ALL ABOARD! The New England Rail Train is at long last leaving the station.
Earlier this month top transportation officials of the six New England states endorsed an ambitious regional rail plan that will give New England the opportunity to compete for federal stimulus funds as well as the $8 billion the president and Congress already have committed to intercity high speed rail.
The plan includes a series of projects that will connect the region's states to one another and the region to the rest of the country. It will put thousands of people to work, revive some key urban communities, and build a more secure foundation for the region's economic and environmental future.
The projects include:
•New Inland Route high speed service from Boston to New York City via Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, and New Haven, which will link and revitalize some of the region's oldest cities and most affordable and promising economic enterprise zones - as will proposed new rail service to Fall River and New Bedford. The Inland Route will also provide connecting service along a new Knowledge Corridor from Springfield north to Montpelier, Burlington, and Montreal, connecting the five-college area in and around Amherst with universities such as Dartmouth and the University of Vermont. This would encourage the kind of academic and technological excellence that is the key to New England's future.
•New Capital Corridor service between Concord and Boston - via Manchester, Nashua, and Lowell - which will strengthen another important group of residential and employment centers and ease the burden on a seriously overcrowded I-93 and highway system north of Boston.
•Extension north along the Maine Coast to Freeport and Brunswick of the already successful Amtrak Downeaster service between Boston and Portland, with connections to the Maine State Ferry Service. This will support the all-season tourism industry that has long been a major element of the regional economy and quality of life.
•Completion of environmental review and preliminary engineering for the North Station/South Station Rail Link - for which federal funds have already been requested by Governor Patrick. This project would link North and South Stations by an underground rail tunnel, thereby extending the Amtrak Northeast Rail Corridor north of Boston and finally connecting all the pieces of the commuter rail system in a way that will make it possible for people to leave their cars at home and get to Logan Airport.
The regional rail plan came none too soon. The region is already behind the Midwest and California, both of which have been working on regional rail plans for at least the past decade; other parts of the country are racing to catch up. New England is even behind the rest of the Northeast Corridor, where our partner states to the south have been hard at work, with new rail tunnels between New York and New Jersey already approved, along with roadbed improvements between New York and Washington that will reduce Acela running times to about two hours.
But now that there is a rail plan for New England, it is time to act. The Obama administration has already received over $100 billion in state applications for the $8 billion on the table. The New England governors working our congressional delegations need to push - and push hard - to join California and the Midwest at the front of the federal line. And Massachusetts has a special role to play in this effort: We are the biggest state in New England, and virtually every element of the new regional rail plan is connected to or through us.
Working together, we have a not-to-be-missed opportunity to set the stage for a vibrant and expanding New England economy of the future.