Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Economizing Springfield...

A number of things have been buzzing through the air recently. Talk has been circulating about commuter rail, Union Station, and the area economy.

The redevelopment of Union Station is crucial to the revival of the city and downtown particularly. Reviving it could bridge the gap the railroad overpass creates between the North End/Northern Downtown and the rest of downtown. When the station was open, its entrances on Lyman provided pedestrian access north where some of the city's hotels of the time were.

Alas, the fall of the railroads doomed the station to condemnation. Thirty and then some years and many ambitious redevelopments later it remains vacant and decrepit. Recent articles and releases indicate that downscaling from $100 million plus project to about $40 something million is now part of the plan. The baggage building may be demolished. Unfortunate as this is, it may provide the terminal with the space it needs to put the buses on street level and not up on track level. Presently part of the old platform space is used for unofficial parking, but could be made into more platforms and tracks if ever necessary or another track side service.

Talk of bringing Union Station back online has brought discussions about commuter rail. Establishing commuter rail between New Haven and Springfield, provided that Amtrak service remains intact, is smart policy. Although traffic can form going into Springfield at rush hour, it is nothing compared to the slow shuffle into Hartford and to a lesser extent New Haven. This is due in part to the major junction of highways, which Springfield lacks. (The interchange between I-90 and I-91 is far from the city center.)

Commuter rail should be done with the intention of bringing suburbanites into the cities or from city to city. Because this being done in concert with redouble tracking the line and weekend service is not currently planned, Amtrak connections to New York and beyond will remain. Even connecting to the arguably more reliable Metro-North at New Haven will not beat a one-seat ride to New York or a connection from a shuttle in New Haven. Moreover several stations are planned between New Haven and Springfield which Amtrak will bypass.

Commuter rail north of Springfield is also an idea, but may not be financially feasible.

The enthusiasm for commuter rail must not be done foolishly. Commuter rail to Boston is foolish and expensive. The line itself is circuitous and even a massive renovation cannot make it competitive with driving. Moreover, as the line, like most Boston commuter rail funnels into the city, it fails to offer any connection to workers outside of Central Boston. Additionally, as with Boston, there are calls for one seat rides into Grand Central from Hartford and Springfield. Do we really want breadwinners to spend three hours each way commuting? It already happens and it seems like it could have an impact on families. Although this blog is highly suspicious of groups with "Family" agendas, it is difficult to dispute that having parents away from home for so long on top of an 8+ day will negatively affect children and parents equally.

Having cautioned against rash decision we turn to the economy of the city in this fragile national and international economic situation. A study about the stagnating Massachusetts economy published last year included a chapter about Springfield's situation. Notably, it expanded its focus at times to discuss the problems throughout the Conn. River Valley. With regard to Springfield, it noted that amid this financial collapse, officials (and voters) decked out in rose colored glasses and/or placed their heads in holes in the ground made bets on bad policy at the greater expense of the city. The chapter ended before it reached the point where we reached a balanced budget, but the point that the economy remains rocky is all more real with $4 gallon gas and a weak real estate market.

However, Springfield and its environs may be able to take advantage of this. Recent investment in the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute and Gov. Patrick's Bio-Tech Bill will certainly be a boon to the Pioneer Valley. However, as has been a problem in the Springfield area, the issue has not been jobs in this area, but a lack of an educated workforce. It has proven difficult to train the existing population and improve the quality of life in the area. Many positions remain open and endangers the very jobs themselves as employers get frustrated. Clearly an effort to educate the workforce for is needed, but it alone will not be enough.

Recently, Proctor and Gamble released a report announcing that they are looking into altering their supply chain system. Basically, many of their products are made in only a few factories and then, taking advantage of cheap gas distributed them nationwide. When gas was cheap, this was cost effective as having many smaller factories might be expensive. At $4 a gallon, and in fact it is $5 for diesel right now, many regional operations may be a solution. If P&G is considering this, countless other manufacturers may be thinking the same. Already more and more freight is moving over to rail, which is much cheaper and fuel efficient. Springfield, with connections to the national and regional rail network could be one center for manufacturing of products destined to markets in New England and Albany.

This may be a bit optimistic, but any opportunity cannot be dismissed out of hand. It will require effective, intelligent planning and efforts out of 36 Court Street and removal of anti-industrial barriers that the Commonwealth continues to maintain. With Union Station, commuter rail, and a new "new" economy we may break this rut.

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