Longing for 'The Comet'

If only…    The old New Haven Railroad put a unique three-car articulated high-speed passenger train called “The Comet’’ into service between Boston and Providence during 1935. The radically streamlined train was designed and built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company using the latest aerodynamic methods and technologies. Unfortunately, the speedy Comet was a bit too successful on the Boston-Providence run. When the New Haven's passenger business picked up at the start of World War II, the small train couldn't handle the crowds of people who wanted to ride it. The Comet was taken off the Boston-Providence run and spent the remainder of its service life on short-haul commuter runs in the Boston area. It was scrapped in 1951.

If only…

The old New Haven Railroad put a unique three-car articulated high-speed passenger train called “The Comet’’ into service between Boston and Providence during 1935. The radically streamlined train was designed and built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company using the latest aerodynamic methods and technologies. Unfortunately, the speedy Comet was a bit too successful on the Boston-Providence run. When the New Haven's passenger business picked up at the start of World War II, the small train couldn't handle the crowds of people who wanted to ride it. The Comet was taken off the Boston-Providence run and spent the remainder of its service life on short-haul commuter runs in the Boston area. It was scrapped in 1951.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal

It’s too bad that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation decided not to have a second set of tracks laid for the new Pawtucket commuter rail station and instead is building the station directly along Amtrak’s very busy Northeast Corridor tracks. As The Providence Journal’s Patrick Anderson reported in an Aug. 26 story (“Pawtucket station cost climbs to $51 million’’), “With the station directly on the Northeast Corridor, intercity or express trains couldn’t overtake trains stopping in Pawtucket.’’ That may well slow down traffic on that very heavily traveled Amtrak/MBTA line. And, Mr. Anderson noted, “ot building a second set of tracks could make it more difficult to create a Rhode Island-run rail shuttle.’’

The Transportation Department’s decision to forgo the tracks was done to save money but the project has included a hefty cost overrun -- $11 million so far -- at least in part because, Mr. Anderson reports, Amtrak rules (it’s their track!) “have forced the station work to be done at night and at other times of light traffic,’’ driving up costs. But the biggest false economy in this is for the long-term.

Of course, Amtrak itself needs more tracks to allow more and faster trains and help get as many vehicles as possible off the roads.


Kudos to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker for making a push for MBTA express trains between Boston and Providence. But this will require working it out with Amtrak, which runs on the same line. Again we need more tracks!! And an express train program may also require leasing electric-powered trains from Amtrak; the diesel trains now on the MBTA’s Providence-Boston route are less reliable than electric ones.

What could happen faster is having express highway lanes on highways in and around Boston that drivers would have to pay a toll to use. That would bring in money for transportation projects and encourage use of mass transit. Mr. Baker seems to like the idea, though many will yelp. But the region’s highway-congestion crisis has reached the point that strong, perhaps politically unpopular measures must be taken – and soon. (Some wags are calling the proposed express lanes “Lexus Lanes,’’ implying they’ll unduly favor richer folks who can more easily afford them.)

Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, former Amtrak chairman and now a Northeastern University political science professor, said at a Grow Smart RI meeting in April:

“The only way to solve this congestion problem is to have a first-class regional rail system not only for Massachusetts but for all of New England, with the six governors deeply and actively involved. It would take 60,000 to 70,000 cars off the road every day.”

Barry Schiller: A vision for better commuter rail service and links in southern New England

Via ecoRI News (

MBTA locomotives in South Station, the inbound terminus of commuter  rail lines from the south of Boston.

MBTA locomotives in South Station, the inbound terminus of commuter  rail lines from the south of Boston.

We all know Rhode Island benefits from its proximity to Boston, which provides our residents and businesses access to markets, jobs, entertainment, medical services and schools. But we are held back by problems related to getting there and back.

The roads are increasingly congested, and that slows buses too. There are accidents, and parking can be tough. Highway improvements are sometimes environmentally destructive and very expensive. For example, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation may spend about $300 million just to redo less than a mile of I-95 in central Providence. And we know we should reduce gasoline consumption, which drains money out of the local economy and contributes so much to greenhouse-gas emissions.

Amtrak Acelas are quick, but also expensive. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter trains provide access and we are “on track” to add a Pawtucket-Central Falls station so that those communities can better access Boston and the rest of the state. The MBTA also brings Massachusetts folks to Rhode Island, including a significant number of “reverse commuters” without clogging our roads and Massachusetts folks also use it to get to our airport.

But the trains are relatively slow, often taking about 70 minutes to go the 44 miles from Providence to Boston. Though there are 20 trains each way weekdays, and there can be inconvenient gaps between trains, more than 2 hours apart at times. And the service isn’t very reliable about being on time.

So a regional group called Transit Matters has developed a vision for how the commuter rail could better serve the region’s economy and environment. After looking at best practices elsewhere, notably Philadelphia and Paris, its main recommendations include: electrification; high-level platforms at all stations; more frequent service; free transfers to local buses and subways; infrastructure improvements at a few bottlenecks.

On the Providence line, where there already are electric wires used by Amtrak, we would need additional wires in just a few stretches, notably the Pawtucket layover yard. That would make those nearby happy not to have diesel-engine pollution or noise. Electric engines are quieter and cleaner, and accelerate quicker, speeding up trips. They are more reliable and last longer than diesel. After startup capital costs they have lower operating costs.

High-level platforms, missing in eight of the current 15 stations on our line, also speed trips by quicker boarding at stations, especially for those with disabilities. The time to get to Boston could be reduced to about 46 minutes. Speedier trips use equipment and labor more efficiently and would also generate more revenue by attracting more passengers.

Long term, Transit Matters recommends a rail tunnel connecting North and South stations in Boston. This would have many operational advantages, avoid the need for an expensive expansion of South Station, and connect Rhode Island to the North Shore and northern New England, and connect them to us!

