New Bedford’s Ticket to Ride

Above – New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell welcomes Tracy A. Corley, PhD., Transit-Oriented Development Fellow for MassINC., to New Bedford.

By Steven Froias / Contributing Writer

The Southern Massachusetts TTOD Regional Forum rode into town on Monday, April 8 in New Bedford – and before you click back to cat videos on YouTube, cut your beleaguered scribe some slack. Because hey, someone has to translate these cumbersome titles for you.

TTOD stands for “Transformative Transit-Oriented Development.” It envisions what Massachusetts would look like it if it had public transportation as good as they enjoy in Eastern Europe.

Under the Soviets.

What it really means is that there are some people thinking about a public transportation system that actually accomplishes something beyond getting people to Boson for a Red Sox game.

Something like recognizing regional hubs such as New Bedford (and Fall River, Taunton and Brockton) have value in and of themselves as progressive social, cultural and economic engines of growth and value.

Here in New Bedford, and South Coast, the seemingly eternal question has been, “When is South Coast Rail coming????”

It’s always been a fairly narrow margin quest. Do we really only need to get back and forth to Boston to feel good about ourselves? Puh-leaze! Sure, it’s a nice place to visit, but who wants – and can afford – to live there?

How about we recognize that as the capital city, Boston holds the purse-strings. And, we collectively need to extract everything we can from its needy, never-gonna-be-New York, greedy grasp in order to get the public transportation system a progressive state needs and deserves. 

Thankfully, a new concept for what public transportation can and should look like has arrived courtesy of MassINC and, sharp intake of breath, the Gov. Charlie Baker Administration (!)

Insight into this crafty scheme is what was brought MassINC to New Bedford and the Whaling Museum’s Harbor View Gallery on Monday, April 8 at the clunkily-named “Southern Massachusetts TTOD Regional Forum.”

TTOD. Sounds like an affliction, I know.

But it was an ailment worth bearing to hear that the folks at MassINC – and just maybe, the Baker people – get that a truly meaningful public transportation system in Massachusetts means more than just moving the public like cattle to Boston and back to accomplish anything worthwhile.

“Beyond South Coast Rail,” as it will dubbed here, sees a commuter rail system binding all of Massachusetts together – to each other, not just Boston.

How about a rail system that arrives in Gateway Cities every 15 minutes? One that accepts those cities as regional hubs of ideas and industry, promise and possibility? And one that acknowledges that the future believes some people may want to go from Attleboro to Brockton, or New Bedford to Randolph, rather than just South Station? And that that journey is worthwhile, too?

The fever dance that is TTOD sees a future in which cities like New Bedford get their turn behind the wheel.

They write, “Our TTOD Regional Forums convene stakeholders from Gateway Cities and surrounding communities to discuss transit and development assets and needs for addressing opportunities and challenges. This Initiative builds on our 2018 research report on Transformative TOD and statewide conversations about the future of housing, transportation, and economic development.”

There’s a report, of course, and it’s worth diving into here.

But here’s the the money-shot, verbally speaking: Gateway Cities can accommodate thousands of new housing units and thousands of new jobs on the vacant and underutilized land surrounding their commuter rail stations. This walkable, mixed-use urban land offers an ideal setting for transit-oriented development (TOD) to take hold.

“Currently, Gateway City commuter rail stations get minimal ridership from downtown neighborhoods and few developers seek out this land for TOD. But changing economic forces may provide opportunities to funnel future development into transit-connected Gateway Cities, generating more inclusive and economically productive growth, reducing road congestion and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, increasing housing supply, conserving open space, and improving quality of life in communities throughout the Commonwealth.”

Finally! Someone gets it! Cities like New Bedford, et al aren’t just also-rans in the urban sweepstakes! They are places of value and significant emotional infrastructure that define us as real human beings! (In spite of the wonky language.)

This comes hot on the heels of a report issued by the ‘Commision on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth’, by decree of Ramses the II, that states, “The report considers complex factors affecting the future of transportation such as increasing electrification of the Commonwealth’s transportation system, preparing transportation infrastructure for climate change and the intersection of land use, housing and transportation policies.”

It sounds like it was written by C3PO, but essentially at its best (and there are no promises), it outlines a statewide public transportation rail network that utilizes Gateway Cities as hubs in the greater MBTA universe. It’s the actual infrastructure to the MassINC policy ideas. 

Those MassINC ideas and the ‘Commision’ report taken together represents some serious adulting going on around the topic of public transportation. It looks at it as a whole rather than a “T” or South Coast Rail either/or option.  

Yeah – it’s visionary. In a perverted way. Guess it takes a think-tank and many, many overpaid government hacks to realize that the society and economy we had before this nation’s overwhelming military and financial victory in World War II was the one that worked best in terms of mobility!

You know – a mix of railways, light transit, reliable buses and even some awful automobiles. But these days, all of them with more environmentally-friendly street cred.

So, welcome to the (possible) future. It look a lot like the past. Vibrant small cities that you can move around in, and to, and from – with neighborhoods that feel like home.

Because they are home. And they’re a welcome place to return to after taking your ticket to ride anywhere else you may need or have to go to in pursuit of personal or professional enjoyment.

The discussion has been started, and throughout the state folks are finally asking the right questions regrading public transportation. Yesterday’s conversation at the forum was just a beginning, and much will ride on whether or not the Baker administration can or will follow through on trying to enact its common sense transit suggestions.

It will be a journey – but just maybe, we’re headed in the right direction. That’s worth talking about.

P.S. A thorough report from the forum should include the standard, perfunctory “news” that South Coast Rail is “really, really” happening, not destroying any swamps, and should (hopefully) be obsolete by the time it arrives in New Bedford if all of the above gains real traction and support from honest-to-God real people like you, dear reader.

Posted in The Big Picture.