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Transporting Better Ideas…

Welcome back. I apologize for not getting back to this sooner. However, I was trying to figure out a relevant issue to put together for my first real blog entry. I decided to start with what will be a perennial issue for me: transportation, namely rail.

During last year and into this one, I ride the Lake Shore Ltd from Boston to Springfield. The price is right, beating most Peter Pan fares. Plus the train is comfier, has a snack car, and electricity for my laptop. However, the trip takes around 2 ½ hours. Needless to say, a long train ride to Springfield is the least of the state’s rail related issues.

The general consensus is that more commuter rail service is needed in the Boston area. I do not disagree. However, we should not forget quality for the sake of quantity. Especially because some proposals would extend the tentacles of the MBTA as far as Springfield. This would serve two purposes: better connect the state’s largest cities; and potentially reduce the burden on the Greater Boston housing market.

However, this proposal also has terrible faults. As the Boston housing market goes through a much needed, if not painful, market price correction , Eastern Bay Staters may not see the need to burden the already debt-heavy MBTA with more costs. Secondly, it does not address a long-standing problem already in existence between Framingham and Worcester, namely the owners of the rail line: CSX. I am not blaming CSX directly. They do own the line and are entitled to use it as they see fit. However, emblematic of a problem nationwide, they also do not see reason to invest huge sums of money to upgrade track to improve service other than theirs. The state would be unlikely to pony up either as the cost to bring the travel time down would be mammoth, at least for a rail project. The end result? Even if it were possible to get support behind expansion of commuter rail, the service would be doomed as few would ride for the 2 ½+ hours to get to Boston when the Pike still offers a faster alternative. Remember it would be a commuter rail so there would be more stops and the ride longer than Amtrak’s 2.5 hours.

So what is the answer? Amtrak. Now I understand why the state may be reluctant to rely on the National Rail Provider. Some were less than enthused by their performance handling commuter rail. In addition, Amtrak has enemies on Capitol Hill and the in the White House. Many might question whether Amtrak will even be around for the long-haul. However, we can work around this.

First, the State Transportation Department, not the MBTA, enters into negotiations with Amtrak. They agree to add one or two extra trains running from Springfield to Boston. If Amtrak is willing, the costs are not too high, and New York wants to help out, it could go back as far as Albany. Next Amtrak could sprinkle one to three extra unstaffed stations along the route. Palmer, Westfield, if service goes to Albany, and maybe somewhere else between Springfield and Worcester would make excellent choices. The state and Amtrak agree fares and subsidies to Amtrak. Then, the state and Amtrak sit down with CSX to develop a schedule that affects CSX the least, but preferably offers some early to mid-morning and evening departure times from each end of the state. Once the trains are running, people interested in using the new line as a commuter rail could purchase monthly passes from Amtrak. While the service is running, Amtrak and the state work together to fund improvements along the existing line, such as restoring double track service in critical bottlenecks, raising speeds, etc. Should, God forbid, Congress agree to asinine breakup legislation as proposed by the White House, Amtrak and the state will have agreed in advance to handover service to the MBTA or other like entity.

Monitoring commuter pass activity will allow state officials to make a more educated and concrete decision about real service, choosing more Amtrak service or a true commuter rail. Moving straight to commuter rail is irresponsible. It will not improve service nor will it reduce pollution, gas prices, or traffic. It would, however, cost taxpayers a great deal of money, better spent on more pressing issues. Investing in our crumbling infrastructure costs money, but its too important of an issue to bungle it (a la Big Dig).

It makes me think of a sign on the managers office at my job. “Do it right the first time.” We should, and frankly, must.

Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority

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