There are obstacles, including finding the capital funds to do all this, harder with the Trump administration hostility to both our region for not voting for him and to trains with their highly unionized workforce.

The environmental community, though interested in promoting electric cars, has mostly ignored electrifying our commuter rail. It’s also a challenge to get two states, the MBTA and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) to all work together and coordinate. But, there are a lot of benefits.

Barry Schiller, a transit rider and longtime transit advocate, is a former board member of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

Alyssa Aquino: What happened to Trump's transportation plan?

Commuter rail in Westchester County, N.Y.

Commuter rail in Westchester County, N.Y.


Every time the train derails, my mother begs me to stay put. But how can I?

Along the densely populated Eastern Seaboard, your life is structured around transport. Not everyone can live in New York City or Washington, D.C., so millions of people who work there commute in. The car traffic qualifies as its own hell, so many take the rail.

Joe Biden famously commuted on a train from his home in Delaware to D.C.  most days as  senator. These days, I less famously commute from Maryland to D.C. So when Donald Trump announced an ambitious $1.1 trillion infrastructure plan, I was actually excited.

You see, American infrastructure isn’t so great. We have the world’s biggest economy, but our transit systems rank behind 10 other countries, according to the Global Competitiveness Index. Our trains are tied with Malaysia’s.

For a commuter, these statistics aren’t surprising.

New York, a global financial capital, boasts an intensely convoluted transportation system, where the subway stalls and overcrowds and overheats amidst the press of 4.3 million daily commuters. The stations leak so badly you could say many have permanent waterfall features.

The D.C. metro? It catches on fire. No, really. It does.

The derailments along the lines connecting neighboring states to New York are an even deadlier inconvenience. In 2015, 237 people were killed from Amtrak rail incidents alone, according to the Infrastructure Report Card.

That’s nearly double the number — 136 — who died in airline crashes. And nearly 1,000 more were injured.

As someone whose livelihood is intimately tied to accessing a city, transportation is important to me. So I was a bit let down (if vastly unsurprised) when Trump’s campaign promise didn’t pan out.

First, the numbers kept changing. Was it $1 trillion? Or $500 billion? Or $200 billion, mostly in tax breaks for businesses?

Well, he figured out his math eventually — his budget proposal actually cuts $2.4 billion from the Department of Transportation.

The money needed to fix the Metro-North line? Gone. That’s a pretty callous way for Trump to treat his home state.

But it’s also cruel to Trump’s supporters in places like Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana — rail-poor places sometimes jeered as “flyover country.”

Indeed, most of Trump’s proposed transportation cuts come out of railway systems that those states use, too. Trains through the Midwest already run late half the time, yet all 15 long-distance Amtrak lines get the axe in Trump’s budget.

Right now, 23 states are only serviced with long-distance trains, a figure that breaks neatly into 220 communities and 140 million people. That service is at risk — and so are thousands of jobs for the people who work the trains.

And who knows how many jobs might be lost by commuters? Already, delays along the Northeast lines cost the area $500 million a year when people can’t get to work.

Beyond the economic impacts are the long-term consequences that could arise from a less connected country. Historically, rail expansion didn’t just connect heartland areas to coastal cities — it allowed the agricultural industry to really take root, a fact of huge cultural as well as economic importance.

Protesters rallying from Denver to Cincinnati decided, no thank you, we want our trains. And Congress paid attention, kind of — it’s decided to keep the status quo for now. But that status quo was enough for Trump to decide that a $1.1 trillion transfusion was necessary to fix it. So where’s the plan?

Meanwhile, as I wait each day on D.C.’s often-late subway, I can’t help but think the people in “flyover country” are missing the same thing.

Alyssa Aquino is a Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies. 

America a very tough place to do big projects

Amtrak's Downeaster train, which connects Boston with the Maine Coast.

Amtrak's Downeaster train, which connects Boston with the Maine Coast.

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,''  in

Amtrak and commuter rail travelers face a summer of hell in and around New York’s Penn station as long overdue repairs are made to rail infrastructure there. There will be many delays. New Englanders traveling to New York might want to consider taking Metro North trains from Connecticut. Those terminate at Grand Central Station, not Penn Station. Hopefully within a decade the hellhole that is Penn Station will be replaced with something more gloriously fitting for the nation’s busiest train station.

In other train news, I was sorry to hear that plans for a new high-speed Amtrak route through southwestern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut have been held up or perhaps killed by local NIMBYs who assert  that the proposed route would have some bad local environmental effects.  In fact, the environmental effects would be minor. And by thwarting building along the most commonsensical route in the area, the foes would hurt the environment by ensuring that the train trip between Boston, New York and points south wouldn’t be as fast and competitive with driving as it should be.

Thiswould keep more cars on the roads, causing more pollution and perhaps necessitating more and/or wider roads. Highways, of course, are much wider than rail lines. This is yet another example of why America is the toughest place in the Developed World to build and repair infrastructure.

Still, there’s happy rail news. Amtrak’s Downeaster, which connects Boston and southern Maine, terminating in Brunswick, reported its second-highest number of passengers – 511,422, in fiscal 2017, which ended June 30. That’s up 9 percent from a year earlier and close to the record of 518,572 set in fiscal 2014.

People grow to love their trains – if they’re given the opportunity. Patricia Quinn, who runs the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, was quite right to crow: “These results are pretty impressive. Achieving near-record ridership in a year of low fuel prices and construction-related service interruption indicates that the Downeaster has come of age in solidifying a durable and loyal customer base.’’


Llewellyn King's journal: From WBZ to WGBH; applaud this furniture; broken infrastructure is a tax

Joe Mathieu    -- CBS photo

Joe Mathieu

-- CBS photo


Joe Mathieu, who for the past six years has been a drive-time news anchor, from 5 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., on WBZ NewsRadio 1030, serving Greater Boston, is moving to WGBH's Morning Edition, as the anchor. He's succeeding Bob Seay, who will concentrate, according to the NPR station, on enterprise reporting. Probably on sleeping in as well. Drive-time hours are brutal.

