Monday, December 21, 2009

Editorial: Narrow rules are no excuse to withhold rail money

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(This editorial appeared on the Boston Globe Website on December 21, 2009.) The Federal Railroad Administration says it was just following the law in requiring a major environmental review before Amtrak can seek money for improvements on its Boston-Washington route. The review should be performed as quickly as possible, and, if it can't be completed in time to qualify for some of the $8 billion in high-speed rail funds in the federal stimulus bill, Congress should change the rules. The Northeast Corridor is, after all, a century-old railbed, and environmental risks stemming from fairly simple improvements aren't serious enough to jeopardize the best chance in a generation to push American rail policy in the right direction.

This is not just a matter of local interest. The Northeast Corridor is Amtrak's most popular route by far, and the only one with a clear shot at profitability. The economic and environmental benefits of faster, more frequent connections between Boston, New York and Washington are vast, and would be felt beyond the Northeast. Hundreds of flights ply the 427-mile route, polluting the skies while taxis, buses, and passenger cars clog the access roads to some of the busiest airports in the country. A more viable rail option would free up airport capacity and provide quicker connections for business travelers, creating new economic opportunities in cities along the entire train route.

Even the incremental track improvements being considered by Amtrak would be a considerable help, shaving a half-hour off the Boston-New York run, making it about three hours, and another half-hour off the New York-Washington run, getting it closer to two hours. A more ambitious rail agenda would open a potentially faster western route from Boston to New York, providing a sharp increase in service to the struggling cities of Worcester, Springfield and Hartford. With easier travel to New York and Boston, those cities could compete for lucrative back-office jobs in financial services, among other industries.

But all of these improvements will require more advance planning among the various Northeastern states, so they can compete effectively for federal dollars when they become available. This would include finishing the necessary environmental reviews before securing the funds. So far, states have been sluggish about coordinating among themselves, though the New England Governors' Conference recently commissioned Governor Patrick to take the lead. Clearing the way for faster rail connections should be near the top of his priority list.

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