PITTSFIELD -- The possibility of passenger rail service from New York City to Pittsfield took another step toward reality on Thursday when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it has granted $240,000 for a "comprehensive planning study" of six possible train station locations between Sheffield and Pittsfield.
The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the recipient of the funding, will conduct the study beginning early next year, said Nat Karns, the commission's executive director.
Before the project can move forward, Karns said, essential discussions need to take place regarding specifics of train station locations and what infrastructure is needed for such facilities.
"It's critical that we plan where the stations might be and to think about what impacts they will have on those neighborhoods," Karns said.
An economic study released a year ago, commissioned by the Housatonic Railroad and conducted by Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard, concluded that passenger rail service to and from New York City could increase economic output by $344 million in the Berkshires during its first 10 years of construction and service.
On Thursday, Sheppard said the planning study "is an important step in the process. They need to do the planning and figure out what it's going to cost."
Both Karns and Sheppard said that one aspect of the study would focus on how much parking would be needed for each station, an element that could help determine where the stations might be located.
The project has had vigorous backing by U.S. Rep. John Olver, Sheppard said, and it would need similar support by his successor if it is to become a reality.
"The expanded use of passenger rail service and associated station development takes cars off our roadways, thereby improving air quality through reduced emissions," Olver said in a prepared statement. "These investments have the added benefit of stimulating tourism -- an important component of the Berkshire economy -- and inducing economic development opportunities in the region."
Karns said if the planning process goes well, passenger rail to New York could be a reality within five to eight years.
Sheppard agreed with that assessment, noting that the rail lines already exist.
"There is a reasonable chance that this could be up and running in five years or so," he said.
Such rail service is expected to be patronized by quite a few tourists, employees of Berkshire companies doing business in New York and Connecticut, second-homeowners traveling to and from their Berkshire homes, and service industry employees commuting between Pittsfield and Great Barrington.
"The really exciting part of this project is that, unlike most other rail lines, it's possible that this won't require ongoing government subsidies," Sheppard said. "They expect to be able to carry all of their operating costs through ticket sales."
Karns said part of the study will be conducted through meetings with town boards and commissions concerning zoning, planning and other development aspects for station locations.
Each community will have to work with regional planners to figure out where they want the stations located, and the feasibility of those locations.
Karns noted that these stations are likely to attract regional users, not just folks within the station's community.
Stockbridge Town Admin istrator Jorja Ann Marsden said a passenger train station in Stockbridge would generate more retail and commercial interest in town.
"I'm sure it would be an economic boost for all of Berkshire County," she said, adding that elected town officials "would be more than happy to talk about it with [BRPC] planners."
In Pittsfield, the intermodal transportation facility would be analyzed to determine how it could be enhanced to handle the increased passenger line traffic.
"This is an important next step -- to understand the infrastructure that would be required at every station along the rail line to ensure they can maximize economic benefits from the passenger rail system," said Deanna Ruffer, director of community development in Pittsfield.
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