 I’m delighted. I met Joe when he was putting together the very successful POTUS '08 channel on SiriusXM Radio. While the channel was supposed to run just for the length of the 2008 presidential campaign, it was so popular that it was made permanent.

Originally, the channel took its title from POTUS, an abbreviation for President of the United States (first used in the late 1800s in telegraphic communications). It dropped the year in its title and defined POTUS as “Politics of the United States.”

I'm glad not only to be a regular commentator on POTUS, Channel 124, but also that it airs the audio from my PBS program, White House Chronicle, four times on weekends.

My presence there is all due to the days when Joe was the impresario of the channel. I'm indebted to him.

But despite the national reach of his Washington commitments, Joe yearned for his native Boston. He told me he began his career in broadcasting at 14 years old. He graduated from Emerson College, renowned for its arts and communications programs.

I’m glad of the new assignment, not because WBZ is anything but an excellent public service in Boston, but because the new venue will provide more room for Joe’s extraordinary talents as a broadcaster, a political analyst and, his special mastery, as an interviewer.

On the downside, Joe won’t get any more sleep: his WGBH anchor slot, beginning in August, starts at 5 a.m. As a longtime newspaperman and broadcaster, I can tell you about those hours: They’re tough.

Applause for a Table and Its Donors – the Show, too

Centerpiece of  The Dining Room , by A.J. Gurney.    -- Photo by Linda Gasparello

Centerpiece of The Dining Room, by A.J. Gurney.

-- Photo by Linda Gasparello

The Arctic Playhouse, the little not-for-profit theater on the main street of Arctic Village, in West Warwick, R.I., has a table for you.

Well, it is raffling a magnificent dining-room table, matching upholstered chairs, a sideboard and a hutch. Cardi’s, the furniture chain, donated the table to the theater. It is the centerpiece of the set for the theater’s current, lively production of A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room.

The dining-room set is worth $3,500, and the raffle winner will be chosen after the play's run. One of the table's leaves will be signed by the cast and the three Cardi brothers. Instant provenance for a serious set of dining-room furniture.

Raffle tickets are just $10 for one ticket, or $25 for three. Tickets can be bought online or in person at the theater until June 3.

Amtrak Is an Exemplar of Infrastructure Woes

Amtrak, so important to New England and the operator of the only bit of  rail passenger service between Boston and Washington, D.C.,  that looks something like a train service should, is having problems at New York's Penn Station. It is not the awful, crowded concourse at the station, but the awful, crowded rails that passengers don’t see.

Commuter trains have derailed and fixes are going to have to be made with equivalent disruptions this summer. There is even a scheme to reroute the New England trains through Grand Central for the duration.

When will we get the message that infrastructure starved of funding and preventive maintenance fails? Looks like the Trump budget will make matters worse. Broken infrastructure is a tax in its own way. Very taxing.

Llewellyn King ( is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS, a frequent contributor to New England Diary and a veteran publisher, columnist and international business consultant.


Yes, raise the gasoline tax!

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

President Trump is a crook and a pathological liar,  and perhaps a traitor -- nobody's perfect! -- but even  a low-life like him can sometimes be right, although with his ADHD most of his  good ideas lack little more staying power than each of the endless series of lies, boasts and threats that comprise his Tweets.

In any case, kudos, at least for now, for his apparent openness to a very good idea. One is that he says he’d consider supporting raising the federal gasoline and diesel tax to help fund repair of America’s decayed transportation infrastructure. The federal tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents a gallon, and the diesel-fuel tax 24.4 a gallon. The tax was last increased in 1993! No wonder our roads and bridges are in such bad shape. Such an increase would not be enough to pay for all the needed work that has been put off for so long, and so further public-private spending will be needed.

The outlays should include a big increase in outlays for mass transit, which changing demographics and residential patterns require.

Amtrak, for one, needs much more work to meet the needs of its surging customer base.  We’ll get plenty of inconvenient reminders of the decrepitude of much of its infrastructure this summer as the system starts on much overdue work at New York’s Penn Station, the nation’s busiest train station. Travelers going through that catacomb are warned to expect weeks of disruption this summer.

The Northeast Corridor, by far Amtrak’s busiest  and most lucrative route, has a $28 billion backlog of needed repairs. And yet Congress keeps underfunding it, even as members from lightly populated states demand that the railroad continue to run  money-losing trains through their jurisdictions. In the current fiscal year, Amtrak only gets about $1.4 billion in subsidies from the Feds. (Still, that is 10 times the amount of money that the government is spending this year to pay for the Trump family’s protection and its vacation and business trips….)

Failure to address decay on the Northeast Corridor could seriously hurt the economy of the stretch between Boston and Washington – the single most important area in the United States, including both the nation’s financial capital (New York) and its political capital, as well as such technological, educational and medical centers as  Greater Boston and Philadelphia.

It’s not even a matter of raising the quality of the route to European or East Asian high-speed train standards. It’s a matter of maintaining, or slightly improving, the substandard service we have now.

Llewellyn King: Guilt-stricken meat eater; review of train stations; our beaches are better

'They treat us like equals''

'They treat us like equals''



Italian Veal Caper

Let me be out front about my hypocrisy when it comes to eating animals. I’m a shameless carnivore, but I hate to think of the herds of cattle, pigs and sheep that I've eaten.

In my heart, I’m a vegetarian, but my stomach has an hereditary attachment to the hunters who preceded me. So I eat meat and wish I didn’t.

The best I can do to atone for this sin is to avoid bacon, not because I don’t love it; I do, but I think, along with Winston Churchill, that pigs are pretty terrific creatures. Of course, I do gobble the odd pork roast and chop; so my hypocrisy flourishes.

