NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 25, 2012

Study: 'Smart' infrastructure key to New England economic growth

By Andy Metzger State House News Service
Newburyport Daily News

---- — BOSTON — 14.53 cents per kilowatt hour, Massachusetts is the fourth priciest state for electricity, behind New York, Connecticut and Hawaii, according to a study released Tuesday that calls for a new way of thinking about infrastructure development in New England.

Three other New England states rank among the top 10 in energy costs, according to a study offered by the business-backed New England Council.

“Our biggest weakness is the energy cost, and the rest of North America is looking pretty happy at natural gas pricing,” said Mike Reopel, a consultant at Deloitte, which helped write the study. “We have a cul-de-sac in North America.”

Natural gas pipelines end in New England, a region with few energy resources of its own. The study recommends the region maintain its nuclear power plants, develop natural gas infrastructure and consider another liquefied natural gas terminal, which would provide backup capacity during peak demand, beyond the region’s lone on-shore terminal in Everett.

The study recommends decreasing residential reliance on home heating oil to create more demand for natural gas and natural gas infrastructure development. It also calls for developing a regional consensus on renewable energy, including offshore wind power.

Technology is key, according to Reopel, and New England has an advantage in that area, with universities and community colleges linking skilled workers to jobs.

Transportation remains another hurdle in New England, especially in Massachusetts. The study cites a 2011 Texas Transportation Institute study, which found Boston to be the ninth worst metropolitan area in terms of hours lost per commute because of traffic congestion. That’s a deficiency that could be hampering the economy, according to the study.

In the area of transportation, the study recommends “smart infrastructure” that measures a driver’s use of roadways and then charges them for that. One such proposal, a vehicle-miles traveled fee, has raised privacy concerns that the government could see where private individuals travel in their cars, but Reopel predicted the need to decongest roadways would make that idea more palatable.

“Those considerations wane over time,” Reopel said. Speaking of traffic congestion’s role in inspiring those kinds of solutions, Reopel said, “It has to come to a point where enough is enough.”

Other studies have focused on public transit’s role in lowering individual transportation costs,and congestion is not limited to Boston’s roadways. According to a report released in June, the MBTA’s aging infrastructure would be insufficient to handle a growth in ridership.

“Billions of dollars will need to be invested in new rolling stock and upgraded power and signal systems in order to address the capacity problems identified in this report,” the Urban Land Institute report concluded.

The NEC study focused more on automotive, freight trains and airports, highlighting the benefits of Logan International Airport’s recent non-stop connection to Japan. To reach emerging markets in India, China and Brazil, travelers often have to move through New York, according to the study.

Railways in central and western Massachusetts also impede commerce. Bridges remain too short to accommodate double-stacked container cars, the study said. The study mentioned that a cost-lowering system developed by Lexington-based RailRunner to transfer freight from trains to trucks is already in place in New England.

Noting the costs associated with developing a rail or subway system, the study recommended rapid bus transit to connect smaller cities. Reopel said bus transit, combined with pricing that would increase as congestion increased, would alleviate transportation woes. He also said that the ideas mentioned in the report would have a place in next year’s conversation about transportation financing.

In some parts of Massachusetts, low costs are an advantage. The Interstate-91 corridor, which transects Vermont, New Hampshire and western Massachusetts, can produce highly engineered products at a cost of only about 5 percent more than the southeast region of the country.

The Downeast corridor, running through New Hampshire and up the Maine coast, is slightly cheaper, but both are far less expensive than Boston, where highly engineered products are about 33 percent more expensive than the southeast.

The council study recommends developing infrastructure, including broadband, and supporting job training and innovative financing strategies to boost the region’s competitiveness.

“Perhaps the most significant message of this year’s research is this: for every $1 billion New England invests in smart infrastructure, a potential 27,000 new and sustainable jobs may be created over and above the immediate construction work,” New England Council President James Brett, a former Democratic state representative, wrote in the report’s introduction. “With this report, we present an unequivocal call to transform our thinking about infrastructure.”

The NEC presented other financing options, including an infrastructure bank – an idea that has been proposed, but never enacted in Massachusetts. The study includes a host of recommendations for bringing in private companies as investors in infrastructure projects. Another idea in the report: allowing municipalities to charge a local sales tax to pay for infrastructure.

“If you use it, you should pay for it,” Reopel said. A New Hampshire resident, Reopel said his commute to Boston can vary by several hours depending on Interstate 93 traffic, and he would be willing to pay for a faster commute.

“Any summer Friday, (the commute) is over three hours,” Reopel said, adding he would be happy to take a bus — which could be equipped with wireless Internet and could make use of high-occupancy toll lanes to cut out traffic.

The potential boost to the economy should be an incentive to make the region’s infrastructure work smarter and collaboratively, Reopel said. He said, “You need to experiment and try these out.”