Enhanced commuter rail must be part of transportation future

Municipal leaders must speak up as plans are laid

EACH WORKDAY, more than 120,000 people ride the MBTA commuter rail, the sixth busiest regional rail service in the country. At a time when our entire transportation system is straining to get people where they need to go, the commuter network is getting some long overdue attention. 

There’s merit to this focus, too, because the 12 lines radiating on almost 400 miles of track to and from Boston are vital to the well-being of our region. Every transit rider is helping to relieve stress on our congested roads and reducing the impact of transportation on our environment, and the rail network helps to connect businesses and communities so they can thrive.  

As municipal leaders, the way we think about transportation has also evolved.  It’s not enough to advocate for our own cities and towns. We need to think regionally. The interconnection of transportation means that we collectively share the burdens caused by limited transportation options, as we also share in the benefits of expanded choices.  

We all have a stake in the system’s success – not just more reliable service, which should be the expectation, but in aiming for excellence.  We are now at a junction. The rail system is part of our transportation legacy, and it can be a vital part of our future – if we make the right choices. 

The timing is right for municipal leadership, as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA are in the homestretch of a far-reaching project called Rail Vision, which is analyzing different scenarios for tomorrow’s rail system. In the future we could offer commuters fast, frequent service on clean, electrified lines to serve far more people. Similar planning is underway on rail connections to Western Massachusetts. In the Pioneer Valley, long-awaited service between Greenfield and Springfield, with connections south to Connecticut, is in the wings. 

The rail system has the potential to transport hundreds of thousands more daily riders; not just those commuting from the suburbs to downtown, but also those traveling in reverse direction to job centers outside the city center. It could even act as a complement to rapid transit, with fast, frequent service closer to Boston.  

The investments will not be cheap. But we are investing in our communities and our people, and we can’t afford to shrink from the challenge of reinventing transportation. As state leaders settle on a vision for the future of rail, they need to hear from local leaders. And we local leaders must work in concert. 

There is real potential for transformation if we work together; not just shortening your commute but opening up opportunities. We, as municipal leaders, have a stake and a voice. And now is the moment for unified advocacy. 

The stakes are high with transportation. Reliability, quality of service, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are urgent. But no change will happen without strong political will. Our traffic-choked highways and town centers are the product of our dependence on automobiles, but the commuter rail can help to reverse this trend. We must look to transit to “move more people in fewer vehicles,” as a recent report on the state’s transportation future concluded. 

So we are leading a coalition of city and town officials, the Commuter Rail Communities Coalition. Our mission is ambitious, but necessary: Coordinated municipal advocacy for transformed commuter rail. We encourage mayors and town managers to get on board. Together, we can make a positive difference for all the people and communities in our region. 

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Tom McGee is mayor of Lynn. Sarah Stanton is town manager in Bedford. They are co-chairs of the Commuter Rail Communities Coalition.