At a lunch last week at Suffolk Law School, Charlie Baker was asked about his position on the South Coast rail. He didn’t rush to support the current project and paused before noting that perhaps making New Bedford and Fall River less dependent on Boston’s wealth might be a good thing. That’s a thoughtful pause.
Rail is part of our history in Massachusetts. In the late nineteenth century, railroads connected all of our cities to our ports and moved workers and goods in our industrial economy. Both South Coast cities were instrumental in turning that region of the state into one of the most important industrial centers of the nation.
But that economy no longer exists. And we succeeded in dismantling the rails in favor of roads. Today we use it primarily to move commuters in and out of Boston to power our service economy, though given the current state of our transit system, few believe it powers as much as it could.
That sentiment leads many to dream of greater interconnectedness via rail. The Governor spoke eloquently on this in his 2013 state of the commonwealth when he asked folks to dream big:
Imagine if a young innovator in the Seaport District could get a fast train to an affordable apartment in New Bedford at the end of the day or the family in New Bedford had access to the work and social opportunities in Boston.
The Governor’s imagination remains the stuff of dreams as the project, estimated to cost $2 billion to build and over $40 million annually to service for an estimated ridership of less than 10,000 commuters a day, has yet to find funding.
That’s a serious investment in moving people to Boston to find economic and social sustenance. Baker is right to give pause. One might reasonably wonder why people should have to leave their cities to find “work and social opportunities.”
Why must a dream for revitalization of both New Bedford and Fall River include getting more people to leave those cities in order to find good jobs in Boston?
Consider this recent piece in the Standard Times which, as these conversations often do, begins with the premise that this region has been left behind to stagnate and rail will link it to a brighter future.
This is where Charlie Baker’s pause is important. The GOP candidate didn’t rush to demand “we must build South Coast rail,” a phrase that seems de rigueur among Democrats. Repeating those promises won’t find the $2 billion necessary to make the project happen.
Baker noted the obvious: it’s expensive and if there is a way to do it for less and with greater efficiency, we should explore that option.
Then he spoke about not making attachment to Boston to catalyst for a revitalized South Coast. He made the point that making the South Coast an attractive place to live and work might just be better than $2billion dollar rail line that takes people away from their communities.
Think of that entrepreneur the Governor mentioned: there is nothing inherently wrong with having that person work full-time in Boston while taking the train home to a waterfront condo in the south coast cities.
But imagine that same worker finding a high-tech job in the center of New Bedford’s historic district, walking to and from her waterfront condo, and using the time saved not sitting on a train to mentor youth, volunteer as a soccer coach, or just spending her disposal income in the restaurants and shops that will certainly follow a revitalized South Coast economy.
I am not neutral in this conversation. I sit on the board of directors for the OpenCape Corporation, a nonprofit that has already made an investment in reshaping the economic fortunes of the region.
And here’s the thing: unlike the rail line, the infrastructure for OpenCape has already been paid for and installed. Last mile connectivity is an issue before the full impact of the network can be realized but the opportunities now exist for a technological revolution in a part of the state that had heretofore been left behind places like the Seaport District.
Don’t let the name of the corporation fool you. This network currently runs right through downtown New Bedford and Fall River.
Within this fiber optic network is the future of high-tech jobs in southeastern Massachusetts.
This network doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have better transit service to the two main cities of the South Coast. And the Governor had been a big booster of the fiber network and obviously doesn’t see fiber and rail as mutually exclusive.
The Governor expended great political capital to try to move the needle on South Coast rail and it didn’t work. It seems unlikely a new governor can do any better, ensuring a debate without end will continue. And while we debate it, a fully paid for infrastructure with far greater potential to help New Bedford and Fall River rebound, is waiting to be harnessed.
Charlie Baker didn’t mention the OpenCape network when he talked about making New Bedford and Fall River greater hubs of economic activity. But I hope that he’ll take a closer look at what OpenCape can do for the region. It fits with his approach.
His Democratic opponents might also take a pause and look to consider what creative development around that fiber optic highway might be able to do for those cities.