In case you’ve forgotten, this is what Churchill had to say about pigs, “I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

Well, all of this is by way of a gastronomic enquiry: Why is there so little veal on the menus of Italian restaurants, which abound in New England? Rhode Island's numerous Italian restaurants just give a nod to veal, once the staple meat of the fine Italian table, north and south.

Now, I find chicken has replaced veal on Italian restaurant menus. Such standards as veal franchese, veal saltimbocca and veal marsala are mostly made with chicken.

Osso buco (braised veal shank) has almost disappeared from restaurant menus. You can't make it with chicken. My wife, Linda Gasparello, makes delicious osso buco. But buying the veal shanks for a recent dinner party involved perseverance.

Are we saving the calf and sacrificing the chicken? Looks that way. Eat up and leave the agonizing to me.

Train Trials: Amtrak Stations That Are  OK, Great and Awful

In the main room of the  Providence train station. On the floor is carved the lovely phrase from Robert Louis Stevenson:  "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.''   

In the main room of the  Providence train station. On the floor is carved the lovely phrase from Robert Louis Stevenson:  "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.''


As readers may know, I’m the fat man in the bow tie, so often seen on the Amtrak train between Providence and Washington, D.C. I take the Northeast Regional in times of low economic activity, as it's now for me, and the Acela when economic activity is robust.

The train is really pretty good or, at least, agreeable. But the stations are something else.

Starting at the head of the line, Boston's South Station has lots of places to eat, but few to sit and wait for your train.

Providence's Amtrak station is a train-rider's joy. A small rotunda with a wonderful sandwich bar – with possibly the best sandwiches in the state – Cafe La France

Going swiftly to my next alighting point: New York's Penn Station. It's just scary, with too much third-rate retailing, too many people squeezed together under a ceiling that’s too low. It's filthy, unfriendly, probably unsafe and everything that train travel used not to be. Even a Zaro's Bakery outlet can't redeem it.

Union Station in Washington, D.C., is an architectural masterpiece and the main hall has been fabulously restored. However, Amtrak, which operates the facility, which also serves commuter trains into Maryland and Virginia, seems to care more about rental income than people. There's too much retailing near the train gates, too little use of the glorious main hall. Worse, passengers waiting for trains have to hunt for the few broken chairs in the station.

It’s a pleasure to get on train just to sit down. I hasten say that Union Station isn't as awful or threatening as Penn Station, but it could use some passenger-friendly improvements.

California Beaches Versus New England Beaches



Recently, I found myself again in one of those arguments that won’t be settled and won’t go away: Where are the best beaches? This argument usually boils down to a contest between California and  southern New England.

Let me be partisan: Our beaches are best.

The reason has nothing to do with the tonnage of sand per bather. Rather, it's our secret weapon: the Gulf Stream, which in the summer and early fall sends water that can get well up into the 70s to the southern New England coast, most noticeably into Buzzards Bay. It means that in summer, there's no beach that isn't bather-accessible. You can go in the water.

I've done some pretty thorough research on the western shores of the country and they do have great sand, surf and sunsets -- maybe the best -- but the water is cold. I once ran naked into the Malibu surf to impress an actress: It didn’t work and I froze. In fact, you have to go as far south as San Diego before the water is swimmable.

Sunsets and sand are nice, but you do want to run into the water? We win.

Llewellyn King (, a frequent contributor to New England Diary, is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. He’s also a veteran publisher, editor, columnist and international business consultant



Look for a better owner of Worcester's Union Station

Worcester’s glorious Union Station should become increasingly important as more and more people seek to use mass transit. But it might  be much better run if owned either by a private entity or by some new public-private entity, such as Amtrak, and not by its current owner, the Worcester Redevelopment Authority. At least the grossly underfunded Amtrak, which has never been more patronized than now, knows the transportation business. And the Northeast Corridor is Amtrak's big money maker.

Certainly the size and location of Worcester and the station’s size and beauty could make it into the nexus of interior southern New England. Consider such splendid company-owned venues for the public as Madison Square Garden.

Don't let them block train-line improvement

Amtrak Acela train in Old Saybrook, Conn.

Excerpted from Digital Diary, in GoLocal24

Let’s hope that the opposition of a few mostly affluent people near the Connecticut coast is not permitted to block construction of a long-needed 50-mile bypass  (to reduce the number of curves and choke points) that would finally let Amtrak offer the high-speed train service common in much of the rest of the Developed World.

America’s decrepit transportation infrastructure and failure to install true high-speed rail has hurt the nation’s competitive position, kept far too many people on our crowded roads and hurt the environment (trains are much less polluting than cars and tracks take up much less space than highways).

The bypass would not only let Amtrak trains go much faster; it would allow a major improvement in commuter train service.

This improvement, of course, would be a boon for most everyone in southern New England.

--  Robert Whitcomb

Robert Whitcomb: How to Speed Up Infrastructure Repair

  An irritated citizenry has blocked a bid by the Pawtucket Red Sox, employing very few people and with a mostly seasonal business, to grab valuable public land and erect, with lots of public money, a stadium in downtown Providence, on Route 195- relocation land. The plan would have involved massive tax breaks for the rich PawSox folks that would have been offset by mostly poorer people’s taxes.

The public is belatedly becoming more skeptical about subsidizing individual businesses. (Now if only they were more skeptical about casinos’ “economic- development’’ claims. Look at the research.)

Perhaps Lifespan will sell its Victory Plating tract to the PawSox. And maybe a for-profit (Tenet?) or “nonprofit’’ (Partners?) hospital chain will buy Lifespan, which faces many challenges. Capitalism churns on!

In any event, the stadium experience is a reminder that we must improve our physical infrastructure, in downtown Providence and around America.

