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Signs Of Hope For A Regional New England Railroad Strategy

Rick Green

August 04, 2009

BURLINGTON, Vt.

You know things have changed when Mike Dukakis is leading the charge again.

I was sandwiched in a jammed hotel ballroom, packed with politicians and state and federal officials at the first New England Rail Summit on Monday afternoon when I cornered the former Massachusetts governor, affable and positive as ever.

This time, the failed 1988 Democratic presidential nominee has the support of Democrats and Republicans from throughout New England in helping lead the fight for reviving railroads in New England.

"Now we've got a guy in the White House and a Congress that has finally decided that what this country needs is a first-class passenger rail system," he told me.

Dukakis, Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Joe Marie, members of Congress, top federal officials and other political leaders all met Monday in a session moderated by Dukakis for what amounted to a council of war to plot a railroad strategy.

This battle is about bringing commuter and freight rail back to life, linking Hartford with Boston and New York, and connecting Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont with southern New England. It's also about economic development and "regional equity" for depressed corners of the five-state region.

After so much talk and dreaming, top state officials from all the New England states are beginning to work closely together, thanks largely to the promise of billions of dollars in federal assistance. Other states and regions of the country especially California and the Midwest are already far ahead of us in planning and organization.

There are 278 "pre-applications" from 40 states now pending before the federal government for nearly $102 billion in commuter and freight rail projects. The Obama administration says it will hand out about $8 billion in high-speed rail money.

At the top of the New England list is the proposed New Haven-to-Springfield line, which would serve as something of a backbone for expanding commuter rail regionally.

"The New England states have had these big dreams. Now suddenly we have this opportunity to turn it into reality," said Joseph Szabo, director of the Federal Railroad Administration, which will award the initial billions in new rail money later this year.

But to get this done, New England must behave as if it were a single state. Monday's meeting drew state legislators from throughout New England, including Connecticut state Reps. David McCluskey, Denise Merrill and Bob Godfrey and their counterparts from Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont and Massachusetts.

"One region, one voice. If you come together with one voice, you are going to strengthen your hand tremendously," Szabo advised the group.

On Monday, there was plenty of talk about a vision for railroads in New England, from increasing trade with Canada to making Hartford a 90-minute trip to New York or Boston to making railroads "intermodal" linking them with highways, bus lines and airports all over the Northeast.

Marie, just a year since Gov. M. Jodi Rell appointed him to the transportation job in Connecticut, is already one of the leading voices.

"The 21st century is promising to be the century of high-speed rail," Marie said after leading the group in a review of the rapid expansion of rail around the world, pointing out that New England and Connecticut are ripe for similar growth.

"This is not imagination for the world today," Marie said. "This is reality."

It's a reality, however, with a price tag in the tens of billions that all of us will have to embrace if we want railroads to rise again. It may be worth it, if it sparks new growth, revives freight rail and creates new opportunities for housing and urban development.

At Monday's meeting, U.S. Rep. John Olver, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, likened the coming rail investment to the campaign to build the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s and 1960s. Olver's House colleague, U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, warned that the region has "to act together or none of this will get done."

Dukakis, who told me that nothing is more important for economic development, said that bringing the region together around a railroad future won't be as hard as it seems.

After all, he said, "we lived through Bush."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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