Senate approves $15 million in transportation funding for Berkshires


BOSTON -- The Berkshires would receive $15 million in transportation funds -- including $11 million for two Pittsfield projects -- under a $13 billion measure approved Thursday in the state Senate.

The bill, which still needs approval from the state House, sets aside $6 million to replace the parking garage at Columbus and Summer streets in Pittsfield and $5 million towards the widening of the Hubbard Avenue railroad overpass in Pittsfield.

The bill allocates $175 million for rail projects, including the proposed Pittsfield to Danbury line, which the House approved in its version of the transportation bill in January. The proposed passenger line would allow Berkshire residents to travel to Danbury, and transfer to New York City.

"These important funds show our commitment to transportation across the state," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, in a statement. "Transportation investment will not only keep our roads and bridges safe and reliable, but will also create jobs and promote economic development."

The bill also provides $750,000 to repair the Route 7 bridge over the Housatonic River in Great Barrington. It also includes $1.75 million for roadway and utility improvements on Thiel Road in Adams and $1.5 million for repairs to the Brown Street Bridge in North Adams. The House version allocated $1 million for the Route 7 bridge. The House version also included $500,000 for multiple bridges in New Marlborough, which wasn't included in the Senate version, Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said.

City of Pittsfield Public Utilities Commissioner Bruce Collingwood said the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) laid out the proposal for the Hubbard Avenue work, which would involve widening the abutments on the overpass. The BRPC estimated the work could cost $15 million, though no engineering has been done yet.

The overpass, Collingwood said, "is a very narrow point. It makes a lot of people nervous."

Fran Forfa, an employee at Central Radio, an appliance store nearby, said the underpass causes a lot of "weary" driving. Drivers often wait for other cars to pass through the underpass from the opposite direction, before continuing. "It's such a narrow underpass," Forfa said. "Cars stop to let other cars go through. Two cars don't fit," he said. "I'm surprised there hasn't been issues."

Downing's chief of staff, Bethann Steiner, said the parking garage project will include a new upper deck to allow for 400 total parking spaces that will help a proposed hotel for North Street. The existing garage, which dates back to the 1970s, is "approaching the end of its useful life," Steiner said.

The Senate bill also included $1.5 million in funding dedicated to the North Adams span, which connects Route 2 with River Street.

North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright was excited to start work "as soon as possible" on the structurually-deficient Brown Street Bridge.

"Obviously we're very pleased with that," Alcombright said. "It is our worst bridge in the city at this point."

Much of the bridge's metal support underneath has rotted and been replaced with pressure-treated wood, according to Alcombright.

The Pittsfield to Danbury line, still in the preliminary stages of planning, has been estimated to cost $200 million or more.

Presently, the Housatonic Railroad Co. operates freight train service on the Pittsfield to Danbury rail line. The state would have to make major improvements to the line for passenger rail service, and potentially even purchase the line from the company.

The planning for the Pittsfield to Danbury rail project is being handled by the BRPC. BRPC executive director Nathaniel Karns could not be reached for comment.

The bonding will also allocate billions of dollars for other roads, highways, bridges, rail and bus projects throughout the state.

The bill authorized the state to spend $146.5 million for information technology at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and $125 million for the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The money for all of the projects must be used within five years.

The amount of interest the state would have to pay on the proposed $13 billion bond was not immediately available.

The state Senate and House still have to approve a final version of the transportation bond bill which is subject to revision, and needs to be signed by Governor Deval Patrick. "There is still a lot of work to be done," Pignatelli said.

To reach Nathan Mayberg:
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