Improved infrastructure will be key to a very promising proposal by a team comprising Baltimore’s Wexford Science & Technology and Boston’s CV Properties LLC for a life-sciences park on some Route 195-relocation acres. This could mean a total of hundreds of well-paying, year-round jobs in Providence at many companies. Tax incentives for this idea have merit. (I’d also rather fill the land slated for a park in the 195 area with other job-and-tax-producing businesses, but that’s politically incorrect.)

The proximity of the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, the Brown School of Public Health, hospitals and a nursing school is a big lure. Also attractive is that Providence costs are lower than in such bio-tech centers as Boston-Cambridge and that the site is on the East Coast’s main street (Route 95, Amtrak and an easy-to-access airport).

Rhode Island’s decrepit bridges and roads are not a lure. Governor Raimondo’s proposal for tolls on trucks (which do 90 percent of the damage to our roads and bridges) to help pay for their repair, and in some cases replacement, should have been enacted last spring. It’s an emergency.

It takes far too long to fix infrastructure, be it transportation, electricity, water supply or other key things. The main impediment is red tape, of which the U.S. has more than other developed nations. That’s why their infrastructure is in much better shape than ours.

Common Good sent me a report detailing the vast cost of the delays in fixing our infrastructure and giving proposals on what to do. It has received bi-partisan applause. But will officials act?

The study focuses on federal regulation, but has much resonance for state policies, too. And, of course, many big projects, including the Route 195-relocation one, heavily involve state and federal laws and regulations.

Among the report’s suggestions:

* Solicit public comment on projects before (my emphasis) formal plans are announced as well as through the review process to cut down on the need to revise so much at the end, but keep windy public meetings to a minimum.

* Designate one (my emphasis) environmental official to determine the scope and adequacy of an environmental review in order to slice away at the extreme layering of the review process. Keep the reports at fewer than 300 pages. The review “should focus on material issues of impact and possible alternatives, not endless details.’’ Most importantly, “Net overall (my emphasis) impact should be the most important finding.’’

* Require all claims challenging a project to be brought within 90 days of issuing federal permits.

* Replace multiple permitting with a “one-stop shop.’’ We desperately need to consolidate the approval process.

Amidst the migrants flooding Europe will be a few ISIS types. That there are far too many migrants for border officials to do thorough background checks on is scary.

Fall’s earlier nightfalls remind us of speeding time. When you’re young, three decades seem close to infinity, now it seems yesterday and tomorrow. I grew up in a house built in 1930, but it seemed ancient. (My four siblings and I did a lot of damage!) Yet in 1960, when I was 13, the full onset of the Depression was only 30 years before. The telescoping of time.


Robert Whitcomb: Private-sector passenger rail?

Since the disappearance of private-sector passenger rail  service decades ago, intrepid entrepreneurs have tried to bring it back. None have succeeded.

However, in some densely populated places, passenger rail has even thrived in the public sector, at least as measured by passenger volume. This mostly means Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor and several major cities’ long-established commuter-rail networks. But  new  commuter rail is  also catching on in some unlikely places, including such Sunbelt cities as Dallas and Phoenix, which now have popular light-rail systems.

Now, with an aging population, the proliferation of digital devices that many people would prefer to stare at rather than at the road and the increasing unpleasantness of traveling on America’s decaying highway infrastructure amidst texting and angry drivers, private passenger rail looks more capitalistically attractive.

Consider All Aboard Florida, a company that plans to offer extensive rail service starting in 2017. It will connect Miami and Orlando in just under three hours, with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Its advertising copy eloquently describes commuter rail’s allure in populous areas: “{Y}ou can turn your stressful daily {car} commute into a productive or peaceful time by choosing to take the train instead of driving your car. By becoming a train commuter, you’ll also help the economy and environment while you’re at it.’’

Southern New England, like much of Florida, is densely populated, with some unused or underused rail rights of way. So our entrepreneurs occasionally propose private passenger rail for routes not served by Amtrak or such regional mass-transit organizations as Metro North and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Consider the Worcester-Providence route, on which a new company called the Boston Surface Railroad Co. wants to start operating commuter rail service in 2017 on the (now freight-only) Providence and Worcester Railroad’s tracks. Most of the commuters going to work would be traveling from the Worcester area, via Woonsocket, where there would be a stop, to Greater Providence. While Providence itself has fewer people  -- about 178,000 -- than Worcester (about 183,000), the two-state Providence metro area -- about 1.6 million -- is much bigger than the latter’s metro  area’s about 813,000.

The density is there for rail service. That the region has an older population than the national average and frequent bad winter weather also give the idea a lift.

But the old rail line needs to be upgraded if the trips are to be made fast enough to lure many travelers. The company hopes to offer a one-way time of about 70 minutes on a route that you can drive in about 45 minutes in moderate traffic and clement weather.  That could be a killer.

What this project and similar ones need is new welded track, rebuilt rail beds (with help of public money?) and some entirely new routes to make service competitive with car-driving times. We need more passenger and duel-purpose passenger-freight rail lines, not more highways. But getting them will be tough in a country that so blithely tolerates crumbling transportation infrastructure and has a deeply  entrenched libertarian commuting  habit of a single person driving long distances to work. Unless gasoline tops $5 a gallon and stays there for at least a year, it’s hard to see millions of Americans deciding that they’ll quit their cars to take the train.

Still, I applaud the project’s CEO, Vincent Bono, and hope that thousands of commuters will give his railroad a try. While the trip  would be long, think of how much uninterrupted Web surfing (free Wi-Fi!), reading and snoozing you could get on these trains, with their reclining seats.


An Aug. 10 USA Today story was headlined “Smaller cities emerge among top picks for biz meetings.’’  Depressingly, Providence was not on the list of the top 50 places for “meetings and events’’ in 2015, say evaluations by Cvent.  But many far less interesting and attractive places were.

