In push for east-west rail, Pignatelli earns new nickname: 'Bus killer'

Pignatelli

PITTSFIELD — A man whose nickname is a household word in the Berkshires has a different moniker in Boston.

"Bus killer."

That's the way state Department of Transportation officials say they refer, playfully, to state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

This week, Pignatelli found himself saying yet again that he holds no truck with the fact bus rides are still part of three of six options to improve passenger rail in Massachusetts. Under those scenarios, "east-west" rail ends in Springfield, with riders forced to hop a coach.

"Anything that has a bus only from Pittsfield to Springfield should be eliminated immediately," Pignatelli said Wednesday in a conference call with the board advising a DOT study that began in 2018. That bottom line was seconded by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and by North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard, both of whom were on the Zoom video call.

Why are people still talking about using buses? Hinds asked.

Pignatelli made the same point at a meeting last July, in almost the same words. "Anything that does not include rail to the Berkshires, I would eliminate," he said July 23.

This time, while not agreeing on the spot to eliminate bus options, DOT planners asked people on the nearly 40-member advisory board to indicate whether they agree with Pignatelli.

DOT staffers could be seen searching their computer screens for "raise hands" indicators. More than 100 people had logged onto the call.

"It looks like there are a lot of hands up," said Nancy Farrell, the meeting's moderator.

No need to count, said Ethan Britland, the DOT's project planner. "We've heard loud and clear the `no bus.' "

"We do call you the `bus killer,' for sure," Farrell told Pignatelli. "We've heard a lot about the bus and the effect of including the bus service."

RIDERSHIP UPDATE

In a major shift, the DOT now projects that thousands more people would use expanded service yearly, after earlier estimates were assailed by lawmakers and project backers as flawed.

In an earlier briefing Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack conceded that earlier numbers were wrong. Expanding access to passenger service, the DOT says, could generate four to five times the ridership first calculated.

"The methodology we used probably did, in fact, underestimate what the ridership potential is, and we should not use that methodology going forward as we do refined ridership estimates," Pollack said. Still, she cautioned that the cost of work could fail to qualify for federal backing.

The new numbers on ridership take into account how service could spur demand and shift current commuting habits used as a jumping-off point in earlier models.

Cost estimates for the projects range from $1.9 billion for improvements in service between Springfield and Worcester (with riders then using MBTA train service to and from Boston) to $24.9 billion to create an entirely new train corridor, largely within the I-90 right-of-way.

Pignatelli is supporting only the latter option, along with two other cheaper alternatives: One, costing $3.2 billion, would use CSX track from Pittsfield to Worcester and then MassDOT rail corridor to Boston. The other, costing $4.1 billion, would provide service from Pittsfield to Boston on newly laid track.

If any project advances, it is expected to take decades to build, a fact Pignatelli noted, referring to a "generational" investment. "Let's not get hung up on the cost or ridership," he said.

CRUNCH TIME

By next week, board members are expected to say which of six alternatives they prefer. The DOT team plans a public meeting in July, then says it will produce a draft report by August and a final version in September.

In Wednesday's call, state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, challenged DOT estimates on projected ridership, after Britland noted that a ratio related to rail use was lower than projects typically funded by the federal government.

Lesser said he believes ridership estimates are "far, far, far below" what would be seen.

State Rep. Lindsay N. Sabadosa, D-Northampton, agreed. "It feels like we are missing an enormous amount of potential riders," she said of DOT projections.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.