Thoughts on rebuilding our Commonwealth

On July 16, 2020, Sen. Eric Lesser spoke on the floor of the Massachusetts State Senate during debate on a significant transportation funding and policy bill. These are his remarks, as prepared for delivery.

I want to talk a little bit about the very significant funding in the Transportation Bond Bill — $50 million in authorizations for West-East Rail service, as we have begun to call it in Western Mass. There are also a lot more rail projects authorized in this legislation: South Coast Rail, for example, was pointed out. But I want to just take a moment to talk specifically about East-West or West-East Rail. And I want to specifically focus on why this authorization is so important, and why this Transportation Bond Bill is so important.

The Pre-Coronavirus Economy

For decades, we have watched as the economy in Massachusetts changed. Boston was always the commercial center, the hub of Massachusetts and New England, but our Commonwealth had a lot of other job centers and economic centers as well.

We had fishing in Gloucester, we had textiles in Fall River and New Bedford, we had paper in Holyoke, we had manufacturing in Western Massachusetts, where I live. And even though Boston was always indisputably the center and the biggest source of jobs and economic development in the state, we had regional centers as well, where people could have good jobs and work and support their families close to home and close to where they grew up. And then we know what happened, and what changed. The economy changed.

The tech boom saw certain zip codes — and I want to emphasize this: certain zip codes — around 128 and in the metro Boston area boom, while many other regions and jobs left. The result was a tale of two Commonwealths and a state that now has some of the worst income inequality in the entire country.

Quite frankly, this result is not good for either place. It’s led to skyrocketing housing and traffic in the places that were beneficiaries of the boom, and it’s led to a brain drain and continued economic decline everywhere else. I don’t know how any normal person on a normal salary can afford to live in greater Boston, when I look at the prices, and I look at the rents, and I look at the cost of purchasing. And then — by the way, that was the status quo when the Transportation Bond Bill was filed, before Coronavirus.

Inequities Exposed

Then Coronavirus hit, and all of a sudden, all the traffic stopped. All of a sudden, there was no one on the MBTA. In fact, today it took me 90 minutes to get here, from Longmeadow — that’s a record, and I wasn’t speeding. But we know that’s not going to last, we know it can’t last, we know it shouldn’t last — because we need to get the virus under control, crush the curve, as we’re all united in doing, and then we need to see our economy reopen, and we need to get people back to work.

But I’ve heard during the midst of this pandemic, some people say, “well let’s put this infrastructure project on hold.” In particular, I’ve heard people say, “let’s put East-West rail, or West-East rail, on hold,” that we don’t need it anymore. I have to say, that could not be farther from the truth. Because Coronavirus hasn’t created the problems I just described, the inequalities I’ve just described, they were in place long before Coronavirus. Coronavirus has exposed them, and has shown the stakes of inaction.

The communities hardest hit by this pandemic, the communities with the highest rates of infection, the communities with the highest rates of death, the communities with the highest rates of job losses, are the communities that have been left out of Boston’s tech and life sciences boom. It’s the neighborhoods and the zip codes in Boston that were left out as the economy kept going up, and up, and up…for some. It’s the communities — indeed, the entire regions — in practically every other part of the Commonwealth, that have seen these high rates, including my home community in Hampden County.

When this bill was filed, the Massachusetts unemployment rate was about 3%. Now, the Massachusetts unemployment rate is 16%, and who knows what might happen if there’s a resurgence. Everything has changed. But we don’t need to despair, because this could be a moment of opportunity. Zoom is showing us that you could live anywhere, and still be connected to the economy. You could live in Springfield, where I represent, live in your hometown, live in the community you grew up with, and be connected to a high-paying job anywhere in the world.

Rebuilding A Better Commonwealth

You combine those new innovations with better and faster train service, and improvements to broadband, which we’re hopefully going to be doing more on very soon, and you could see tech and innovation and job clusters emerge all over our Commonwealth. But we need the right policy in place to do that. We need the right action in place to make those investments. And this bill and the investments it makes in all regions of our Commonwealth is a good start. Indeed, it’s more than a start, it is an impressive down payment on the work that needs to happen to recover and to rebuild better than before from Coronavirus.

I want to just remind everyone that at the height of the Great Depression, our country built 800 airports. At the height of the Great Depression, our country built 78,000 bridges, including the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges which are now getting redone. The Empire State Building got built in the middle of the Depression.

We need to put people to work. Hundreds of thousands of people are unemployed. The infrastructure this bill supports and funds will create jobs in every corner of our state. Let’s learn the lessons from history and from this crisis, and let’s rebuild our Commonwealth better than before.

State Senator Eric P. Lesser is the Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Senate Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation. Previously, he served as an aide in the Obama White House during the response to the Great Recession.

Massachusetts State Senator, First Hampden & Hampshire District, @AlisonSilberEsq's husband, Rose, Nora & David’s father #mapoli