Even if the proposal for the Berkshire Line to offer passenger rail service from Pittsfield and points south to New York City fails to gain traction because of lack of interest from Connecticut state government, a $35 million Massachusetts investment to upgrade the tracks for the Housatonic Railroad Co.'s freight line will be money well spent, according to regional planners.
"From an economic development and jobs perspective, simply modernizing the tracks to save close to 800 manufacturing jobs in Berkshire County and northwest Connecticut would mean we've already hit a bases-loaded home run," said Nathaniel Karns, the executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
Sheffield Plastics would probably leave the county if the tracks are not maintained and upgraded, Karns told The Eagle. Access to freight by rail is critical to the company that employs 100 people, he pointed out.
Five other manufacturers, including Onyx Specialty Papers in South Lee and Becton-Dickinson in Canaan, Conn., are partially or totally dependent on rail, Karns added.
Meanwhile, responding to state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli's request for more details about the state's pending $12,130,000 acquisition of Housatonic Railroad's 37 miles of track in Berkshire County, Transportation Secretary Richard Davie affirmed that negotiations for a purchase-and-sale agreement are nearing completion.
"The agreement will be executed once both sides are satisfied with its content," Davie wrote in a recent letter to the Lenox Democrat. He said details would be withheld for now "to protect the negotiations that are underway."
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has committed $35 million for track improvements between Pittsfield and the Connecticut border, part of $131 million set aside for the $200 million Housatonic Railroad passenger service project. The funding is a portion of the $12.8 billion transportation bond bill approved by state lawmakers and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick.
The deal allows the railroad company based in Canaan, Conn., to continue operating freight service. Train speeds are limited to 25 mph until the tracks are upgraded.
But, Davie emphasized, the state's initial investment in renovating the Housatonic line will not be tied to any potential future passenger service.
"For example," he wrote, "while track improvements are being made, we will not be constructing station platforms, adding a signal system or passing tracks that will only be needed with the introduction of additional passenger trains."
The transportation secretary also pointed out that while the Housatonic Railroad Co. will keep exclusive, perpetual rights to operate freight service on the tracks, "MassDOT will have no say over how well they operate." Davie noted that the company is subject to federal regulations, but the state would have a say if Housatonic sells or abandons the line.
In an Eagle interview, Pignatelli, a Lenox democrat, asserted that the state's commitment to purchase the Housatonic rails "is far enough down the track now that I think it's a done deal."
"If passenger service is legitimate," he said, "having the state own the rail is an important step."
Disagreeing with critics who view the agreement as "corporate welfare," Pignatelli noted that nearly all private rail lines have some form of government subsidy.
Stating that he is unaware of any momentum from Connecticut officials toward establishing passenger rail service on 50 miles of Housatonic tracks from North Canaan to Danbury, with a connection to Metro North in Southeast (Brewster), N.Y., Pignatelli suggested that "by all appearances, it's something they support but not high on the priority list." Instead, the state has invested heavily in upgrading tracks linking New Haven to Springfield via Hartford.
He also commented that in light of projected Berkshire County population declines over the next 20 years, "the proposal to run eight trains a day to New York City seems very aggressive. Up to 2 million ticketed passengers a year seems extremely aggressive. I'm not convinced of those."
Just recently, Housatonic Railroad officials have spoken of six trains a day and about a million passenger rides annually.
"Greater minds than mine are trying to crunch these numbers," said Pignatelli, "and I hope they're proven correct. Otherwise, it's a black hole."
He also advocated consideration of better passenger rail connections between Boston and Pittsfield.
"Let's have a choice. I think you get a huge economic impact going east-west," Pignatelli said.
But Karns offered a more upbeat take on the prospect of north-south passenger service.
"There was zero interest by Massachusetts officials two years ago," he said. "As much as people want to claim this is extremely expensive, in transportation dollars a one-time $100 million investment by Connecticut is relatively commonplace."
He acknowledged that for Transportation Secretary Davie, job preservation for firms depending on better-maintained freight tracks along the Housatonic line is crucial.
"Fighting to retain those is critical in its own right," Karns said. "Passenger rail would be a bonus."
He also dismissed the notion that a $240,000, federally funded Regional Planning Commission study identifying potential passenger train depots in Pittsfield, Lee, Great Barrington and possibly Sheffield, is akin to putting the caboose before the locomotive.
Citing the need for city and town zoning law updates that could require several years to approve, Karns said, "If we don't do the thinking and working toward those now, if this comes to pass, they'll be running to play catch-up at the last minute."
Working on the railroad ...
Here are the number of employees at Berkshire and northwest Connecticut
manufacturing firms that depend totally or partially on Housatonic Railroad freight service:
Onyx Specialty Papers (South Lee): 160
Sheffield Plastics: 100
Becton Dickinson (Canaan, Conn.): 340
Specialty Minerals (Canaan, Conn.): 95
Bonsal American (Canaan, Conn.): 50
Century Aggregates (Falls Village, Conn.): 30
Source: Berkshire Regional Planning Commission
To reach Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto