Public transportation is investment in Springfield’s future

A study of high-speed rail service to Boston should be in the mix

FORGIVE US  FOR opening old wounds, but it was just two years ago this spring that our state was crippled with foot after foot of snow. There was perhaps no more striking example of how dependent our economy is on reliable transportation.

One economic analysis reported that Massachusetts lost $1 billion in wages and profits due to the storms — losses directly tied to the inability of employees, customers, and goods to get from point A to point B on roads, bridges and public transit.

Western Massachusetts doesn’t need a series of blizzards to understand the role that access to transportation plays in creating economic growth. This region’s substandard transportation infrastructure, and shortage of convenient travel options east, hampers the economic future of the area on even the sunniest summer day.

Today, getting from Springfield to Boston by train takes three hours. There is just one train a day and it is only on schedule half the time. As a result, Greater Springfield residents are virtually cut off from the red-hot economy of Greater Boston, and those who do commute east have little choice but to travel nearly two hours by car or bus on the Mass Pike – emitting greenhouse gases and increasing levels of highway congestion.

Traveling around the region isn’t much better.  A 2013 study conducted by MassINC showed that riders who depend on the current inter-city bus system, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, for their commutes spend an average of 15 minutes longer getting to work each day than those who drive in their own vehicles.

Public transportation should make it easier, not harder, for employees to get to their jobs, whether they’re traveling across town by bus or across the state by train.

This month brought significant progress with the unveiling of a renovated Union Station, and with it the launch of 12 new trains making the trek from Springfield to New Haven and Hartford each day, as well as improved bus facilities.

While this important progress should be celebrated, one need only look to Springfield’s past to understand how much brighter its future could be if the recent developments included a study of the potential in connecting the region to other economic centers of the state.

Springfield was once referred to as the “crossroads of New England” because of its central location between Boston, Montreal and New York City. In 1794, George Washington, recognizing the city’s strategic position on this crossroads, built the nation’s first armory there. As the country matured, Springfield’s centrality made it an essential rail connection from Boston.

It became an attractive home for large employers such as Westinghouse, American Bosch, and Indian Motorcycle. As recently as 1960 there were five trains per day that traveled east to west, connecting Boston to Springfield. In the years that followed, train service slowed, the Armory closed, and manufacturing jobs fled the area.

The historical evidence is clear: Springfield’s economic success is inextricably linked to the city’s position as a transit hub.

If Springfield were connected to Boston with a quicker commute, for example, the “City of Homes” would earn its nickname by offering affordable market-rate housing, taking pressure off of housing stock and prices in Metro Boston and boosting the city’s appeal to young workers.

Recent signs point to the city finding creative ways to reinvent itself for this potential future.

Springfield is using long-awaited reinvestments in public transit to encourage not only a renewal of the industrial sector, but also to spur new industries such as technology and innovative entrepreneurship.

And it’s working.

The city is expecting more than $1 billion in new business investments — including Union Station’s $88.5 million overhaul and the China Railway Rolling Stock Corp.’s $95 million investment in a railcar manufacturing factory — over the next year. MGM Springfield, which is building a casino downtown, has committed to investing $50 million annually in the local economy. Greentown Labs, a company which prides itself on being the largest clean energy tech incubator in the United States, responsible for raising over $200 million in funding and incubating over 100 companies, has just opened new office space in Springfield’s Technology Park. The new Springfield Innovation Center, currently undergoing an $80 million renovation, will further attract innovative new businesses that are looking to expand and call Hampden County home.

If past is prologue, the way to maximize the impact of these positive developments — and encourage more of the same — is to invest in transportation.

The opening of Union Station is a step in the right direct, but there are still investments on the table that need to be considered.

A budget amendment has been introduced that would require the state’s Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to study the costs and economic benefits of establishing high-speed rail service between Springfield and Boston. The measure has passed the Senate, but needs to be included in the Legislature’s conference committee budget and then signed by the governor to take effect.

If it passes, MassDOT will examine the projected costs, ridership levels, and operation of the train on existing rights of way. Additionally, the study will also take a closer look at the availability of federal, state, local and private sector sources and the resulting economic, social and cultural benefits for the Commonwealth as a whole.

Highlighting the necessity to better understand commuting options between the east and west, we recently kicked off a commuter rail tour between Springfield and Boston, making stops to connect with local business leaders in Framingham, Worcester, and Palmer. One thing was clear, if we understood the full potential of the east-west rail link, the impacts could go well beyond Springfield. It will help the local economies and small businesses in between, like the Steaming Tender restaurant, next to the tracks in Palmer.

Meet the Author

Jesse Mermell

President, Alliance for Business Leadership
Meet the Author

Massachusetts could be well-served, and perhaps pull Springfield out of its perpetual transportation winter, by better understanding the economic potential of high-speed rail access between Boston and Springfield.

Eric P. Lesser, represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in the Massachusetts Senate and is Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies. He also leads Millennial Outreach for the state Senate. Jesse Mermell is president of the Alliance for Business Leadership.