Is Commuter Rail the Answer?

Here we can go again.

It seems like every five or seven years, the talk about commuter rail and high-speed rail starts to heat up again. It usually subsides, however, due to a lack of funding, a lack of momentum on Beacon Hill, or both.

But it always comes back again — this time in the form of a proposed route between Springfield and New Haven and preliminary talk of a route between Springfield, Worcester, and points east — and we’re not really sure why.

We understand the general theory — that if you can connect cities like these with a modern, fairly high-speed form of rail transportation, then people can live in one of those cities and work in the other, creating some employment opportunities. But the last time we checked, these cities were already connected, and rather effectively, by bus, specifically Springfield-based Peter Pan, which runs several routes to New Haven and Worcester a day. And relatively few people take them.

That’s because the bus is for poor people, or so goes the argument, which continues with the presumption that if there was a publicly subsidized commuter rail line, offering rates a few dollars cheaper than the bus, then people would rush to take it. Quite frankly, we don’t see it.

What we see instead are people clinging to an old, romantic notion of rail travel. Years ago, before the interstate highway system was built and jet travel made the country exponentially smaller, rail is how anyone got anywhere. A generation ago, people commuted to and from work by rail, often traveling dozens of miles in the process.

Commuter rail proponents, and there are many of them, say it could happen again. They say individuals who want to work in Boston and New York could do so — and while living in the Pioneer Valley. They also say that a commuter rail system will ease congestion on the region’s highways, improving commerce and creating other opportunities for growth. And commuter rail has, in fact, worked in other parts of the Northeast and other regions of the country.

But we see it as an expensive gamble, one with promise, to be sure, but also considerable risk. Indeed, high-speed rail may actually hinder economic development efforts in Western Mass., by taking talent and jobs out of the region.

Before this region, the Baystate as a whole, and Connecticut dive into commuter rail with both feet, it might be best to study the matter first. ‘Study’ is often a dirty word in government and economic development circles because it’s often meant as a way to stall things or put them on the backburner for a while and hope their proponents go away or find something else to promote.

In this case, however, study is necessary, because there is no real evidence that commuter rail will stimulate economic development, as proponents claim, only speculation, and lots of it. The Springfield-to-New Haven line presents little risk, at least in the form of financial burden, for the Commonwealth, which at this point is only being asked to pick up 10% of the $300 million cost, so it might serve as a litmus test of the concept.

But the region is far from ready to take on its commitment to the project — the Union Station renovation project seems dead in the water and there currently isn’t an infrastructure in place to handle a large-scale rail service in the city — and it has other priorities.

Proponents of commuter rail argue that this economic region, which includes Northern Connecticut, needs to be imaginative in its transportation planning if it is to see economic growth . Being imaginative is fine, but the region also needs to be practical and not create redundancies in a transportation infrastructure that has not been identified as a problem.

In short, more homework is needed before we can state with any degree of confidence that commuter rail can or should be part of the solution for this region.-