Up to $25B cost, few new riders predicted in east-west rail study

PITTSFIELD — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal has referred to the project as a priority. Critical, is how state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli describes it.

"This is beneficial for numerous reasons," said state Sen. Adams Hinds.

The legislators are referring to the East-West Passenger Rail Study being conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which is assessing rail service alternatives across the state from Boston to Worcester to Springfield and on to Pittsfield.

An advisory committee is examining the costs, benefits and investments that would be necessary to implement enhanced passenger rail service between Boston, Springfield and Pittsfield, with "speed, frequency, and reliability" considered necessary for this to be a "competitive option" for travel along this route, according to the program's mission statement.

Not surprisingly, the proposal is endorsed heartily by its Berkshire County adherents, several of whom call the study "West-East Rail," due to its importance to this end of the state. The project's proponents say the east-west rail would help relieve congestion in the Boston area, make it easier and more efficient for Berkshire residents to visit Boston and possibly help stem the county's chronic dwindling population.

"I think it's extremely important," said Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. Matuszko, Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and Pignatelli, D-Lenox, are members of the study's advisory committee.

"This will really connect us up to Boston and that part of the state," Matuszko said.

On Thursday, the advisory committee discussed a new MassDOT report that includes detailed estimates of costs, ridership and environmental impact in the six potential options for east-west rail that are under consideration.

The six options are varied. They include:

- Upgrades to the existing CSX freight line between Eastern and Western Massachusetts;

- A new high-speed rail line along the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston and Pittsfield;

- Two options that involve bus service between Pittsfield and Springfield, and one option that eliminates Pittsfield from the project completely. Under that option, passenger service would be available on an upgraded CSX rail line between Springfield and Worcester, where passengers then would take the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority into Boston.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said all six alternatives are under consideration so that officials can examine the costs associated with each one, and that no final decisions have been made.

Hinds and Pignatelli said they are opposed to the three options that limit or exclude Pittsfield. Hinds said they should "be off the table," while Pignatelli said they "should be eliminated immediately."

"If we're looking to make a 21st-century investment, that's shortsighted," Pignatelli said, "and it would be a tremendous disservice to Western Massachusetts."

The costs for these six possible options "vary considerably," Hinds said. They range from $2 billion to almost $25 billion, according to the study. Proponents of the project believe that an enhanced rail connection between Boston and Western Massachusetts would attract lots of riders, but the MassDOT study put the numbers at 36 to 820 daily boardings.

The advisory committee will hold a public meeting Wednesday in Springfield to discuss the numbers included in the new report, before the committee meets again Feb. 24 in Springfield. A final report on the feasibility of the project originally was expected to be completed this winter, but the deadline has been pushed back to May. At some point, the six original alternatives will be narrowed to three.

"I think we're still fairly far away" from reaching a final decision, Matuszko said. "Are we months away or six months away? I don't know."

"I don't have the ability to give a clear answer for that," Hinds said when asked why the project was behind schedule. "We need, certainly, to keep the pedal to the metal to make sure we don't have any further delays. Part of that reason is, we're coming to the conclusion of our annual budget cycles and major transportation legislation seems to be making its way through the Legislature this spring. We have deadlines, and we need to keep to it."

Federal funding for east-west Rail in Massachusetts could be available.

Neal, who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said passenger rail connecting Boston, Springfield and Pittsfield will be discussed when the House considers a $760 million infrastructure bill that Democrats introduced Jan. 29.

"I can't imagine that I would agree for anything that didn't include a major component for Central and Western Massachusetts," the Springfield Democrat said during a recent meeting with The Eagle's Editorial Board.

"My priority is rail," Neal said, adding that he has spoken with Gov. Charlie Baker about the importance of this project to Western Massachusetts.

The federal transportation funding that is allocated by Congress is based on the gas tax, and in Massachusetts, much of that funding goes to the MBTA, the regional transportation system around Boston. Neal would like more of that funding to go to western rail needs.

"I think before any improvements are allocated for the MBTA that our price west of Worcester ought to be rail," Neal said. "I've talked to the legislators, and they're in agreement with me. I talked to the governor about it at length. I pointed out that the MBTA is financed by everybody in Massachusetts.

"I am not of the opinion that I want to curtail, harm or wreck what would be a good first-class transportation system for the capital region," Neal said, referring to the MBTA. "But, we've been paying for the MBTA forever."

Pignatelli said Neal's support is crucial to obtaining federal funding for a project that he calls "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

"The reason we can't do it on our own is that it's not as big a priority for the state," Pignatelli said. "If we can get some help from the chairman of Ways and Means, then there's some legitimacy to it."

Pignatelli is one of the local legislators who refers to the project as west-east rail.

"You can quote me on this: The Massachusetts Turnpike started in West Stockbridge and then it went to Boston," he said. "If we don't start rail in the west, it will never get to the Berkshires."

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.