Would an expanded east-west rail system put the state on the path to more affordable housing?
Leaders at A better citya nonprofit organization focused on growing through the lens of equity, sustainability and improving public transit, say the key to easing pressure on Greater Boston and stemming its rising price is better connections between central and western Massachusetts and the urban core of the eastern part of the state.
There may be no better time than the present, as there is a pro-rail administration in the White House and funding available from the $1.2 trillion pass. Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act Last year.
But Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor have passenger rail lines expanded. Experts and even advocates calling for a series of rail improvements across the state warn that it’s crucial that the infrastructure push doesn’t end up crowding out those in need of affordable housing.
“Unfortunately, some research suggests that when you do transit-oriented development, new investments, expansions or improvements in transit, you sometimes increase the cost of housing,” said Richard Dimino, president and CEO of A Better City.
Soaring rents and house prices have accompanied each of Boston’s most recent transit expansions. Silver Line’s expansion through the seaport was followed by a boom in glassy condo and apartment towers.
Somerville, once anointed with the moniker “Slummerville” for its less than glamorous reputation compared to neighboring Boston and Cambridge, ditched that moniker in recent years when it hitched to the orange line with the assembly station, as well than the more recent Green Line Extension, which drove up rents even before the stations opened.
But future transit expansion doesn’t have to be that way, experts said.
A regional rail network would encompass a greater geographic expanse than the recent upgrades and expansions of the MBTA subway and light rail network. That could benefit areas beyond Route 128 that are less density-resilient than some of Boston’s inner suburbs — and want a bigger slice of the economic pie that disproportionately benefits the eastern part of the state. . Instead, it would provide improved rail service to parts of the state that have felt cut off from the Eastern economic boom — and give those areas a crucial role in solving a growing problem in Boston.
Boston leaders have frequently accused surrounding suburbs of not doing enough to generate more housing to meet demand. A Brooking Institutional study found that restrictive zoning in the suburbs played a key role in how home prices in Greater Boston soared 53% between 2009 and 2020.
“East-west rail should be seen as part of a modernized regional rail network, and regional rail should be seen as much of a housing and economic development strategy as a transportation strategy,” said Bob Yaro, president of the North Atlantic Rail Alliancean organization of private and public sector leaders pushing for significant expansion and modernization of passenger rail service in the North East.
The organization’s wish list for passenger rail in Massachusetts includes the evolution of commuter rail to a regional network with electrified lines and expanded service and the development of east-west rail between Boston and Springfield and potentially as far as Pittsfield.
East-west rail is one element – expected to be handled by Amtrak – while the MBTA would tackle the regional network, which encompasses the existing commuter rail system. the MBTA website outlines six rail vision alternatives that include measures such as 15-minute train service to “key stations” in dense areas outside of downtown Boston, future expansions like connecting Kendall Square to a future West Station at Allston and the electrification of various lines to operate more like an urban rail service.
“If services are truly fast and frequent, reliable and affordable, that means central and western Massachusetts are being pulled into the Greater Boston housing, labor and job market,” said Yaro said.
But defenders also say it’s crucial the MBTA doesn’t repeat its mistakes.
Critics have dubbed the Silver Line bus system the “Silver Lie” because its sporadic service does not come close to the frequency of the former elevated Orange Line which linked Nubian Square and other parts of Roxbury to downtown Boston.
The MBTA did not respond to multiple attempts at comment from The Globe.
Even an east-west rail at its peak would probably not achieve the frequency of trips seen on international regional rail networks. The plan is to increase up to five trips a day to Springfield.
Passengers should stick to Worcester and, most likely, points on the Route 128 network to find the type of ride frequency near Paris RER trains or Germany S-Bahn systems.
“Usually it’s a way to push affordability into areas where developers aren’t very interested in developing,” Fabio Duarte, senior researcher at MIT Senseable City Lab, said of efforts to promote rail connectivity as an affordable housing solution. “It’s kind of a smokescreen to say, ‘Yes, we need this land. It is highly valued [of money]. Let’s push these people out.
Indeed, rail service to outlying regions does not ensure affordability. The Amtrak Downeaster line to Maine does not exactly offer stable prices: Housing prices in Braunschweig increased by nearly 25% over the past year, while Portland – the old end of the train line – has seen house prices rise by just over 21%, according to Zillow.
Rather than promoting train service to points west as the silver bullet to affordable housing, Duarte said, city leaders should work harder to tighten inclusive development requirements on market-rate developers.
The Boston Planning & Development Agency generally requires that 13% of the units in an apartment or condo development be reserved as limited revenue. But it’s not uncommon to see inclusive development rates soar as high as 30% in cities like Sao Paulo, Duarte said. The city has even created special zones of social interest, or ZEIS, where 40% of the the land has been set aside for affordable housing40% was at market price and 20% was for other uses.
In Boston, developers have been reluctant to push for more inclusive development requirements earlier, but Duarte isn’t convinced they’d abandon the city if told to build more.
“Everywhere they say, ‘Oh, but if you raise the threshold to 20%, they won’t come,'” he added. “Let’s see.”
Even Dimino, one of the biggest advocates of improving rail service, acknowledges that infrastructure improvements bring a degree of affordability uncertainty.
“There’s a part of me that thinks it might be important that … we really start thinking about how we can better serve transit-dependent populations,” Dimino said. “[We need to make] sure that equity issues are really addressed directly and that we also try to restore and maintain affordable housing opportunities.