The mayors of three cities in the valley are lobbying the state to increase rail traffic to Springfield. As hyperbolic as it may seem, doing so could very well represent the tipping point in these communities becomes a vibrant, unique regional entity. Up to now Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield have each seen themselves much more in the context of their surrounding suburban communities than as a unified urban spine.
(On this recently published rail map, Springfield stands alone)
Whether these mayors, or for that matter Springfield’s mayor Dom Sarno, have a thoroughgoing vision of what rail transit can do, the potential benefits are enormous for all of their municipalities. The on-going Interstate 91 viaduct project may act as a catalyst for expediting rail expansion, but the irony is that increased rail traffic may minimize the importance of the interstate in the long term.
The dynamics of creating a consistent, frequent, reliable, and fast connection from Greenfield through Springfield are interesting to explore. It’s gratifying to see that these mayors are not viewing each of the other cities primarily as rivals but as assets. The major question which this potential linkage would offer up to be answered (begging the question is a different thing btw) is whether or not these municipalities have the critical mass among themselves to become a single dynamic entity.
As many a critical of rail travel will point out, it is necessary that the arrival station be either within walking distance of a final destination, for example an employers office, or provide a quick connection thereto. Is there enough employment in these downtowns to make this viable? How quick would a bus or even a “Bus Rapid Transit” connection at a Springfield Union Station need to be to make departing from Northampton worthwhile? Would major employers like Mass Mutual, Baystate Medical Center, and Mercy encourage its use?
What I would find interesting to explore would be how what would likely start out as one sided auto-centeredness could create enhanced “walksheds” at either end. Which is to say I could envision people who consider themselves drivers leaving their cars at a park and ride lot becoming part of a walk/transit commute at the other end and enhancing that dynamic at the work end of their trip only. It is at that point that the existence of the connection and its dynamism might cause people to view both living and working within the tendrils of this transit system as an entity unto itself such that being found within its borders becomes significantly advantageous to both employers and landowners.
If it ever rose to point that being car free within that zone was a real option, then you could see major impacts up and down this spine with the thousands upon thousands of dollars each commuter could save yearly not just in gas, but in time payments, maintenance, and insurance. The European model demonstrates clearly that the savings of going car-free tend to accrue to local establishments like diners, cafes, and small scale retail.
If this commuter connections were allowed to bleed over into weekend nightlife then I could see a Springfield to Greenfield link rivaling all but the largest and most dynamic of urban settings in the Northeast; which is to say New York City and Boston. All of a sudden Northampton’s avant garde nightlife and Holyoke’s hipster locales could be balanced by Springfield’s staid and stodgy Symphony, real ethnic restaurants, and the faux glitz of a brightly lit casino.
It’s a strategy that requires no externally motivated growth to the local economy to occur, it merely takes what is already here connects it in such a way that it becomes more insular in that it encourages a greater velocity of exchange. Losses will accrue where they should, at the areas outside the bounds which the efficiency of non automobile transit can service. In my mind this transition is both natural and inevitable, the sooner we get there, however, the better off we will be.