The Patrick administration has been handed a major opportunity to improve the commuter rail network in eastern Massachusetts. The CSX railroad corporation wants to sell its rail lines west to Worcester, south to Fall River and New Bedford, and north to Somerville. Assuming the price is right and there are no adverse implications for freight transportation, the state should welcome the opportunity to buy them.
John Cogliano, the Romney administration’s last secretary of transportation, worked hard to complete the deal last fall, but ran out of time before the transition to the Patrick administration. It would have required a bond authorization from the Legislature as well, which would have been hard to get in the last months of the year.
Now negotiations are up to Bernard Cohen, appointed this month to succeed Cogliano as transportation secretary. “This has potential long-term transportation and economic development benefits,” Cohen said in a telephone interview yesterday. “I’m anxious to restart negotiations.”
Purchasing the rights of way to Worcester would allow the state to improve the maintenance of this line, which CSX, in its eight years of ownership, has rarely done well. A state takeover would allow the MBTA to expand service by shifting from a one-track to a two-track operation. It would also provide land for construction of a commuter rail station near the proposed Harvard campus in Allston.
State ownership of the tracks to New Bedford and Fall River would facilitate the extension of commuter rail service there, a priority of the governor during his election campaign. And ownership of the Grand Junction line through Cambridge would make it easier for the MBTA to move trains from the southside rail network to the repair facility in Somerville.
It’s a great deal, as long as the price isn’t outlandish. Cohen wasn’t saying yesterday how much the state would be willing to spend. But it sounds as if CSX is phasing out its freight service to the rail yards in Allston, and, if that’s the case, it will not need rail lines in eastern Massachusetts. Both sides ought to be able to reach an agreement.
A few contrarian voices have been heard recently against the longstanding state policy of encouraging commuter rail expansion around Boston. These people favor more spending on highway construction. But where would the new roads go in crowded eastern Massachusetts? Without the alternative of a reliable rail service, congested highways would tip into gridlock. The state owns all the commuter rail tracks except for the CSX property. A purchase here would enhance the reliability and extend the reach of an essential transportation service.
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