grants $800,000 to New Bedford to clean up brownfield sites.
Taunton faces a serious challenge as its landfill closes, which will cost the city about $1.5 million in lost tipping fees and require up to $2 million a year to dispose of the city’s waste elsewhere.

Communities & People

Scott Carola, a New Bedford police detective, leads a double life as an artist.

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