The reasons probably include Rhode Island’s under-funded and balkanized self-promotion and the long delay (now  finally being addressed) in building a longer runway at T.F.  Green Airport.

Robert Whitcomb (,  a Providence-based editor,  writer and consultant,  oversees and is a partner in Cambridge Management Group, (, a healthcare consultancy, and a fellow at the Pell Center. He used to be the editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal and the finance editor of the International Herald Tribune, among other jobs.

Philip K. Howard: To help fix infrastructure, cut red tape

The deadly Amtrak derailment on Tuesday is just another symptom of Congress’s refusal to address the United States’ decrepit infrastructure. Amtrak is notoriously underfunded, with a huge capital expenditure backlog. While the cause of the crash is not yet determined, even engineer error may have been avoided if Amtrak had implemented “positive train control” to restrict dangerous speeds. But almost every category of U.S. infrastructure is in a dangerous or obsolete state — roads and bridges, power generation and transmission, water treatment and delivery, ports and air traffic control. There is no partisan divide on what is needed: a national initiative to modernize our 50- to 100-year-old infrastructure. The upside is as rosy as the status quo is dire. The United States can enhance its competitiveness, achieve a greener footprint and create upward of 2 million jobs .

So what’s the problem? Modernizing infrastructure requires money and permits. Congress needs to create a long-term funding plan and radically reduce the red tape that drives up costs and ensnarls projects in their infancy. Instead, Congress uses short-term fixes to get past the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund. Congressional efforts to cut red tape are similarly weak .

Congress pretends that not spending money is prudent. But continued delay is not only dangerous but also costly. The longer we wait, the more our infrastructure will cost. Because of decades of deferred maintenance, the bill for repairing the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City, for example, was inflated tenfold in recent years, to $800 million.

Merely avoiding inefficiencies more than pays for new infrastructure — returning $1.44 on each dollar invested, according to Moody’s. Delays due to infrastructure bottlenecks cost about $200 billion per year on railroads, $50 billion per year on roads and $33 billion on inland waterways . America’s antiquated power grid wastes 7 percent of the electricity it transmits, or about $30 billion worth of electricity annually.

Funding won’t build much, however, without red-tape reform. Congress funded an $800 billion stimulus plan in 2009, but five years later only $30 billion had been spent on transportation infrastructure because no government agency had authority to approve projects. As President Obama put it, “There’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”

Red tape can consume nearly a decade on major projects. For example, raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge near the Port of Newark, a project with virtually no environmental impact (it uses existing foundations and right of way), required 47 permits from 19 agencies, and a 5,000-page environmental assessment. The approval process took five years. In San Diego, permitting for a desalination plant began in 2003 and was completed, after 14 legal challenges, in 2012. It will start producing fresh water this year — 12 years later.

Congress did not deliberately create this bureaucratic jungle. The jungle just grew, like kudzu. Environmental review statements are supposed to be 150 to 300 pages, according to federal regulations, and focus on important trade-offs. Nor was the proliferation of permits by design. As government got bigger, it naturally organized itself into silos, each with its own rules and territorial instincts. Many requirements are senseless in context — like requiring a survey of historic buildings within a two-mile radius of the Bayonne Bridge, even though the project touched no buildings.

Just as conservatives act as if funding infrastructure is imprudent, liberals in Congress defend multiple layers of review. Red tape is not the same as good government. It harms the environment as well as driving up costs. The wasted electricity from the obsolete power grid is the same as the output of 200 average coal-burning power plants — causing an extra 280 million tons of carbon to spew into the air each year. Delays in permitting new wind farms and solar fields and connecting transmission lines similarly result in extra carbon emissions. Traffic bottlenecks create exhaust fumes.

Infrastructure is unavoidably controversial. There is always an impact and always a group that is affected more than others. A wind farm or transmission line spoils views and can affect bird populations. A desalination plant produces a briny byproduct. Modernizing a port will disturb the ocean floor and increase traffic in nearby neighborhoods.

But delay on new infrastructure is far worse than these unavoidable side effects. An inefficient port reduces competitiveness and drives shipping elsewhere, requiring goods to be trucked longer distances. Delay in a desalination plant further depletes aquifers. All public choices involve tradeoffs. No amount of law can avoid that reality.

What is needed for infrastructure approvals is basic: Congress must create clear lines of authority to make decisions. Environmental review and public input are important, but such countries  as Germany and Canada achieve this in two years, not 10. They do this by giving responsibility to particular agencies to make practical choices that balance competing public interests — within strict time frames. For example, an environmental official should have responsibility to draw lines on how much review is sufficient. Similarly, one agency should have overriding permitting authority, balancing the concerns of other agencies and departments.

The opportunity here is transformational. With a two-year process and adequate funding, the United States can modernize its infrastructure at far less cost and with huge environmental and economic benefits. This requires Congress to make deliberate choices in the public good.

Philip K. Howard, a New York-based civic leader, author and lawyer, is chairman of the social- and legal-reform nonprofit organization Common Good. He's the author of the best-sellers The Rule of Nobody and The Death of Common Sense.

No wonder Mr. Paolino hates the trolley idea

It's not surprising that former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino opposes a proposed trolley line through the city. Mr. Paolino's money comes from the  windswept-parking-lot business. The more mass transit, the worse for his business. With the aging of the population and increasing disinclination of young people to drive, Mr. Paolino doesn't have history on his side. And most people don't like the look of a city with a lot of parking lots, as opposed to buildings. Parking lots are profoundly depressing.

Still, he's probably right: The city can't  afford the trolley. now. Even more, it can't afford the grotesque giveaway to the Pawsox gang.


The awful Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia reminds me of America's grossly underfunded transportation infrastructure and that we need more rail lines up and down the Northeast Corridor so that a disaster on one set of tracks doesn't stop all rail traffic.


