By Eric Lesser
It’s no secret that Boston is booming. On my drive to the State House every week, I see new buildings, new apartments, new restaurants. I can’t throw a baseball there without hitting a construction crane. The city’s reputation for leading advances in biomedicine and investing in tech startups has made it the envy of the world.
But outside Boston’s 617 area code, the story of our state is much different.
Long before I reach my exit for downtown, I pass the long-abandoned factories of Westinghouse, American Bosch, and Chapman Valve. While Boston’s unemployment rate is about 2%, Springfield’s is nearly 7%. Our Commonwealth’s lopsided growth is leaving Western Mass. behind — and it’s hurting the entire state.
As new companies draw more and more young professionals to Boston, the high cost of housing squeezes their finances, and they struggle to pay back student loans. Meanwhile, those young people leave behind gaping holes in the communities they move away from: fewer families, an aging population, a growing housing glut, and a declining tax base.
Reliable, high-speed commuter rail service between Springfield and Boston would help solve this two-sided problem by creating an exchange between regions.
East-west rail would give employees in Western Mass. access to higher-paying jobs in Eastern Mass. And it would give those who are struggling to afford housing in Eastern Mass. more affordable options in Central and Western Mass.
The current economy of Massachusetts is not properly using our different regions’ comparative advantages to their full potential. Western Mass. is a beautiful place to live and raise a family, with plenty of open land to accommodate even more residents. Eastern Mass. has the opposite problem, but offers more job opportunities and more paths to career advancement.
East-west rail is not just a Springfield project or a Western Mass. project. This is a project that would benefit the entire Commonwealth — and business leaders are starting to take note.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce has endorsed east-west rail as a way to open up expansion opportunities and consumer markets to businesses in Boston. Realtors and housing advocates have told me that east-west rail would not only ease Boston’s critical housing shortage, but would also be a boon to housing markets outside the city.
But the most important voices in this discussion are those of the workers and families themselves. On June 19, I took a whistlestop tour across the state to raise awareness of my proposal to study the feasibility of a high-speed rail line between Springfield and Boston. When I stopped in Palmer, I met an older woman who told me about the many times she had been laid off because a company had closed or downsized or moved to a different region.
Each time, she said, she would have to go back to school or retrain for a new skill. And each time, when she looked for a new job, the openings were farther and farther away from Palmer — from her hometown, her friends, and her family.
When Western Mass. gets left behind, this is what it looks like: a laid-off worker with very few options.
This is the story being told outside of Boston’s 617 area code. And it would have a happier ending with an east-west rail link that would bring this woman — and other workers like her — to job opportunities closer to home.
State Sen. Eric Lesser represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District.