New England: New Century, New Game

By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

No region of the world can expect to compete and flourish in the demanding 21st century without state-of-the-art connections — road and rail, air and water, plus fast and efficient electronic information highways.

On the transportation front, New England seems frozen in time and space, unaware of how seriously isolated and inefficient it’s becoming with its overburdened interstates, poorly maintained bridges and local roads, shrunken and imperiled rail service, and lack of a modern deepwater cargo port.

The pain’s felt region-wide. Saddled with decaying road systems, Massachusetts motorists are spending $2.3 billion a year on extra vehicle repairs and operating costs. Without efficient coastline rail, Maine sees its Route 1 turn into a traffic horror each summer. Urban interstates across the region — I-93 from Massachusetts into New Hampshire, for example — suffer mega-jams. The region has some quality — but many insufficient or nonexistent — bus lines.

The world-renowned traffic congestion in and around Boston proper has been relieved some by the fabulously expensive ($14.6 billion) “Big Dig.” But now there’s a new congestion poster child: Interstate 95 along the Connecticut coast — described by its commuters as “a rush-hour standstill,” “a parking lot” from Stamford to Bridgeport in particular. Proposed cures range from double-decking (dismissed for its astronomic cost) to adding lanes (infeasible because the corridor is so densely crowded).

“If I-95 is a chokepoint, in one sense you’re choking all six New England states,” notes Steve Sasala, CEO 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, adding that although the region sits literally next door to the global economy dynamo of New York, “it’s the area it’s least well connected to.”

And the region’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 existing 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 decrepit condition of the Metro-North train commuter service that connects New Haven and New York’s Grand Central Station. “New England,” notes Yaro, “is presently 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 and cities up the Connecticut coast. Why? Clogged I-95 and Metro-North’s railcars, typically 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 quality train service to open up economically lagging areas like the nearby Naugatuck Valley, ideal for new 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 critical transportation investments it needs to remain competitive.

Indeed, even as some 14 nations around the world invest robustly in new or expanded high-speed rail, taking advantage of dramatic technology breakthroughs in safety, handling, and speeds of up to 210 miles per hour, Northeast U.S. leaders sit on their hands, paralyzed by prospective pricetags. Experts estimate up to $12 billion, for example, to bring the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor — tracks, bridges, signals, tower systems, rolling stock — to a state of good repair.

The rest of the world is not so shy. Returning from a recent Far East trip, Lyle Wray, executive director of Connecticut’s Capital Region Council of Governments, noted:

“In 10 years Bangkok has built an elevated heavy rail system, a subway, a new airport, a 150-mile per hour 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 and believe the region’s heavy 21st century focus on roads, born of the era of cheap petroleum, should carry on. But a “roads only” scenario runs headlong into harsh reality: immense overdemand. New England’s road traffic has increased two to three times faster than population since 1990.

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, making driving increasingly fearful and dangerous for motorists. “The interstate system melts down without some kind of intervention,” notes Tim Brennan, veteran executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and regional expert.

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

Clearly, it’s time for ingenious solutions. Take freight. We were amazed to discover a 2002 study showing railroads handle only 5 percent of freight shipment in Maine, 2 percent in Connecticut, and a minuscule 1 percent or less in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. One reason: Thirty years ago a rail bridge across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie 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 to trucks instead.

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

New England is home to the National Corridors Initiative, headed by James RePass, encouraging regions across the continent to develop robust 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 5½ hours to 3_ and tripling ridership in the corridor.

RePass favors a formalized New England regional infrastructure authority — ideally with a Canadian counterpart — that could start making priority investments. RePass and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a former vice chair of Amtrak’s board, are proponents of a North/South Rail Link in Boston, a one-mile tunnel to connect the North and South Stations that were left without connecting tracks by competing 19th century rail companies. With the tunnel link, they contend, high-speed New York-Boston-Portland service becomes a possibility and more importantly 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 net economic benefit.

The six states, Brennan believes, aren’t quite ready for a formal infrastructure authority. He’d 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 priority items if New England’s to be a 21st century competitor? How can highways, rail, air, ports, passenger and freight service be interlinked? How does the region best negotiate with its East Coast neighbors, Amtrak and Congress to bring Northeast Corridor rail service up to world standards? How can transportation moves dovetail with disaster evacuation planning (thinking terrorism or hurricanes) and more far-sighted tourist promotion? Or create corridors, as Hartford architect Tyler Smith suggests, that serve not just roads, but rapid rail, telecommunications lines, open space and greenways?

David Soule of the New England Initiative at UMass Lowell, endorsing the “NATO” idea, suggests a major focus on finance of big infrastructure items. Nineteenth century New England and America, he notes, used private dollars to build such infrastructure as border-to-border rail. A raft of creative revenue-based and market-based financing tools are now being introduced around the world — tax increment financing, tolls supporting lease-back deals financed by private investment groups. Can some of the finance wizards in New England investment houses get focused on these possibilities? Is there a role for popular referenda 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?

And there are today new ways to avoid pork-barrel waste: cutting-edge cost-benefit analysis tools that make it possible to evaluate costs and benefits from road to rail, buses to air service to ferries, red-flagging projects which don’t incorporate state-of-the-art technology or smart intermodal connections.

Politicos and public bodies, in short, could actually be positioned to make informed decisions on projects and financing, based on publicized, transparent data.

No one doubts highways will remain the region’s transportation mainstay, but rail service — less polluting, less energy dependent, more land-conserving — clearly has to 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.

Serious investment in eastern Massachusetts commuter rail service would serve New Bedford, Fall River and other South Shore towns that not only need economic stimulus but can offer far more affordable housing than Boston or its close-in suburbs. Trains to Cape Cod, say advocates, are critical to avoid some of New England’s most ferocious traffic jams. Mainers would like to see the successful Boston-Portland Downeaster service speeded up and extended to Brunswick and Rockland (with possible ferry service to Bar Harbor). Vermonters are anxious to extend Amtrak service, now serving Rutland, north to Burlington and south to Bennington. Nashua wants rail connection to Lowell, a first step toward full Boston-to-Montreal service that would pass through Lowell, Nashua, Concord, Montpelier and Burlington.

Other ideas crop up periodically but never get careful study. A prime example: thinking New England-wide about rail service connecting not just Logan and T.F. Green but all of New England’s leading airports — Bradley, Manchester, Portland, Burlington, and their host cities. The rail would provide travelers with multiple off-road options and connections simply not available today.

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

In a model of cross-border collaboration, Midwestern governors recently reached dramatic agreement to invest $20 billion to clean up Great Lakes toxic pollution and other threats, and to work with Canadian premiers to control export of water from the region. Even mayors exalted: “For the first time,” said Chicago’s Richard Daley, “We’re all on the same page with a common vision. We have a guide for future investment. We have priorities.”

If the Great Lakes states can pull together so dramatically, why not New England?

To read more about the New England Futures Project, click here.