Former Senate president prods DOT to expand rail study

Makaela Niles of the state Department of Transportation listens to comments Tuesday about rail service, at a Springfield event. She is working on a study about east-west passenger rail service that could possibly reach Pittsfield.

SPRINGFIELD — Enough open houses. Hold public hearings.

That was former Massachusetts Senate President Stanley Rosenberg's pointed message Tuesday, as the state Department of Transportation used a Springfield event to update the status of a passenger rail study, then allowed a few comments.

Rosenberg, the longtime Amherst Democrat, hurried to a microphone in Tower Square to implore the DOT to lay the groundwork for an even larger passenger rail expansion than now considered.

Others who followed Rosenberg called on the DOT to keep small communities in the mix, saying rail service could help revitalize towns.

A group from Chester traveled to the event by taking a bus to Pittsfield, then riding an Amtrak train to Springfield's Union Station.

"When I-90 went in, it took the life out of the hilltowns," said Barbara Huntoon, a Chester Select Board member. "I want the hilltowns to please be considered."

"We have to look at how it connects towns. How it connects human beings," said Richard Holzman of Chester, his town's representative to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

Similarly, advocates of rail service in the town of Palmer, east of Springfield, asked to be kept in mind.

"We can't forget about the places in between the bigger places," said Ben Hood, a member of the group Citizens for a Palmer Rail Stop. "We really need to connect all the state."

Hood said later that the Palmer group is pushing to avoid being overlooked in a future proposal.

To win passengers away from auto travel, rail speeds must be competitive, the DOT has said, a concern that could limit the number of stations included in proposals.

"We're trying to keep ourselves in all the alternatives," Hood said.

A rail study ordered up by the Legislature began in December. It focuses on track owned by CSX Corp. linking Boston to Pittsfield through Springfield.

But Rosenberg asked the DOT to start a separate study of service in what's known as the Northern Tier. That area stretches west from Worcester County through Franklin County along Route 2.

A bill to study the feasibility of rail service between Boston and North Adams, by way of Greenfield, has been filed by state Sen. Joanne M. Comerford, D-Northampton, who won Rosenberg's seat last year, after he left office in May 2018. Comerford's measure, which was referred to the transportation committee, is supported by state Rep. John Barrett III and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

Rosenberg said in an interview that northern Berkshire County could benefit from more northerly east-west rail service.

"We could open up this whole economy in Western Massachusetts," Rosenberg told the standing-room-only audience in the UMass Center in Tower Square. "Connect east and west in a more robust way and help repopulate parts of Western Massachusetts that are losing population."

Further, Rosenberg called on the DOT to convene official public hearings, not brief comment periods.

"We are one community here in Western Massachusetts," he said to applause. "Our best work is done when we work together and hear each other so we get the best thoughts on the table."

Hinds, who attended the event, backed the spirit of Rosenberg's call.

"It is exciting and it's the right thing to do for the economy of Western Massachusetts," he said. "There are a lot of problems, but there are a lot of problem-solving actors that are coming together."

Year ahead

The DOT's project, conducted with a consultant, WSP, will produce a report by spring of next year.

Jen Slesinger, the DOT project manager, said that in work through this coming fall, the study plans to identify six possible approaches to expanding passenger service.

So far, the project has been examining potential demand for passenger rail service. That includes a review of travel patterns, population trends and competition from other ways to get around. A map in her presentation showed expected population losses in Berkshire County.

Along with cost, one of the top challenges will be to coordinate use of the rail line with its owner, CSX Corp. While Amtrak has a right to provide passenger service, CSX can set the terms, Slesinger said.

"There are a lot of constraints and challenges along the corridor," she said.

After studying the merits of six possible options for expanded service, the DOT project will cut that list to three.

At least two more public meetings will be scheduled, the DOT says.

Half of the Tuesday session, billed as an open house, invited people to speak with DOT staffers and consultants stationed at displays in an adjoining room. For an hour, people milled about talking, with some sitting to fill out questionnaires.

Makaela Niles of the DOT spoke with people as they added notes to a display about the kind of rail service they hoped to get.

"Faster the better," one note said.

"Local service inside Western MA as well as beyond," read another.

Niles said the people she spoke with were clear about the need for expanded rail service.

"They is something that people want not just for leisure, but for the day to day," Niles said.