Tim Murray: Track to the future

Tim Murray

It was a major problem - how to move the massive amount of material needed for construction of the first skyscraper in Massachusetts. The solution came through innovation, and the adaptation of emerging technology. The result created a new industry in America.

The year was 1826. The challenge was to deliver large granite blocks from Quincy to Charlestown to build the Bunker Hill Monument. The solution was the Granite Railway, stretching three miles from the quarry to the Neponset River in Milton. It was the first commercial railroad in the United States, and it carried the huge granite blocks to docks on the river so they could be shipped across the harbor to Charlestown.

Since then, railroads have been a vital part of our economic infrastructure, indeed, our culture. Today, while cars and trucks dominate our transportation system, rail lines endure and Massachusetts is poised to re-tool our rail network for the long-term benefit of our economy and our environment.

After two years of intense negotiations, we have reached an important agreement with CSX, the national freight railroad that serves Massachusetts. The deal calls for the state to buy the CSX lines from Framingham to Worcester, lines on the South Coast that serve Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River, the line to the MassPort terminals in South Boston, and the venerable Grand Junction, the line that crosses the Charles River near Boston University--the only north-to-south freight rail connection through the city.

This agreement, which will be implemented in phases, allows for the immediate expansion of commuter rail service from Boston to Worcester, with five new trains daily, on what has been one of the most underserved lines of the MBTA commuter rail system. And after decades of rhetoric, but little action, the agreement represents a fundamental step on the strategic plan to finally bring commuter rail service, and the economic growth it can leverage, to the communities of South Coast.

On the freight side, this plan calls for raising the bridge clearance at rail road crossings west of Route 495, so freight trains can roll through the state with two containers stacked on each flatbed. This double-stacking is the standard practice in the rest of the country, but has been impossible here because of the low bridges in Massachusetts.

Allowing double-stacking of freight containers will significantly expand the capacity of our freight rail system, making it more cost effective. That's not only good for the railroads, but also for Massachusetts companies that ship goods, and for motorists who will have fewer trucks competing for space on the highways.

I've been working on rail issues for a long time, because I believe making better use of our rail network is one of the best things we can do for the long-term health of our economy and our environment. When I was mayor of Worcester, I saw first-hand the economic impact improved rail service can bring to a community, and I know we can leverage that dynamic statewide.

When people have frequent, reliable public transit options, they leave their cars at home, easing congestion and pollution. Expanded freight rail service takes trucks off our roads, with similar benefits for air quality and traffic. Commuter rail also helps to cross-pollinate our economy, by linking job centers with varied and affordable housing options.

There is no doubt that we face challenging economic and fiscal times in Massachusetts. Our administration is actively engaged in addressing our fiscal challenges, and will soon roll-out plans to streamline government and squeeze out every dime of efficiencies we can. We also will likely have to make difficult cuts in a wide range of programs this year, in order to balance the state budget in the face of declining revenues brought on by national economic trends.

At the same time, however, we can not afford to pull back on long-term investments like this rail plan. Too often, in years past, state government has been short-sighted and abandoned the future by not investing in roads and bridges, housing and schools, technology and innovation. We will not make those same mistakes.

When our forebears decided to build the Bunker Hill Monument to mark the first major battle of the American Revolution and the ideals for which it was fought, they invested in new technology to overcome what may have seemed to some as an insurmountable problem. With our historic agreement with CSX, we will reclaim the rail legacy in Massachusetts, and bring it forward into the 21st century to continue to serve and support the economic and community development of our Commonwealth.

Tim Murray is the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.