January 18, 2007

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Concord Publisher's Note: The automobile basket
By Dan Szczesny

Recently there's been debate about building a sheltered bus stop in front of the State House. There's concern that the structure might block the view of the building from the street.

It's a reasonable question, but it pales in comparison to concern we should all have about the inadequate state of public transportation in the capital region.

The problem, simply stated, is that we've put all our eggs in one basket: the automobile. Nothing wrong with cars, but for the past several generations, we've developed great stretches of our communities — Concord and many smaller towns — with only the automobile in mind.

In the process, we've let our formerly robust network of public transit atrophy completely. Passenger rail service, one of the reasons that Concord became a city in the first place, has been completely lost.

Now, as other cities such as Worcester and Lowell, Mass., capitalize on existing connections to Boston, cities such as Concord stand isolated.

It didn't have to happen. Imagine if we as a nation continued to invest in our public transit infrastructure as, say, the French have done in the past few decades.

Today, France has dedicated high-speed lines radiating out from Paris carrying trains that travel at 186 mph.

What if Concord had that service to Boston? You could travel from the statehouse to Beantown in exactly 20 minutes. And you wouldn't have to pay for parking. Wouldn't that be a boon for economic development?

I realize we're not going to get ultra-high-speed passenger rail service anytime soon.

But it's not pie in the sky for us as a community and a state to revise the way we plan for transportation, and more than ever those plans ought to include passenger rail linking us to Manchester, Nashua and Boston, the region's center of finance, education and culture.

Such service would not be for today's commuters, but for tomorrow's economic development. Business follows the transportation infrastructure, after all—and if you don't believe that, you haven't been driving many interstate highways in your lifetime.

It's not a new idea. Concord, as a major rail junction, once enjoyed a high level of passenger rail service. Newcomers might be amazed to learn that the shopping plaza along Storrs Street was once the site of a magnificent rail station and train shed, hosting dozens of trains every day to Boston, plus regular daily service on lines to Claremont, Laconia, Pittsfield, and so on. At one point, there were two trains a day to Center Barnstead! (So says a 1925 Boston & Maine timetable we have kicking around the office.)

The key, though, is to recognize that passenger rail isn't about nostalgia. It's about economic development. The challenge for supporters is to convince the public of its importance not with regard to the past, but the future.