The economy of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has historically depended upon, and been concentrated within, the communities that, for the most part, comprise the MBTA service area. The Metro Boston region depends in a significant way on transit mobility to provide people with access to jobs, affordable housing choices, and a host of other amenities that improve quality of life. While the urban core benefits from a well-established subway and bus network, it is intercity rail—what we call “Commuter Rail”—that provides access and opportunity to thousands of people who do not live or work in that urban core. A high-functioning intercity rail system has many benefits: it helps keep Gateway Cities connected and competitive, it reduces traffic congestion and carbon emissions by offering important modal choices, and it empowers people by offering them quality personal time during their journey, a precious commodity in an increasingly time-constrained world.
Massachusetts is doing itself, its economy, and its residents a disservice by continuing to operate and plan for its intercity rail system in the same ways it did during the 1970s and 1980s. What we know as “Commuter Rail” must become a modern Regional Rail system that responds to the realities of today’s world—the realities of an economy that is no longer exclusively or primarily oriented to a 9 AM to 5 PM jobs framework; of a housing crisis that is forcing people to seek more affordable choices outside the urban core; of a critical need to reduce traffic congestion by encouraging modal shift on a large scale, the kind of shift that can only come from offering quantifiably better rail service. Commuter Rail does not respond to these existing realities, and it will not respond to tomorrow’s needs and expectations. Transitioning the current system to Regional Rail is an achievable goal that will modernize the system, increase ridership and opportunity, and significantly reduce costs over time.
If Massachusetts fails to move toward Regional Rail, it will be limiting how much its economy can grow and the geographic diversity and equity of that growth. At a time when the focus and objective of the Commonwealth and the MBTA should be on adopting new approaches to service delivery that are cost-effective, regionally and socially equitable, and designed to support changing demographics and business models, the adoption of a clear and unambiguous Regional Rail policy should be a first-level priority. What’s at stake is nothing less than the durability of our economic future.