Tim Brennan MassLive Guest Column: Freight railroads' key role in moving the Western Mass economy

31 May 2018

By Tim Brennan

When the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released a draft of its five-year state rail plan earlier this year, it faced concerns from transportation advocates and organizations based here in Western Massachusetts that the plan understates our region's economic growth potential. Accordingly, agencies like the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission voiced concerns that the plan doesn't fully reflect rail's impact on the region's economy or how additional rail system investments could help bolster job growth and economic competitiveness

These advocates understand, as I do, that rail is an economic imperative - one that not only connects our citizens via passenger service but also provides business with efficient service while taking cars off of our increasingly congested and beaten up roadways.

Here in the greater Springfield area, we enjoy the connectivity of a class I freight railroad, CSX, along with several short line railroads including the Genesee & Wyoming, Pioneer Valley and Massachusetts Central which, taken together offer shippers an extensive network of connections throughout the Northeast. These railroads, along with the 12 other short lines dotting the Massachusetts landscape, move nearly 400,000 carloads in the state annually, taking some 900,000 trucks off the road each year.

Although the supply chain might not be a big focus for the average person, it's undeniably key to our region's daily quality of life. Freight railroads deliver raw inputs and finished goods for our factories, providing reliable, cost-effective and sustainable connectivity that encourages business and local development of all kinds. CSX found, for example, that in 2015 Massachusetts businesses invested over $78 million in new or expanded facilities on its own lines or connecting regional and short lines.

In partnership with trucks and ships, and utilizing an interconnected intermodal freight system, freight trains also deliver consumer goods to store shelves. Intermodal shipments in fact comprise the largest percentage of rail traffic entering and exiting Massachusetts annually. And rail is an important partner to Massachusetts' paper and pulp industry.

To frame rail's importance in a different way, it's valuable to look at the state of our other infrastructure systems. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) says 16 percent of Massachusetts' public roads are in poor condition and 9 percent of our bridges are considered structurally deficient. A lack of ample funding to maintain and improve the commonwealth's roads and bridges means these problems can only get worse over time.

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As our local and state officials consider transportation options and plans over the longer term - much like MDOT's rail plan - they need to carefully consider the many benefits of a modern freight rail system and how they can support policies and investments that continually build on its strengths. Looking to the future, the Western Massachusetts economy can certainly benefit if more freight moves over an improved and modernized rail network.

Tim Brennan is the Executive Director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, a regional planning body for the Pioneer Valley region, which encompasses 43 cities and towns in the Hampden and Hampshire county areas.