MBTA plans to ramp up capital spending

Faced with a 7.3 billion backlog in maintenance of the system and its vehicles, the MBTA is planning to more than double how much it spends on capital improvement projects over the next five years.

There are so many passenger rail projects proposed for Massachusetts that it is a challenge to keep track of them all, and they are all competing for attention from the governor and legislators. One approach would be to stop looking at them incrementally and instead look at the Big Picture. As in Big Rail.

That's what former state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, and James Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation under Governor Deval Patrick, make the case for in a recent piece in Commonwealth Magazine. They maintain that the incremental approach is insufficient to address transportation issues that plague the state from Boston to the Berkshires.

The authors first acknowledge the severe traffic congestion problems that plague the eastern end of the state, particularly within the Route 128 belt around Boston, and endorse a variety of rail solutions. They also look west, recalling when Western Massachusetts, in Mr. Rosenberg, had a rare native son in a leadership position on Beacon Hill.

They advocate the purchase of the right-of-way west of Worcester, which is now controlled by the CSX freight rail company, as necessary to extend passenger rail west to Springfield and then points further westward. Along with rail service between Boston and Pittsfield they support development of a norther passenger rail route between Boston and North Adams. By 2035 they propose that the entire rail system be electrified so it will run faster and more efficiently, allowing residents to move westward out of the cities to lower their costs of living while commuting to the east. Gateway cities, of which Pittsfield is one, "could realize a surge in private investment" they maintain.

"How much would such a system cost?" the authors ask themselves rhetorically. "A lot," they reply. Certainly more than the state could handle, and with the White House and Senate leadership showing no interest in the nation's crumbling infrastructure, the kind of federal financial aid that fueled the expansion of passenger rail in Asia and Europe won't be coming — at least not until there is major change in Washington.

Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Aloisi cite a number of potential solutions. They propose public/private partnerships in which private entities design, build and manage large infrastructure projects, and offer some successful examples from Miami and Montreal. The companies would profit from managing the projects but also have an incentive to keep costs down because taxpayers would not be on the hook for overruns. Looking back at our own ambitious history, the construction of the Union-Pacific Railroad from coast to coast in the 19th century was fueled by federal land grants provided to the railroads. Perhaps the state could offer financial incentives or other sweeteners to encourage today's railroads to upgrade passenger rail in Massachusetts.

Funding could be sought from investors across the world looking for a steady revenue stream. The authors suggest that funding could be obtained from the nine-state regional Transportation and Climate initiative led by the administration of Gov. Baker and announced earlier this month. The emissions cap system is designed to raise revenue for projects that address climate change through improved transportation mechanisms.

Government, which marches to the beat of the election cycle, isn't good at long-term projects requiring long-term vision. Nonetheless, the Big Rail initiative proposed by Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Aloisi, despite the obstacles, constitutes an admirably ambitious vision. And it will take ambition and vision for Massachusetts to get its transportation system on the rails, from the populous east to the wide open west.