Governor Patrick’s down payments on a transit legacy

Governor Deval Patrick isn’t hopping the Red Line to get to work, but that hasn’t stopped the comparisons to Michael Dukakis.

The Duke famously took the Green Line when he was governor, and Patrick’s latest transportation plan, released last week, revealed an infusion of money into rail and transit that represents the biggest commitment since the Dukakis days.

Over five years, Patrick proposes to devote more than 40 percent, or about $6.6 billion, of his transportation capital plan to the MBTA, rail, and other forms of mass transit.

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Potential winners include the usual suspects, in and around Boston: $1.3 billion to extend the Green Line to Somerville and Medford; $835 million to begin replacing decades-old Red and Orange line trains; $252 million to buy so-called diesel multiple unit trains and extend the Silver Line to Chelsea.

But what is unusual is the amount earmarked for faraway places: $254 million to design the South Coast Rail to return commuter trains to the New Bedford area; $35 million for the Housatonic Railroad to help restore passenger service to connect the Berkshires to New York City; $42 million to buy and upgrade rails in the “Knowledge Corridor” connecting Northhampton, Springfield, and Connecticut; and $31 million to make permanent the seasonal CapeFlyer, the weekend service between Boston and the Cape.

Some of these communities have long been ignored. New Bedford, Fall River, and Taunton haven’t had rail service since the 1950s, and pigeons have largely inhabited the once-grand Union Station in Springfield, where state and federal dollars will create a modern bus-rail center. These are the kinds of projects that can transform regions economically.

Before we get ahead of ourselves and start thinking about naming a train station after Patrick, here’s some context. Our transportation budget was starved by the Great Recession, billions of dollars in Big Dig debt, and critical bridge repairs. Review capital investments made over the past five years, and you’ll find the state spent $2.5 billion on the MBTA, rail, and transit, a fraction what it is now proposing.

The Patrick years have been long and delay-prone for MBTA riders. My favorite complaint: subways and commuter trains that can’t seem to operate in frigid weather, which tends to happen here.

For sure, the governor is playing catch up on rail, but give him some credit. He could have added a couple lanes to the Southeast Expressway, and a lot of South Shore commuters, myself included, would have been happy. And if the Legislature had let him last year, Patrick would have allocated billions more for transportation over the next decade.

In the twilight of his tenure, Patrick is making the same bets Dukakis did on transit four decades ago. The Duke set in a motion projects we couldn’t live without today: buying South Station and commuter rail tracks, extending the Red Line to Alewife and Braintree, and building chunks of the Orange Line.

Patrick can get his way with the current proposal for the first year, but after that it’s up to the next governor and Legislature to approve annual funding. His plan amounts to down payments on projects such as the South Coast Rail, but the next administration and probably the one after will need to see these through.

“We didn’t pick these projects willy-nilly,” said transportation secretary Rich Davey. “Any governor would be hard pressed to significantly revisit what we put out there. It’s not reflective of just this administration, but what the people of the Commonwealth want.”

Gubernatorial candidates should get on board at the next stop if they want Massachusetts on the right track.