Poll: Voters back subway-like commuter rail

As usual, Mass. residents reluctant to pay for improvements

RESIDENTS AROUND THE state want more frequent, reliable, and electrified commuter rail service, but they are more divided over how to pay for such improvements.

A majority of the 1,430 voters surveyed online in August strongly support switching from diesel to electric power on the commuter rail system, prioritizing running the trains more frequently throughout the day, and focusing on basic maintenance to make the service more reliable. Taken collectively with other upgrades, the improvements could transform the commuter rail into a regional rail system that runs more like a subway.

While enhancements to the sprawling rail system were popular, the poll also revealed a dynamic that should be familiar to those who have followed transportation financing efforts in Massachusetts. Many of the most obvious options to pay for them are unpopular.

The poll was conducted by the MassINC Polling Group and commissioned by MassINC, the nonprofit parent of both the polling group and CommonWealth. With funding support from the Barr Foundation, MassINC is advocating for more frequent rail service to Gateway Cities.

Only 26 percent support raising the gas tax to fund regional rail, and 68 percent oppose that idea. Similarly, a WBUR/MassINC poll in June found 61 percent oppose hiking the gas tax.

Last spring, Transportation Committee House Chairman William Straus spoke positively about using the gas tax to raise more revenue for transit and roads, saying each penny added to the 24-cent-per-gallon tax translates into around $35 million per year. More lawmakers’ opinions on transportation financing should be flushed into the open in the new few months when the House and Senate are expected to take up legislation to raise new revenues to try to make it easier for people to get around.

Increasing commuter rail fares, hiking parking rates at commuter rail stations, and charging drivers a fee for going into Boston at the busiest times of day – one form of congestion pricing – were all similarly unpopular to the idea of raising the gas tax, according to the poll. The most popular ideas for raising the revenues that would be needed to usher in regional rail were tapping real estate developers who build projects near stations, adding a surtax on the state’s highest earners, and allowing different regions to decide for themselves on new taxes through regional ballots.

Another popular option, garnering 67 percent support and 19 percent opposition, is the transportation climate initiative, but the details of that multi-state carbon-pricing scheme are still sketchy. On Monday, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said a framework of principles that would be used to shape an agreement between the nine participating states should be completed by early October. The basics of the plan would be to assess a charge on the carbon content of automobile fuels and use the revenues to finance green transportation initiatives.

More popular than ways to pay for improvements to rail service were discounts for passengers, which if enacted could eat into the existing revenue streams. The poll found a majority strongly support offering discounted fares at off-peak hours, lowering fares across the board, and offering discounts for low-income riders.

Slightly less popular, but still garnering at least some support from 80 percent of respondents, is the idea of lowering fares at stations near Boston to encourage commuters to take the rail instead of the subway. The idea of using off-peak and low-income discounts on the commuter rail was pushed in a recent policy brief by MassINC, which found that many who live in cities outside Boston are unable to afford the existing train fare into the state capital.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

The online poll oversampled from Gateway cities such as Brockton and Fitchburg, and although unlike phone calls it doesn’t attempt to calculate a margin of error, the results were weighted to match the state’s demographics, according to Steve Koczela, president of the polling group.

Slightly less popular than electrifying the commuter rail, but still enjoying majority support are big infrastructure projects to expand the reach of rail service. The idea of bringing rail to Springfield and Pittsfield, southern New Hampshire, and Greenfield and North Adams in the northwest, each had robust backing, as did South Coast Rail, a project that is in the works to extend the commuter rail to New Bedford and Fall River. The North-South Rail Link, a massive project that’s estimated cost is a matter of fierce debate, had support from 81 percent of those polled. The link would burrow underground through Boston to connect the rail networks to the north and south of the city.