Berkshire transportation advocates push for strong Western Mass. rail initiative

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Editor's note: The March 21, 2018 article about the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Five-Year Rail Way Draft Plan at times confused two separate proposals for rail service that would impact Western Massachusetts. The State Department of Transportation is supportive of a test of the Berkshire Flyer line - which would provide train service from Pittsfield to New York City - but does not, at this time, support the Housatonic Line - which would connect the region with Connecticut. A study on the Berkshire Flyer is being unveiled Monday, March 26, 4 p.m. at the MassDOT on Main Street in Lenox.

Berkshire County transportation proponents are pushing back against what they see as a lack of representation for Western Massachusetts in the statewide Department of Transportation's statewide railway plan.

The five-year plan sets the agenda for Massachusetts railroad transportation investment, physical upgrades and new infrastructure. 

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, as well as the Berkshire County Selectmen's Association, filed comments earlier this month with the department of transportation about local projects the plan should include.

"The Draft Plan summarily dismisses the idea of passenger service from Pittsfield southward to Connecticut and the New York rail system on the Housatonic Line," the selectmen's association wrote regarding the Housatonic Line in a letter to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). 

Selectmen note that Connecticut has grown cold to the idea of connecting the state to Western Massachusetts, but that should not tank the project. 

"The Final State Rail Plan also should include more detail on what efforts DOT has made to discuss this with Connecticut," the letter continued. "It would be inappropriate for the Final State Plan to relegate the prospect of passenger service to the `no-action' tier without further understanding and explanation of costs and of opportunities with Connecticut."

The release of the final railway plan was pushed back due to the high volume of public comment on the draft, and now, the Flyer study is set to be unveiled Monday, 4 p.m. at the MassDOT District 1 Headquarters, 270 Main St., Lenox. Verbal support for the project has been signaled by the MassDOT, according to state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who has been pressing for Western Massachusetts railways.

"If they put this off, that just seemed illogical," said Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. "If you have active things going on, that show promise, you don't say `forget it for the next five years.' You keep moving."

Karns and the commission delivered comments to Massachusetts Department of Transportation expressing the need to support the Western Massachusetts railways.

There is no firm date as to when the Massachusetts Rail Way report will be finalized. Once the state is finished with it, the plan will go to the Federal Railroad Administration for final approval. As far as adding more support for Western Massachusetts projects into the final version, MassDOT was mum when contacted by The Eagle.

"Comments were received from all parts of the state," said Judith Riley, speaking for MassDOT, "and will be considered as the plan is finalized."

Local transportation advocates also took issue with other parts of the state's railway proposal. In their letters to the department, proponents say the plan:

• Doesn't put enough emphasis on connecting all Northeast states via rail;

• Needs more information about how the railway projects may reduce greenhouse gases and improve air quality;

• Doesn't provide enough support for upgrades to the Housatonic Line freight rail service;

• Doesn't fully understand the railway's impact on Western Massachusetts' economy;

• And too many Western Massachusetts proposals go no farther west than Springfield. 

Though the draft plan doesn't satisfy Western Massachusetts advocates, Hinds and Karns said they are confident the final version of the state Department of Transportation's Railway Plan will offer more for locals than the draft.

"We certainly are optimistic," Hinds said. "We've had a lot of participants active in this, and I think that will materialize [a positive outcome] in the end."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, (413) 629-4621.


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