City councillors Leland Cheung, of Cambridge, and Mike Ross, of Boston, speak Thursday at the Museum of Science at a meeting they organized to craft a regional approach to job growth. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There was one very real and immediate concern emerging from two hours of talk Thursday about how Cambridge and Boston must work together to stay on top economically: A “Grand Junction” commuter rail line through Cambridge is all but certain, despite the howls of protest the plan draws from city officials and residents.

The 8.6-mile, 150-year-old freight rail line is already being refurbished after years of neglect — getting it running between North Station and Worcester has been a priority for former Worcester mayor and current Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray — and some estimates say there will be 25 trains a day running on the line within a year.

In October, city councillors vowed to fight in favor of the city’s own plans. But their opposition may not mean much against the firepower seen at the Museum of Science for a “Joint Hearing on Economic Clusters & the Competitiveness of Our Region” that drew members of both cities’ councils, representatives of Boston Mayor Tom Menino, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, state business czar Greg Bialecki and British Consul General Dr. Phil Budden and a horde of speakers from area think tanks and business organizations. The rail line was not, however, the sole (or even meant to be a major) focus of the event.

One of the common messages was that it’s not just Cambridge and Boston that must work together to attract and retain businesses, but the whole area, including Allston, Somerville and especially Worcester, which is seeing its own burst of life-sciences business growth.

The state is seeing job losses overall, though, even in such key industries as medicine, information technology and financial service, while economic “cluster” competitors such as Dallas-Fort Worth — where the costs of housing and living are much less expensive — are gaining them.

Connecting communities is “critical”

“Connectivity in a cluster is critical,” said Richard Dimino, president and chief executive of A Better City, a nonprofit known as Artery Business Committee when it formed in 1989 to build support for the Big Dig. “We have to find a way of connecting these geographies, these populations. So I start talking about how do we improve commuter rail access from Worcester to the Allston Landing area to Cambridge and to Boston. It’s very important because the high technology, life-science, educational credentials of the Worcester area need to relate directly to the Boston-Cambridge area. We want these clusters to grow and really develop, but the transportation system really needs to support that.”

That includes shipping equipment and goods and serving commuters in Worcester and beyond as well as people who need, for example, to get from Kendall Square in Cambridge to Boston’s Longwood Medical Area, or from Cambridge to Boston’s waterfront convention center, he said during a summation of transportation proposals gathered and looked at by his group. There’s much work to be done: While we have “one of the finest transit systems in the world,” he said, the area still faces having the sixth-worst commute in the nation.

“We have lost people, we’ve lost talent, because of the lack of connectivity within the cluster, because people feel they’re not able to connect to the industry, to the medicine and science, to the education and job placement and to where they want to live,” he said.

While Dimino was hardly the only speaker to discuss transportation’s importance, his was the most sustained discussion of it — including the need to maintain and upgrade over the next two decades transportation links such as the several bridges connecting the cities across the Charles River.

The CSX train right of way by Kendall Square, which the state owns, is “the critical link between Cambridge and Boston,” he said, and it is atop the old Grand Junction bridge. “We have to find a way to make this bridge and the connection between these two cities and the Longwood Medical Area and Kendall and the rest of that [area] work more effectively … we also need to make sure that the existing transit systems serving the work force getting in and out of these areas today doesn’t come to a grinding halt.”

While the Massachusetts Bay Transit authority faces a shortfall next fiscal year of between $110 million and $155 million, national competitors such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., have already spent billions on transportation infrastructure improvements, Dimino said, so they can steal jobs from Boston and Cambridge.

Concession to Cambridge

Dimino’s plans include a transportation center in Allston, where Harvard began a massive expansion but put it on hold to wait out the recession, and more bus rapid transit all the way to the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Cambridge residents, though, will be wary of an Allston station drawing off funds. Getting the Grand Junction commuter rail line to stop in the city, rather than just hurtling through, has been residents’ fallback position if the taking of the tracks can’t be stopped completely.

“The reality is, when you look at who’s behind it — the people who are involved with it already — it’d be a stretch to think we could stop it from happening,” Cheung said after the meeting, referring to the Grand Junction line. “I’ve been doing a lot of work to try to at least get a stop in Cambridge. If they’re going to come through, the worst thing would be for them to go through and not even stop in the city.”

Cheung said he was holding meetings with state-level transportation officials and staffers for U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano, who represents the area. Fellow city councillor Tim Toomey said in October that he was “aggressively” working against the state’s Grand Junction plan in his other elected role: state representative for Cambridge and Somerville.

In East Cambridge, residents have been frustrated by the state’s intentions for old and new Lechmere T stops. Asked whether Cambridge giving up its own plans for the Grand Junction land could result in concessions at Lechmere, Cheung said it was too early to tell.

The meeting, held at the Museum of Science because it’s the only building with portions in both cities, was opposed by some city councillors when Cheung brought up the idea Nov. 22. But Mayor David Maher and councillors Ken Reeves, Sam Seidel and Denise Simmons attended, as did City Manager Robert W. Healy and members of the city’s economic development team. The museum’s theater also had some 60 people in the audience.

Cheung and Boston city councillor Mike Ross, who organized the meeting together, vowed to announce a next step soon.

Update: Clarification was added Dec. 24 that the Grand Junction, while the focus of this post, was not the focus of the meeting, and that A Better City discusses transportation issues but does not make proposals. Its leader, Dimino, writes, “We at ABC feel it’s important to find a use for the Grand Junction that accommodates both mobility between Boston and Cambridge and the need for regional connectivity. Indeed, there is a proposed design for the river crossing that would accommodate commuter rail tracks, a right-of-way for the Urban Ring and a multi-use pedestrian/bike path — another key priority for the city of Cambridge. And while North Station is being studied as a possible terminus for commuter rail from Worcester, such service could also operate out of South Station — slated for a major expansion — or the proposed ‘West Station’ in Allston.”

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