Build it and they will come?

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trainI think we have heard that one before.

So now we are going to build a $1.4 billion commuter line to New Bedford, even though the T can’t afford it, even though that will add to the ongoing costs of the T to maintain the line, and even though expected ridership is dismally low so it won’t even pay for a tiny fraction of the ongoing costs. Okay, what else is new? Perhaps we can build a convention center at the end of the line to soak up all the excess demand for conventions in Massachusetts.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District (SRPEDD) and I did an op-ed on this months ago for the New Bedford Standard Times, calling for a clear understanding of the project’s economic impact, potential environmental consequences, and a comparison with other projects. But what did we know anyway – we (and everybody else at the time) estimated the project cost at between $600 and $900 million.

The only way we will ever do these sorts of comparisons is if we create a real Secretary of Transportation, with control over more of the state’s transportation assets. Currently air is fragmented from light and heavy rail, which does not talk to highways, and then the regional players don’t have any real venue for coming together to develop a statewide strategy.

So what you are left with is pure politics. And, leaving aside the merits of the project, the decision to build the New Bedford line is all about politics.

Reality is the project could be a good one. But it would take some action upfront from the Commonwealth. That is, the Commonwealth would need to put forward a single set of selection criteria for all transportation/transit projects. If one of the principal goals is smart growth, then make one of the major criteria in the selection process housing growth. This way, if politicians want to build the New Bedford line or any project, they will have to line up the support from communities up and down the line, so that the communities will change their zoning and allow that sort of growth to happen.

Doing it after the fact will not work. The zoning laws just won’t allow for dense commercial and residential uses. And with the issue (and fear) of school costs driving local decisions on development, don’t expect even a train to change that.