--- Robert Whitcomb

Robert Whitcomb: Why people don't work; my training

News media have recently reported on the many people who have permanently given up looking for work. Among the causes cited: federal and some states’ generous disability programs, marriage’s decline, the aging population, the rise of the Internet and the Affordable Care Act.

I would add corporate short-termism, which leads companies to lay off people faster and to be more disinclined to share profits with lower-level employees in raises. Many ex-workers decide it isn’t worth working again. (And grifters game disability payments …)

Especially since the 1980s, senior executives have been heavily rewarded for quarter-to-quarter earnings gains with gigantic pay packages. When I worked for The Wall Street Journal, in the ’70s, the annual earnings report was the big thing; now it’s the quarterly one. Pension and other investment funds (including unions’!) have also pushed for short-term-profit maximization.

A wider view of corporate duties — such as lower-level employees’ compensation and the communities where the companies do business — has slipped in the priority list, especially in public companies. That chief executives tend to stay in their jobs only a few years encourages this by eroding loyalty to fellow employees.

And private-sector union membership has plunged, weakening a power to push companies to share their wealth more widely with non-executives and people without company stock. So while senior execs’ compensation may rise by double digits in a year, average workers are lucky if their raises reach the inflation rate.

Don’t expect any major share-the-wealth action by executives or owners or a higher federal minimum wage anytime soon.

But the large voting constituencies of these seemingly permanently jobless people make it unlikely that programs that help them avoid work will be slashed. Interestingly, their percentages are highest in the Tea Party regions, where complaints about “welfare’’ and the taxes to pay for it are most strident.

Many of the sort of people who 40 years ago would have been working will henceforth continue not contributing to America’s productive energy. Based on anecdotal reportage, most of these people seem pretty depressed and/or bored by their status.


I TOOK THE TRAIN the other week to and from Philadelphia. As I gazed out the window at the beautiful Long Island Sound marshes, I thought of how much of my life I have spent on trains, and how nice it is that we still have so many on the East Coast.

I remember the excitement of being in Pullman car sleeping compartments on trips to the Midwest to see relatives, and the train down to Tennessee to see family there. At every major stop, they’d bring aboard local newspapers. The attendants were almost entirely African-American; being a sleeping-car porter was the most reliable job that blacks could get then.

Then there were the rackety Old Colony Line commuter trains, with their itchy seat upholstery, from Boston’s South Shore to South Station — with the cars and the station dingy and reeking of cigarette and cigar smoke. Still, it was exciting to be put on a train alone as a little kid. And I began the habit of using the train time to figure out assorted issues and to catch up on sleep.

In school I often took a Budd Car train from Bridgeport to Waterbury, Conn., through a heavily polluted sort of Ruhr Valley industrial landscape (most of the factories are long closed now), after getting to Bridgeport from Boston on an old New Haven Railroad train where you could order a nice meal, with linen tablecloth, in a dining car, checking off your order on a card since inane union rules prohibited speaking the order to a waiter. They were remarkably relaxed about enforcing drinking-age rules.

Then I commuted on such innovations as the Metroliners between New York and Washington, and, for a time in the sexy TurboTrains on the Shoreline Route in New England. (They had an elevated section, like trains Out West.)

The Northeast Corridor trains are too often late, especially when they come from the south, the infrastructure way behind European and many East Asian trains and the eating accommodations mediocre. Still, you have much more space than increasingly unhealthy planes (whose ever tighter seating sets you up for a pulmonary embolism), buses and cars and a moving train’s rhythm is soothing, indeed soporific. Trains get you away from it all, even if you’re going to a job.

Robert Whitcomb ( is the overseer of New England Diary.

Robert Whitcomb: Immigration, a bridge, 'royalists' and Rockefeller

President Obama is making a big mistake in seeking to protect millions of illegal aliens from prosecution by executive order.

While presidents have considerable legal discretion in individual deportation cases, giving amnesty to whole classes of people who broke the law in entering the U.S. stretches to the breaking point proper presidential powers. And remember that Congress has already debated — but not passed — legislative ideas similar to what the president would do, which also undermines his case.

Yes, Congress has long irresponsibly avoided fixing the immigration mess. No wonder the president is frustrated. Republicans, for their part, are torn between the campaign cash of businesses that love cheap illegal-immigrant labor, much of it at or below minimum wage, and nativist Republicans who feel culturally and economically swamped by the alien hordes. Cheap immigrant labor has helped undermine American wages, by some accounts as much as 8 percent.

Many illegal aliens are doing jobs that used to be considered entry jobs entirely for Americans, especially young Americans — a foot in the door of the economy. Some of these were summer jobs that helped pay a lot of college tuition.

Still, there’s no immediate new crisis in immigration. The numbers of those coming across the Mexican border have been declining lately.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not a very bad problem. But the situation doesn’t justify acting in legally dubious, delegitimizing ways that will tend to give a green light to more people to come here illegally, with economic and national-security implications.

If the president and the new Republican-led Congress cannot agree on immigration reform, then they should put off its resolution until, if necessary, one party controls Congress and the White House. Until then, here’s a simple proposal: More firmly enforce the laws on the books. To be fair, note that the Obama administration has deported record numbers of illegals.

ANOTHER THOUGHT on the mid-term elections: The Democrats’ biggest mistake was, out of fear of offending its big-money backers, it took no strong stand against those whom Franklin Roosevelt called “economic royalists” in pushing for a better deal for the middle class.

This is what happened back when Democrats failed to fight for extending Medicare to everyone, rather than coming up with the labyrinthine (and GOP-inspired!) Affordable Care Act. The Democrats need a clear message. In the last election, the perception was that the Democrats really didn’t stand for anything. The high-voting Republicans clearly stood for something: To block Barack Obama at every turn. The president may be standing for something in his immigration plans, but he’s doing it in the wrong way.

