Regional rail can aid pandemic recovery

Commuter rail must shift to all-day, affordable, frequent service

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC is wreaking havoc on our economy. As of June, over 17 million Americans were out of workand Boston’s unemployment rate was roughly 18 percent. Many small businesses, the backbone of our Main Streets, have shut their doors forever. In the Gateway Cities,  unemployment hovers at 19.2 percent; Lawrence has a jaw-dropping unemployment rate of over 30 percent. The pandemic won’t last forever, but the damage to our cities – and especially the Gateway Cities, already suffering from long-standing economic stagnation and inequality – may take years to recover.

Transforming the current commuter rail system into an all-day, affordable, and frequent transit option – what we call regional rail – can aid the recovery. Regional rail would expand the networks and opportunities available to people across the Commonwealth. Specifically, regional rail can position Gateway Cities for recovery and growth by bringing workers to Gateway City jobs and expanding customers and investment in these hubs’ small businesses. The pandemic laid bare the problems of centralized supply chains, and Gateway Cities’ skilled labor, urban infrastructure, and affordable commercial space make them ideal for light manufacturing, as well as satellite offices for Boston-area firms. Better regional transit access can help them fulfill this purpose.

Local manufacturers are already shifting in this direction. In April, Lawrence-based 99 Degrees Custom retooled its sportswear manufacturing facility in just a few weeks to deliver 1 million Food and Drug Administration-compliant isolation gowns for doctors and nurses. Fall River’s Merrow Sewing Machine Company — founded in 1838 and still owned by the original family — also began making personal protective equipment, a change that required just 40 days instead of months that manufacturers normally require to design and deliver new products.

Massachusetts can build on these successes sustainably if we attract more skilled workers to our Gateway Cities without clogging the roads.

Regional rail will help Gateway City businesses tap into skilled labor from Boston and other municipalities across the Commonwealth. A regional rail system will also make housing in walkable urban areas more accessible to more residents. Similarly, regional rail supports efforts in Gateway Cities to provide additional housing stock for workers in Boston, developing more naturally affordable, subsidized affordable, and market-rate housing in mixed-use developments. This creates a virtuous cycle which expands municipal tax revenues, creates construction jobs, improves high-quality precision manufacturing and office space, and activates streets, providing business for local businesses and allowing local economies to recover.

In its 2018 report, The Transportation Dividend, the business advocacy group A Better City pointed to the economic opportunities arising from vibrant transit and rail nodes – what the report termed transit growth clusters. Creating more jobs and housing ecosystems tied to regional rail can be a game changer in the way we think about regionally and socially equitable mobility in the Commonwealth.

Although fewer people are currently commuting to Boston, they still need to connect to vital services near home. Only 15 percent of travel is for work commutes; the “9-to-5” model underlying the “commuter rail” service model is ancient history.  Communities need 15- to 30-minute headways all day between regional cities like Lawrence and Haverhill or Brockton and Quincy. This frequent all-day service model is long overdue: it responds to the ways people actually live and work in the 21st Century.

Investing in regional rail and connecting bus/shuttle service will liberate Regional Transit Authority (RTA) resources spent for shuttling Boston commuters to instead connecting local workers and residents to activity centers within their communities (something the MBTA might ask its commuter rail operator to pilot, given its experience in this area). Regional rail would reduce car dependency, alleviate traffic jams, and ease traffic fears from new development by providing modal alternatives for getting around conveniently and reliably outside of Boston.

Regional rail also allays the traffic fears  which stall much-needed development. Many Gateway City station areas and downtowns have the makings for walkable, 15-minute communities with naturally affordable, subsidized, and market rate housing in mixed-use neighborhoods. More housing can expand and diversify municipal revenue streams, create jobs, expand available manufacturing sites and office space. It will also activate streets and direct much-needed foot traffic to struggling restaurants and merchants.

Metro Boston’s post-pandemic future can be one where opportunity is shared across regions, where we strategically exploit the unique and synergistic qualities of our Gateway Cities to expand opportunity, build wealth in a socially equitable way. With the better regional connectivity that regional rail provides, our Gateway Cities can put the Commonwealth on the road to recovery. But to make it a reality, the Commonwealth needs to make the investments.

Meet the Author

Tracy Corley

Transit-oriented development fellow, MassINC's Gateway Cities Innovation Institute
Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Despite the recession’s impact, some sectors of the economy are still enjoying aggressive growth and Massachusetts remains one of the wealthiest states in the country. With low interest rates, innovative solutions, and available workers, now is the time to invest in our future. In the next legislative session, the MBTA and the Legislature must commit to mitigating bottlenecks in Salem, Dorchester and Quincy, and Ballardvale. It is also crucial to ensure that electrification is fully funded for the Providence/Stoughton, Fairmount, and Newburyport/Rockport lines. This is the only way to advance an initiative that is crucial now more than ever.

Metro Boston can build back better – and equitably – from this historic and disruptive pandemic. We won’t be able to do that with a mid-20th Century inter-city rail system that fails to respond to today’s needs.  Regional rail ought to be one of the ways we build a better future, bringing regional equity to the fore and linking more people to more opportunities.

Tracy Corley is transit oriented development fellow at MassINC and a board member of TransitMatters, Ethan Finlan is the TransitMatters regional rail lead, and Matt Robare is TransitMatters media coordinator and a freelance writer.