PITTSFIELD -- Downtown rail depots are key for passenger rail service to successfully return between the Berkshires and New York City.
Berkshire Regional Planning Commission staff members delivered that assessment during the second of two meetings Wednesday night to discuss four potential sites for riders to board and disembark between Pittsfield and the Connecticut line.
BRPC has identified the city's Intermodal Transportation Center just off North Street, an unspecified site between Railroad Street and the Housatonic River in Lee and the historic former train station behind Great Barrington Town Hall.
In addition to being centrally located, the areas have little or no environmental constraints, allow passengers to easily access public transportation and should reap the economic benefits of a re-established north-south passenger train service, according to BRPC senior planner, Gwen Miller.
Miller noted a fourth depot could be built on vacant land along West Stahl Road in Sheffield, near the Connecticut line, provided one isn't located across the border in North Canaan, Conn.
"Sheffield could be a regional station as it offers a lot of space for parking, but does have some environmental issues," Miller said.
Downtown Sheffield would be a more logical choice, she added, but it would be too close to the Great Barrington station.
The four communities were chosen based, in part, on being at least 10 miles apart, as overall trip time between depots is crucial as too many stops slow travel, BRPC officials have said.
BRPC's presentation at the Intermodal Transportation Center comes as the agency nears completion of its $240,000 federally funded study to recommend the optimum sites for the depots. Regional planners expect the final report to be completed within two weeks, followed by a 30-day comment period and a last public meeting before the study wraps up at the end of September.
The Canaan, Conn.-based Housatonic Railroad Co. is spearheading the effort to re-establish a rail link between the Berkshires and New York City, via Danbury, Conn., on the existing Berkshire Line.
Several of the 20 people at Wednesday's 90-minute meeting were concerned about the project's viability, given Connecticut has yet to commit funding to upgrade the 50 miles of track from the Massachusetts line to Danbury.
In mid-July, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced it bought the 37-mile Berkshire Line from the Housatonic Railroad Co. for $12.13 million as part of the $131 million set aside for the project in the state's most recent transportation bond bill. The deal allows Housatonic to continue to use and maintain the tracks for its freight service.
Housatonic spokesman Colin Pease is confident Connecticut will eventually invest in the passenger train service.
"I think there's an awful lot of incentive to get this done," Pease said.
MassDOT plans an initial $35 million worth of track improvements that will permit the operation of passenger trains but serve freight trains until the Connecticut portion of the project is completed. A final round of track improvements will be required along with improvements on the Connecticut portion of the line prior to the start of passenger rail service.
Railway officials have estimated $200 million would be needed to improve the rail line.
If passenger rail service returns, a start date dependent upon completion of the upgrades in both states, it will generate an extra 80,000 tourists a year to the Berkshires, according to Housatonic and BRPC officials.
"The great majority will come for the attractions, such as the cultural activities," said Brian Domina, author of the BRPC study.
Pease believes the majority of new visitors will be about 20 years younger than those currently traveling to the Berkshires who average 55 years of age.
"The potential train rider will be in the mid- to high-30s, doesn't own a car, but has a [driver's] license and is comfortable using transportation," he said.
Pease added an influx of younger tourists is necessary to help sustain the local economy for years to come.
A study conducted by Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard determined that the restoration of a passenger rail link to New York City could increase economic output by $344 million in the Berkshires during the first 10 years of construction and service.
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