AS A RESIDENT of Brooklyn in the ’70s, when New York City was falling apart, I enjoyed the recent Associated Press article about that borough (“Once mocked, Brooklyn emerges as global symbol”).

It has become a symbol of innovation, renewal, gentrification, locavore restaurants and tech startups, with many young Silicon Valleyish types. (One of my daughters recently left Brooklyn for Los Angeles complaining that she was tired of living in a place “where everyone is 25.”)

Somewhat similar transformations have occurred in other old urban areas, including parts of Providence. And even Detroit may be at the very start of a revival.

When I worked in Lower Manhattan and lived in Brooklyn my co-workers acted as if I were commuting to Outer Mongolia. Now it’s where Wall Street types want to be. Never give up on a city!

IF THERE’S one thing that Republicans and Democrats ought to agree on, it’s the nation’s physical infrastructure, especially transportation. And yet key parts of it are falling apart.

Consider the 100-year-old Portal Bridge, part of the underfunded but very heavily traveled Northeast Corridor of Amtrak and local commuter trains. New Jersey Transit, which runs the Garden State’s commuter trains, says that problems on the old bridge caused more than 200 delays from the start of 2013-through July 2014! And that’s far from the only bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor. The aging system (which also needs more tracks) is also a particular mess around Baltimore, as those awaiting northbound trains in New York’s squalid, claustrophobia-inducing Penn Station can especially confirm.

Now there’s a belated plan to replace the Portal Bridge. But with much of American commerce flowing on the Northeast Corridor, the whole stretch must be rebuilt in the next decades. Even with all its flaws (especially when compared with European service), Northeast Corridor train service is a huge wealth creator. If fixed, it can be a much bigger one.

READ Richard Norton Smith’s “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller,’’ about the charismatic, dyslexic master builder, arts patron and would-be president, who was decisive about many things but not about how to run for president. Rockefeller once said: "I'm not bright. I'm imaginative.'' But he was very bright sometimes, and usually very imaginative -- sometimes too much so.

For years, he represented the  GOP's "Eastern Establishment,'' but his party moved south and west on him. By 1964, when asked by backers to call in the “Eastern Establishment,”   he replied: “You’re looking at it, buddy. I’m all that’s left.”

Robert Whitcomb oversees New England Diary. 

Graffiti and marvelous marshes

  I noticed a major expansion of graffiti on walls bordering the Amtrak line today as I went to New York. Did the public-works folks run out of money to clean this up, or don't they care?

As a longtime advocate of James Q. Wilson's "Broken Windows'' theory, I found the mess depressing.  Ignoring it leads to further anti-social behavior. Maybe making such defacement of public space a felony would help.

But the beauty of the train's route along the Connecticut shore is quite something, even if we take it for granted. The marshes along the sound and the woods beyond were golden today.


--- Robert Whitcomb

Llewellyn King: The 'invisible hand' in your pocket

  Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” describing the efficient operation of markets, has morphed into a something else: an invisible hand in my pocket and yours.

This woe comes now at every turn. Corporations -- possibly egged on by the battalions of MBA's they employ -- have discovered that they can con you by price legerdemain. They do this by imposing fees.

Airlines, banks and utilities play the fee game. Luxury resorts have joined in: You'll pay so much for the room, so much in taxes, and special fees if you want to do anything other than sit in it. Bottom line: You'll have pay more than you'd expect. The advertisements that lure you are disingenuous.

Take airline fees. You find an airfare and brace for the taxes. But -- Oh, surprise, surprise! -- you'll have to pay a hefty fee if you want more than one change of clothes at the other end. Want to board comfortably? Pay up. Want a seat where parts of your body don’t meet other parts of your body in unnatural ways? Pay up.

Have to change your flight? There’s a change fee. Just pay up or stay put.

You could take the train, but you might not know that the only corridor of the national rail network that approaches international standards is the Northeast, which runs between Washington, New York and Boston. The trains aren’t bad at all, but the ticket pricing is predatory and opaque. It puts the airlines to shame.

Amtrak train fares are priced according to minute-to-minute demand. On the no-frills train, a ticket from Boston to Washington can cost around $100 to $400, depending on when you buy your ticket and who else wants to travel at that moment.

The result: Amtrak – with a $1.3 billion annual subsidy from you and me –operates a railroad for the well-heeled. Between Washington and New York for corporate lawyers; ditto to Boston with the addition of academics plying the consulting trade.

If you are just in need of getting round the Northeast, take a bus. Or play airline roulette where the fare fluctuations are held down by JetBlue and Southwest.

Then there is the new trend of companies partially shifting the burden of paying workers from themselves to you. Hotels are urging their luckless guests to tip the chambermaids. (I've always tipped them. I fear this corporate move is designed to reduce their responsibility for paying their workers a living wage.)

Fast-food outlets now have tip jars (begging bowls, really), so the poor servers behind the counter can be paid less because it is becoming a tip-calculated wage.

Now, take a look at the unmitigated scandal of interns: free labor. The government and Congress, the media, think tanks, accounting and consulting firms, and many others, have found the best-and-brightest will work for free, primarily in the summer, to learn the trade. Fair enough? Not so. Unpaid interns get a leg up in their careers on their peers who can't afford to take those great jobs. If you worked hard all summer, serving ice cream to pay your tuition, your resume will be deficient and you won't make the important contacts. Interns ought to be paid the minimum wage, so all can start resume-building at the same starting line.

We are witnessing a vast change in the way we pay for things with tipping subsidizing companies, fees fattening airlines, banks and hotels against the interest – and often the foreknowledge -- of the customer.

Adam Smith -- so beloved by the people who are changing the nature of commerce with fees, concealed charges, predatory pricing, tips and free labor -- was a canny Scot who liked to know what he was getting for the money he was paying. He must be restless in his grave.

Llewellyn King ( is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.