No more incrementalism, it’s time for Big Rail

What we need to do and possible ways to get the job done

EARLIER THIS YEAR, the Global Traffic Scorecard ranked Boston’s traffic as the worst in the nation, outpacing famously congested cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Traffic on I-93 south averages 10 miles per hour. Using population, transportation, and economic data, Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone has projected that those speeds will gradually drop to zero. Cars will just stop. Our highways will become virtual parking lots.

Boston is not the only place in Massachusetts where traffic is gridlocked. On Route 128 and I-495; in the Merrimack Valley and on the South Coast; and in Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield, traffic is also slowing, as cars flood the roadways.

Having reached a traffic tipping point, Beacon Hill is finally stirring. The governor proposed an $18 billion bond bill in June, and both houses of the Legislature are working on transportation proposals of their own.

To all three, we offer some unsolicited advice: No more incremental approaches. It’s time to think — and act — big.

The last time we thought big, we addressed the myriad mistakes of mid-20th century transportation planning by replacing the obsolete central artery, building a tunnel to relieve downtown Boston congestion and building new links from the city to the airport to points north, south, and west.

Mind you, we don’t hold up the Big Dig as a model of project management or cost containment. Its heavy reliance on state funding — a consequence of it being one of the rare interstate completion projects that did not receive 90 percent federal funding support – unfortunately sapped many state resources. But its essential elements were sound. It worked. Traffic abated, the airport became more accessible, Boston’s waterfront and downtown were transformed, and the metropolitan economy boomed.

We faced a big problem, and we responded with boldness, designing a solution appropriate in scale and ambition.

Sometimes people behave as if the Big Dig happened yesterday. In fact, the project was completed over a decade ago (some elements are over 20 years old). Now we’re back to square one: gridlock. But the days of highway expansion are over. We’re out of room.

There is only one viable solution: to finally make a Big Dig-scale investment in statewide transit and rail.

For years, we’ve spent so much time playing catch-up, trying to address urgent crises, like this year’s Red Line woes, or building new interchanges and flyovers to fix highway bottlenecks. We rarely made the kind of impactful, transformative investments needed to make sure people can get to the jobs, schools, healthcare facilities, and other destinations critical to their well-being.

So, what’s new with our approach to solving today’s transportation woes? We advocate transforming rail in one Big Rail initiative. No more debating, delaying, or building one or two routes at a time. Just like the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Chinese, it’s time to make rail the backbone of our statewide transportation system.

Our immediate attention should be directed to projects long in the pipeline and urgently needed:

  • The electrification of the Providence and Fairmount Lines, replacing diesel locomotives with “electric multiple units,” which move faster, quieter, and cleaner than the diesels.
  • The purchase of the right-of-way west of Worcester (which is a prerequisite for extending passenger rail to Springfield), now controlled by the giant CSX freight rail company.
  • Building high-level platforms for every station on the Worcester Line.
  • Starting work immediately on West Station in Allston, which is a critical hub for trains and buses connecting many thousands of people regionally and locally.
  • Connecting the Red and Blue Lines along Cambridge Street, linking the south and north shores and allowing easier access to Kendall Square, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Logan Airport.

These projects will allow us to make essential connections now urgently needed to respond to a growing economy and the need to provide people with reliable, all-day access to key destinations.

As we take action on these projects, we need to prepare to advance several others, including: extending the Blue Line to Lynn; connecting the Seaport to Back Bay with a Silver Line/Green Line connection; building a robust South Coast Rail that reaches across the region; and expanding service to western Massachusetts by building two different routes – one running north through Greenfield, Northampton, and North Adams, another to Springfield and Pittsfield.

Taken together, the projects we’ve cited above would indeed have a transformative impact. People could move easily from one corner of the state to another, congestion would lessen, new economic hot spots would appear along the routes, transit and rail maintenance costs would be reduced, and air quality will improve.

But we certainly can’t stop there. By 2035, we should completely electrify the statewide rail system, offering frequent daily service on trains that are faster, cleaner, and more reliable and able to compete with cars for speed, convenience, and comfort. With those assets, our fellow Massachusetts residents would have new opportunities to cut their cost of living by migrating to outlying cities and suburbs. People from the Merrimack Valley, the South Coast, Worcester County, and western Mass could travel more easily to Boston jobs. Gateway Cities could realize a surge in private investment, remaking their economies and providing people with more choices about where they can live and work.

How much would such a system cost? A lot. But this is not a time to make small bets – our economy’s long-term vitality is at stake.

What’s more, a growing number of creative financing and construction approaches can help to manage and reduce the costs associated with these large-scale approaches.

Among the simplest approaches is to attract private funding for stations, as we have done at Assembly Row and Boston Landing Station, where Federal Realty and New Balance footed much of the costs. Right now, the city of Everett and Encore Casino have a proposal to pay for a footbridge to the Assembly Row Orange Line station.

The state could also seek funds from the recently established nine-state, regional Transportation and Climate Initiative. That program, spearheaded by Gov. Charlie Baker, would take revenue generated by a new emissions cap system and use it to fund mobility and climate change projects. Our Big Rail initiative would be a perfect fit.

Or the state could tap the new investment funds aimed at infrastructure programs around the world. Investors like these projects because they provide a steady stream of reliable income. At the same time, government entities benefit by shouldering less of the debt burden. As one of the nation’s premier centers for innovative capital, we should have a distinct advantage in finding new private financing mechanisms to underwrite significant public projects.

Transportation officials could also pursue public-private partnerships, in which private entities design, build, and manage large infrastructure projects. Rather than relying on a traditional procurement model, which sets a budget and then puts contracts out to bid, the partnership model asks private developers to submit bids to manage the entire project. The winning bidder is thus incentivized to take risks on new processes and materials, as it seeks to maximize efficiency, contain costs, and boost its profits. This pressure to innovate often yields projects far less costly than what the government entity initially projected. And if the developers miss their numbers, they shoulder the burden of cost overruns.

In Miami, the port authority recently joined with a private developer to build a Biscayne Bay tunnel for $680 million — $320 million less than the original budget projected under the government procurement model. In Denver, the regional transportation district has joined with a private firm to build the authority’s newest commuter rail spur. It expects to save roughly $300 million over government estimates.

In Montreal, Quebec’s provincial pension fund is an investor and developer in the region’s new light rail system. Under the agreement, the retirement fund will receive a percentage of future rail system revenues for building and maintaining the system. The private entity can reap the rewards, but it must take all the risks and absorb any cost overruns.

In addition to the state using these approaches, a bill filed by state Sen. Eric Lesser would allow cities and towns to organize regional authorities to address pressing local needs. Well-crafted public-private partnerships could also be used by these authorities, thus significantly reducing their costs.

Of course, any public-private partnership must be structured to protect Massachusetts residents by ensuring affordability, quality assurance, and adherence to regional and social equity. In that respect, Massachusetts should revise our existing public-private partnership law to strike the right balance between attracting private sector interest and protecting the public interest.

The Big Dig, responding to late 20th century conditions, was designed and engineered in the 1980s and 1990s. Our vision is more responsive to 21st-century imperatives, i.e., drastically less dependent on cars, more attuned to modern economic conditions, more responsive to regional and social inequities, and more sensitive to our environment.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Stanley Rosenberg

Former state senator, Massachusetts Senate
A Big Rail initiative addresses all those conditions. We’ve talked about transit and rail long enough. The time to think big and act boldly is now. Our future depends on it.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation. Stanley Rosenberg is a former Massachusetts Senate president.