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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Massachusetts Plan Starts Small for Big Upgrade to Rail System

Story originally appeared on the New York Times.

BOSTON — Later this spring, Bostonians eager to flee to Cape Cod for the weekend will have an option other than sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 70 miles and fuming along with everyone else.
Starting May 24, they can hop a train to Hyannis, where regional buses, ferries and rental cars will await to whisk them out to the beaches, islands and wind-swept dunes.
The train, the first passenger service to the cape since 1995, is one small piece of a major $13 billion transportation overhaul envisioned by Gov. Deval Patrick. That overhaul is aimed chiefly at repairing and upgrading worn-out bridges, roads and commuter lines in Massachusetts, but about 20 percent of it would go toward reviving train service to the cape and elsewhere in the state.
Mr. Patrick said that upgrading these in-state routes would spur economic development. It would also provide important links for Amtrak’s long-range plans to establish high-speed train service throughout New England.
The package is the most sweeping and future-oriented of Mr. Patrick’s tenure. But it faces some high hurdles. It would require a major tax increase. And it faces a skeptical public still recovering from what people here call the Big Dig hangover — the multibillion-dollar debt from the nation’s most expensive highway project.
Mr. Patrick, a Democrat, had nothing to do with the Big Dig but the project deferred investments that he says should have been made in aging infrastructure and increased repair costs that are necessary now.
“The plan is ambitious,” said Stephanie Pollack, a transportation specialist at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. “And it’s depressing that this is considered ambitious when most of the money is going to fixing what we have now.”
But, she said, “this is probably the first time in decades that Massachusetts has stepped back and said, ‘Here’s what we need to do for the next quarter century.’ ”
In addition to service to the cape, Mr. Patrick has proposed reviving service from Boston to Fall River and New Bedford as well as from the Berkshires to the Connecticut border to enable future service to New York City. He has proposed extending service to Medford. He has also called for an $850 million expansion of the number of tracks at Boston’s South Station to accommodate more commuter lines and longer-distance Amtrak trains. The station now is a major bottleneck that causes serious delays.
Amtrak’s plans for high-speed rail include service from Portland, Me., to New York City along an inland route through Springfield, Mass., and one between Boston and New York that would cut travel time to 90 minutes from the current three hours and 40 minutes.
To pay for his transportation package, as well as some new education programs, Mr. Patrick has proposed $1.9 billion in new taxes, one of the biggest levies Massachusetts has seen in a generation. He would raise the state income tax to 6.25 percent from 5.25 percent and lower the state sales tax to 4.5 percent from 6.25 percent. Residents who make more than $102,000 a year would shoulder most of the burden.
Mr. Patrick, who is not seeking re-election in 2014, is spending much of his political capital trying to convince both citizens and legislators that “high-impact” transportation projects can pay for themselves.
For example, the governor’s administration says, the South Coast rail line to Fall River and New Bedford would cost $1.8 billion, but it would create 3,800 jobs and generate $500 million a year in economic growth.
“The public will pay more if they see their sacrifice is actually going to net them a specific good,” said Richard A. Davey, the state’s transportation secretary, who is conducting an aggressive campaign to help sell the governor’s package. It includes a Web site that allows residents to see exactly what the spending would mean in their localities.
But the tax proposal has drawn ridicule from Republicans and a cool reception from the legislature, which is overwhelmingly Democratic. The speaker of the House, Robert A. DeLeo, wants to downsize the governor’s wish list, which is leading to intense negotiations over which parts of the package might be cut. At the same time, Mayor Will Flanagan of Fall River, for example, says he will hold the governor to his promise to veto the entire package if South Coast rail is dropped.
The proposal comes as passenger trains, particularly on routes under 400 miles, are rebounding across much of the country and proving a boon to economic development.
“American passenger rail is in the midst of a renaissance,” said a new report from the Brookings Institution, which attributed the increase in part to partnerships between Amtrak and the federal and state governments.