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Time for Better Train Connections Between Boston and Providence

Scott MacKay Commentary: Time for Better Boston-Providence train connections.

Before Americans fell in love with cars, trains provided reliable and quick transportation among New England cities. The Public’s Radio political analyst Scott MacKay says its past time for better train connections between Providence and Boston. (Advance copy of commentary scheduled to air Monday.)

The year was 1935. The grim cloud of the Depression hung over the nation. Yet back then you could take a train from Boston to Providence in 44 minutes. The New Haven Railroad’s “Comet” line was advertised with the boasts that there was no highway congestion to delay your trips and no parking problems when you arrived.

Now, more than eight decades later, politicians on Smith Hill and Beacon Hill want to go back to the future by upgrading train connections between the two ancient state capitals of Boston and Providence. Both governors, Republican Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Democrat Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, have pledged to make faster and better trains a priority.

A recent study by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation found that improved rail connections would spur up to 2,000 new jobs in the Ocean State, in such 21st Century industries as health care, scientific services and other knowledge economy institutions.

For years, some business and political leaders in Providence wanted better trains. But Massachusetts leaders saw little urgency, thinking that faster and more frequent trains would benefit Providence more than Boston. Besides, rail improvements are expensive.

There was also some reluctance by a succession of Providence mayors to push for trains because they believed that a better economic growth strategy for Rhode Island’s largest city would be to lure business from Massachusetts. Rhode Islanders of a certain age will remember the billboards on highways to Boston that were put up by former Providence mayor Joseph Paolino, who led the city in the 1980s.

The billboard message was blunt, declaring to motorists idling in Boston’s notorious traffic jams that if your business was in Providence you’d “be home now.”

If you thought traffic was bad then, take a trip now from Providence to Boston. A minor accident or two can turn this drive into a two-hour ordeal, making motorists late for business meetings or making them miss the first three innings at Fenway Park.

Governor Baker’s administration recently said that Boston traffic is at a “tipping point” with clotted roadways from early morning to late in the evening. The Boston Globe reported that soaring housing costs in Boston are shifting homebuyers to the more affordable Providence area market.

Another element is that the Boston business community is finally getting fed up with being home to some of the nation’s most congested roads, says Scott Wolf, director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, a Providence think tank. “There is an urgency now that wasn’t there in the past,” says Wolf.

Baker and Raimondo aren’t the only New England governors who see better rail connections as an aid in battling endless traffic tie-ups. Connecticut’s Democratic Gov., Ned Lamont last week advanced a $4 billion plan to slash train travel from New Haven to Manhattan by 30 minutes. His rationale –this would alleviate heavy congestion on highways in lower Fairfield County that lead to New York.

There are two ways to travel by rail between Boston and Providence. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail system charges $12.25 for a one-way ticket, but the trips take about an hour and fifteen minutes. Amtrak trains are quicker at about 35 to 40 minutes, but they run less frequently and trains are often crowded or even sold out. And Amtrak is more expensive, with tickets ranging from $17 to $73.

Providence is the second busiest MBTA destination outside Boston, after the station in Salem north of the city. The Providence to Boston line already has the infrastructure to power faster electric trains. The thinking is that train commute times could be reduced if old diesel-powered locomotives were replaced with electric trains.

There was another optimistic twist last week: The MBTA’s management board endorsed a plan to electrify the commuter network, with the first phase focused on improvements to the Boston-Providence and some Boston suburbs.

The obvious stumbling block is cost. The range of options is wide, from a $1.7 billion option that would add new trains to the system to a $29 billion upgrade that would mean new electric trains running every 15 minutes all day and link Boston’s North and South stations with a new tunnel.

The pols on both Smith Hill and Beacon Hill would be wise to accelerate the planning and figure out the financing. The highway-clotted future will be an economic drag on both states if this doesn’t move forward.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his reporting and analysis at our web site at