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Commuter rail can take us only so far

FOR PEOPLE in many parts of Eastern Massachusetts, commuter rail is a convenient way to get to work. But whether it lives up to the more ambitious claims made on its behalf is another question entirely. Can commuter rail help bring back older cities like New Bedford, Fall River, and Springfield? Can commuter rail also stymie continued suburban sprawl in Greater Boston?

To many, including both Democratic gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick and his rival, Republican candidate Kerry Healey, the answer seems to be yes. But the history of commuter rail in Massachusetts suggests that while commuter rail can be helpful, it generally has not revitalized communities or reduced sprawl.

Since the early 1970s, the state has provided hundreds of millions, perhaps several billion dollars to support and expand commuter rail service, which now stops at over 100 separate stations in Greater Boston. In the 1970s and 1980s, moreover, the state closed lines serving 39 other stations.

This history provides a natural experiment on how commuter rail service affects nearby communities. And it turns out that while commuter rail lines do carry thousands of people each day, they have not revitalized or significantly changed their host communities. That's the key finding in a new study by former Harvard graduate student Eric Beaton and published by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston (which I direct).

Beaton found that, in areas that had or gained rail service between 1971 and 1999, the use of more than 85 percent of the land did not change. Most commercial areas continued to be commercial areas; most residential areas stayed residential. When changes occurred, they generally saw open space converted to slightly more commercial and medium-density residential uses than in the region as a whole.

Beaton also found that while areas that had, gained or lost rail service are significantly denser than the region as a whole, density levels did not increase significantly in areas near new rail stations. Nor did they decrease in areas when nearby stations were closed. In other words, areas served by commuter rail tended to be dense at the outset, and losing rail service didn't change that.

Even more surprising, introducing commuter rail wasn't even associated with significant increases in transit ridership. Rather, people who started using new commuter rail stations merely stopped using buses or older rail stations. Any increases in transit ridership were so modest that the share of adults using transit to get to work in areas that gained commuter rail lines is still very close to the share of people in areas that lost that service.

From his data, Beaton concluded that " providing new commuter rail facilities is not likely to produce significant changes in travel and land use patterns." That's not to say that commuter rail has no benefits. Rather, it suggests that commuter rail can, at best, play a modest role supporting stringent efforts to increase density, reduce sprawl, and promote transit.

Commuter rail competes for public money with other transportation projects and a host of other priorities, from law enforcement to education.

Beaton's findings do not mean that we should cancel planned rail lines or close down existing lines. But they do suggest that we should rigorously analyze whether proposed, planned, and perhaps even existing commuter rail are efficient and equitable ways to achieve important public goals. The data also suggest that in doing so, we should focus most heavily on transportation benefits, such as reduced congestion or faster travel times.

Above all, the data suggest that we should be very wary of claims that commuter rail will also produce a variety of indirect benefits, such as reducing sprawl or revitalizing ailing communities. If we want to fulfill those goals, the key is to craft good zoning and land-use policies . Doing so isn't easy. Such policies involve telling property owners what they can and can't do with their land -- and telling residents of a community that they have to put up with more density than they might prefer. Commuter rail can play a small role in fighting sprawl, but it can't be the core strategy.

As carpenters know, you should always measure twice and cut once. The history of commuter rail in Massachusetts suggests we should measure again to see if massive new commuter rail projects are really as good as many seem to believe.

David Luberoff is executive director of Harvard's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

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