People flock to New England because of its scenic beauty, its rich history and its world-class colleges and universities. If we think of New England as a real place, we should remember that is also a cluster of six individual states that unfortunately sometimes go their own way when it comes to matters they have in common.
Transportation is one of those matters. During the time I was secretary of transportation in Massachusetts, I met face to face with my New England state counterparts exactly once, at a meeting in New Hampshire where we talked about the importance of working together on regional transportation projects. And, then, we all went home.
Recent news reports that New England is behind California and the Midwest in competing for the $8 billion in new federal high-speed rail funds should be a wake-up call. The Northeast Corridor from Connecticut to Maine, as well as improved train service connecting New Haven, Hartford, Springfield and maybe Vermont, are all viable candidates for funding, if our states work together on a common rail agenda.
Why should these rail investments matter? They matter because New England is a collection of interdependent metropolitan areas that would gain prosperity if passenger travel and goods movement by rail were made easier and more efficient. Just look at what rail service in the early 20th century did for the "main line" communities west of Philadelphia, Stamford and Scarsdale, N.Y.
Transportation ties New England together and connects it to important external economic centers such as New York City and Montreal. A bottleneck in Worcester affects on-time arrivals in Providence, New Haven, Manchester, N.H., and Portland, Maine. We need to do a better job of demonstrating how all of these New England cities benefit economically from one another and therefore have a shared stake in improving mobility throughout the region.
A recent report by the Brookings Institution argues that metropolitan areas within 500 miles of one another "should be the targets for a reinvigorated rail network that expands options, mitigates the growth in highway traffic and relieves congestion in crowded airports — particularly along the coasts." The Obama administration has signed on to this notion through the president's commitment to enhanced funding for high-speed rail.
Awareness of this metropolitan mobility approach is timely for a number of reasons. First, demographers have shown that more and more people are living in so-called mega-regions that can be well served by rail. Second, growing congestion on our roads, rails and in the skies is taking a huge toll on economic productivity, our climate and our tolerance for travel delays. Finally, the federal government is preparing to authorize the next aviation and surface transportation programs at a time when most transportation professionals see the need for a new transportation vision.
According to a 2006 national study by the Reason Foundation, Connecticut travelers waste more than 56 million hours per year in traffic congestion, and the state ranks 20th out of 50 states in terms of new highway capacity needed, just over 1,600 new lane miles. The report lists the Bridgeport-Stamford area as the 29th most congested region in the United States and says the picture is not much better for New Haven or Hartford. Several of Connecticut's other cities, such as Waterbury, Danbury, Norwich and New London are facing a 100 percent increase in traffic delays over the next 25 years, according to the foundation.
Rail has to be part of the solution, if only because it is probably neither possible nor desirable to build that much new road capacity.
While New England is viewed as one of the places most at risk from future traffic congestion, it is also well-suited to a "corridor" approach suggested by Brookings. However, that approach will require a new political paradigm that values regional transportation investments equally with traditional in-state initiatives. That's not the political reward system we have today, even though most of us don't really care that much about governmental jurisdictions; we just want to move goods or complete our trips in a reasonable amount of time. As the New England Council recently put it, "To remain a competitive region, leaders need to envision the transportation system beyond state borders — eliminating the single-state approach to transportation."
The top transportation officials from all the New England states met in Boston earlier this week to begin hammering out a multistate rail plan. That's great news. Improved mobility should not just be a concern for transportation planners, however. It should also have the support of governors, mayors, chambers of commerce, shippers, clean-air advocates and energy consumers. In other words, pretty much everyone.
It would be a shame for New England to squander the first real federal commitment to high-speed rail in memory.
•Bernard Cohen was Massachusetts secretary of transportation and public works from 2007 until January 2009.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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