Photo Gallery | Gov. Deval Patrick visits the Berkshires
PITTSFIELD -- Gov. Deval Patrick urged patience Monday on a natural gas line proposal, casino permitting and medical marijuana licenses, and said he wants a state funding plan to boost passenger rail service to New York City to become a reality before he leaves office.
During a meeting with The Eagle editorial board, the governor also touched on his recently announced economic development package, funding to assist North Adams in the wake of the closing of the city's hospital and a budgetary crunch and other issues.
"My own neighbors in Richmond, I understand, are really fired up about it," Patrick said, referring to a Tennessee Gas Pipeline Inc. plan to install a new main line through the state, crossing the border at Richmond and extending north and east across the commonwealth to Dracut.
The governor, who has a home in Richmond, had been staying there, and on Monday morning helped break ground for a major reconstruction of Tyringham Road in Lee.
Acknowledging the concerns he's heard from residents in the Berkshires and elsewhere about the gas line, Patrick said it is important to note that the permitting process is "still in early days." The process will be a long one with ample opportunity for input and comment, he said, adding that he would favor a balance between the concept of more natural gas in the state to help lower electricity generation costs and the line's effects on the environment and property owners.
In a practical sense, however, "neither state nor local governments will have a lot to say" about the pipeline route and the permit, he said -- decisions which will be made at the federal regulatory level.
Patrick said he is "glad I don't have to make a decision like the one [New York] Governor [Andrew] Cuomo has to make," as use of the controversial hydraulic-fracturing, or fracking method of extracting gas is under consideration in that state. One of the objections raised about a new gas line through Massachusetts is that it would likely carry gas obtained through the fracking method.
"There is a lot of passion around fracking," Patrick said, but added that there also is passion on the part of those seeking adequate supplies of natural gas -- which burns cleaner than other hydrocarbon fuels and would benefit the region economically.
He also said he expects that a gas line maintenance bill, now before a House-Senate conference committee, will be sent to his desk prior to the end of the legislative session next month. The bill would require regular inspection and maintenance of gas lines and reports concerning any leaks detected.
Concerning both the establishment of casinos in the state and the issuance of the first medical marijuana facility licenses, Patrick said he can understand the frustration he's heard expressed, but there is a process underway that he believes will ensure both systems are better over time.
"I think we should take our time," he said of medical marijuana licensing, referring to questions raised in February over scoring for the first 20 licenses approved by the state Department of Public Health. No license proposals at all were approved in Berkshire or Franklin counties. "I am sensitive to the need," he said of those seeking marijuana for pain management or other medical issues, but "we have to do this right."
Patrick said he has asked the DPH to "tighten up the process."
The state casino commission is close to issuing a first license, he said, adding that "this is a big step for us" and "I think the commission has been very thoughtful and careful."
Of the up to $131 million included in a state bond authorization to upgrade 38 miles of rail line in the county to allow passenger rail service connecting Pittsfield with points in Connecticut and New York City, Patrick said he would like the initiative to be "at the point of no return by the time I leave office. I think this is huge. It is a big deal for Pittsfield."
However, the governor said he won't release the funding unless the public-private partnership for the rail line improvements under negotiation with Housatonic Railroad Co. reflects a good investment for the state. That would include flexibility for freight use of the line and that the rail connections in Connecticut also are in place so that travelers could ride to and from the Metro- North lines to the south and New York.
The entire rail improvement project has been estimated at roughly $225 million.
The governor said he believes a development package similar to his four-year, $100 million plan will pass the Legislature. Part of that would fund "middle skills" worker training, such as for skilled manufacturing jobs.
The proposal also would strive to "push economic development out" across the state, particularly in designated Gateway Cities, such as Pittsfield.
Asked about a proposed $750,000 emergency municipal aid package for North Adams, which is struggling with budgetary problems in the wake of the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital, Patrick said, "If it helps buy time for Mayor [Richard] Alcombright while they are working on structural issues, I would support that."
The governor said he also has proposed to further extend broadband service beyond the centers of Massachusetts communities, which were connected through a project completed last year.
To reach Jim Therrien:
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien