Saturday September 15, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- The Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization has amended its 2012-2015 Trans portation Improvement Plan budget to include a $240,000 study into the structural planning of a passenger rail system throughout southern Berkshire County.

The federal funds, provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation, will generate an 18-month study by the Regional Planning Staff into the possibility of having passenger stations set up in Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Sheffield. The transit system would eventually lead into New York City.

"I’m excited to re-introduce the prospect of a passenger rail service into the area," Transportation Manager Clete Kus said when the Berkshire MPO met on Wednesday at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission offices on Fenn Street.

"The focus is on improving what’s necessary to promote a passenger rail service."

Based in Canaan, Conn., the Housatonic Railroad has proposed upgrading its freight lines to service passenger trains between Pitts field and Danbury, Conn. From Danbury, riders could connect to Grand Central Station in Manhattan via Metro North Railroad.

The U.S. Department of Transportation granted the funds last month. Last year, the Housatonic Railroad commissioned a study conducted by Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard that determined 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.

The new study will examine existing structures in the Berkshires that have acted as passenger boarding stations in the past. It will determine if those facilities would still be suitable for boarding in the future.

"We may find a possible place, but then come to find out that it’s since been sold or bought by someone else," said Berkshire MPO vice chairman Jim Lovejoy.

The research is part of the project’s beginning planning stages. No precise dates have been set.

Due to a lack of attendance at the meeting, almost no public input took place. But Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, asked that the project be respectful to the environment.

"The plan should require that the solid waste is disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner, and that it properly contains any oils," said Winn, who was taping the meeting for broadcast on local cable television.

Passenger railroad services have historically disposed of solid waste by leaving it in designated areas on the side of the track or burying it, Winn said.

Lovejoy said environmental safety will be under consideration.

The Berkshire MPO also discussed updating the Housatonic Railroad’s rail tracks, some of which date back to the 1920s.

The group also discussed extending the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in Adams from Hoosac Street to Lime Street. The project went out to bid on Sept. 1. The bids will be discussed on Oct. 23.