New England Needs Rail Action Now

OpEd reprinted from Providence Journal argues that New England is at risk of becoming a continental cul-de-sac.

Published: 20-Feb-2006

The world-renowned traffic congestion in and around Boston has been relieved some by the fabulously expensive ($14.6 billion) "Big Dig." But now there's a new congestion poster child in New England: Route 95 along the Connecticut coast, described by commuters as "a parking lot" -- from Stamford to Bridgeport, in particular.

"If I-95 is a chokepoint, in one sense you're choking all six New England states," says Steve Sasala, chief executive officer of the Waterbury Chamber of Commerce.

Connecticut and all of New England are in peril of becoming a continental "cul-de-sac," transportation expert Michael Gallis warned in 2000. Although the region sits next door to the global-economy dynamo of New York, "it's the area it's least well connected to," he said.

And New England's most serious shortfall, says former Maine Transportation Commissioner John Melrose, is lack of rail alternatives to support compact, non-sprawling development and undergird the region's cities.

Connecticut resident Robert Yaro, president of the New York Regional Plan Association, bemoans a twin peril: a huge backlog of needed repairs in Amtrak's rail lines and the decrepit condition of the Metro-North train commuter service that connects New Haven and New York's Grand Central Station.

New England, says Yaro, is "experiencing all the disadvantages of the most congested, expensive population corridor in the Western Hemisphere, with few of the advantages that should flow with easy access to New York as well as Boston."

After 9/11, when many corporations were decentralizing operations out of New York City, northern New Jersey -- with superb commuter-rail connections -- received an influx of investment. Not so Fairfield County, Conn., and cities up the state's coast.

Why? Clogged Route 95 and Metro-North's rail cars -- cold in winter, hot in summer, some 40 years old -- routinely cannibalized for parts. Plus the ultra-high cost of Fairfield County housing, and lack of good train service to open up economically lagging areas, such as the nearby Naugatuck Valley, ideal for transit-oriented development.

After decades of neglect, Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell pushed through bond funding for updating 300 Metro-North rail cars. But mostly, New England has been asleep at the switch, failing to make the critical transportation investments it needs to remain competitive.

Indeed, even as some 14 nations invest in new or expanded high-speed rail -- taking advantage of technology breakthroughs in safety and handling and speeds up to 210 mph -- leaders in the Northeast seem paralyzed by prospective price tags. Experts estimate up to $12 billion, for example, to bring the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor -- tracks, bridges, signals, tower systems, rolling stock -- into a state of repair.

The rest of the world is not so shy. Returning from a Far East trip, Lyle Wray, executive director of Connecticut's Capital Region Council of Governments, said: "In 10 years, Bangkok has built an elevated heavy-rail system, a subway, a new airport, a 150-mph rail link to the airport, and approved constructing 120 miles of bus rapid transit on dedicated roadways. And we don't even have a high-speed rail line into New York! If we did, Hartford executives could fulfill their wish of fast connection to New York, and we'd become an economically viable back-office alternative.

"Draw a 100-mile circle around almost any major world city -- Rome, Paris, Tokyo -- and there's an extensive commuter-rail network linking vibrant communities. We have antiquated commuter-rail networks around Boston and New York. We've starved the infrastructure."

There are some New Englanders who discount rail, saying that the region's heavy focus on roads -- born of the era of cheap petroleum -- should carry on. But a "roads only" scenario runs headlong into reality: immense over-demand. Since 1990, New England's road traffic has increased two to three times faster than its population.

And watch out! Crowding over from the right lane come the big freight-carrying rigs, claiming more and more road space. Truck traffic is projected to increase 60 to 100 percent by 2020, increasing the danger for other drivers. "The interstate system melts down without some kind of intervention," says Tim Brennan, veteran executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and a regional expert.

Critics such as Brennan say that even if highway money were limitless, roads present a crisis that New England, with its tightly packed communities, can't build its way out of -- and probably shouldn't even try to. Why? Gas supplies may suddenly drop. Price spikes are likely. Air quality and advances against global warming require fewer vehicle miles traveled. And new roads easily feed sprawl that consumes New England's precious countryside and isolates lower-income groups in bypassed cities.

It's time for ingenious solutions. Take freight: We were amazed to discover a 2002 study showing that railroads handle only 5 percent of freight shipments in Maine, 2 percent in Connecticut, and 1 percent or less in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

One reason: Thirty years ago, a rail bridge across the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., burned down. It's never been replaced. So a rail shipment from New York to Stamford has to go north to Albany, then east and back south -- at substantial extra expense. Result: All the freight goes by trucks.

Yet a century ago New England had a robust rail network, covering much of its territory. And many of the rail lines, or at least their rights-of-way, still exist. But state transportation departments have made no push to coalesce, to project needed passenger services, to consult with the sometimes-obdurate freight railroads, to rebuild the Hudson River bridge, or to get longer-distance freight onto trains.

New England is home to the National Corridors Initiative, headed by James RePass, encouraging all regions to develop regional passenger and freight rail service. The initiative pushed successfully in the '90s for release of $2.7 billion in blocked federal funding for the high-speed New York-Boston rail line, cutting travel time from 5 1/2 hours to 3 1/2 and tripling ridership.

RePass favors a New England regional infrastructure authority (ideally with a Canadian counterpart), which could start making priority investments. RePass and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a former vice chairman of Amtrak's board, support a North-South Rail Link in Boston: a tunnel connecting North and South stations, which were left without connecting tracks by competing 19th Century rail companies. With the link, they contend, high-speed New York-Boston-Portland service would become a possibility, and, more important, there'd be "radial availability": tens of thousands of commuters from north and south of Boston able to travel directly to destinations around the region, providing massive economic benefit.

Yet, says regional expert Brennan, the six New England states aren't ready for an infrastructure authority. He would first create a "New England NATO": a six-state alliance of governors; transportation directors; business, foundation and environmental leaders; and others, to look at the top strategic issues and create a compelling vision: What transportation steps are priorities if New England is to be a 21st Century competitor? How can highways, rail, air, ports, and passenger and freight service be linked? How does the region best negotiate with its East Coast neighbors, with Amtrak, and with Congress to bring Northeast Corridor rail service up to world standards -- or create corridors (as Hartford architect Tyler Smith suggests) that serve not just roads but also rapid rail, telecommunications lines, open space and greenways?

Can some of the finance wizards in New England investment houses focus on these possibilities? Is there a role for referendums to approve local or regional levies as a part of financing packages? Could the business-led New England Council work with the congressional delegation to create federal incentives for transportation breakthroughs?

No one doubts that highways will remain the region's transportation mainstay, but rail service -- less polluting, less energy-dependent, more land-conserving -- must play a major role. And there's a huge backlog, beyond the coastal Northeast Corridor. Expanded service on the inland route -- westward to Worcester and Springfield, then south through Hartford and New Haven to New York -- could, for example, be a big shot in the arm for Connecticut River Valley cities.

Other ideas crop up but never get careful study. A prime example: rail service connecting not just Logan and T.F. Green airports but all New England's leading airports -- Bradley, Manchester, Portland, Burlington -- and their host cities.

Each idea cries out for hard analysis. But it may never happen unless the New England governors agree that their states' transportation futures are intimately intertwined, and create a shared, professionally staffed organization to start the job.

Neal Peirce is a Washington-based syndicated columnist and Curtis Johnson is a public-policy analyst. They co-wrote the book Citistates.

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