BOSTON — Massachusetts transit advocates acknowledge that Berkshire legislators will face challenges bringing east-west rail to Pittsfield but believe social and economic development requires better transit options with Boston and Albany.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation published a study at the beginning of February, exploring potential options to expand passenger rail service to the west — but only three of the proposed scenarios brought the train directly to Berkshire County. Early state estimates expected up to 820 new daily boardings, with the operation costs ranging up to almost $25 billion.
Critics immediately saw major discrepancies in the study results, claiming the potential ridership and trip duration estimates were miscalculated; they also said the original study did not account for tourists, students or people making infrequent business trips from Pittsfield to Springfield, Worcester, Boston or points between.
State officials on Feb. 24 said they would revisit their estimates; a second look at the numbers would assume riders will travel farther to get to a train station, MassDOT officials said.
Meanwhile, above and beyond ridership numbers and time estimates, Berkshire County has a serious lack of transit connections to the region, which keeps communities from social and economic development, says urban strategist and MassINC fellow Tracy Corley; he asserts that the new line should go as far as Albany, N.Y.
Similarly, TransitMatters technical advocacy director Ari Ofsevit believes Berkshire lawmakers will face difficulties in their efforts to bring the new route to Pittsfield because of low population density and problematic terrain in the region.
While he agrees it is a priority for the state to run more trains to Springfield, Ofsevit said Berkshire County's limited transportation options need to be addressed — with new connections to Albany as a viable option.
Pittsfield was at the fore of discussion
During the "State of Transportation" event organized by nonprofits TransitMatters and MassINC earlier this month, conversation quickly turned to the situation of Gateway Cities in Massachusetts, such as Pittsfield — and more specifically — to the burning issue of bridging the mobility gap between the two sides of the state.
Currently, there is just one Amtrak daily train — the Lake Shore Limited — operating between Boston and Pittsfield on its way to Chicago.
MassDOT's six alternatives for the expansion of rail service into the western part of the state range from adding a track alongside existing freight lines to building a completely new route.
Three of the proposed options would see Berkshire County directly connected to the new rail line, with the other three involving a shuttle bus between Pittsfield and Springfield.
Ofsevit said that some other report findings don't add up.
"There are more people on the current single Amtrak train than they said would ride if you had four trains per day," he said.
"And they also said you need to spend $2 billion to get a train that would run from Boston to Springfield in two hours and 15 minutes despite the fact that today, the Amtrak trains make that trip in two hours and 15 minutes."
The official duration of the ride is two hours and 28 minutes, according to the Amtrak website.
Ofsevit claims that there are a number of obstacles for the east-west rail project to conclude in Pittsfield, such as slow tracks laid west of Springfield.
Another, he said, is that Berkshire County's traffic is less congested than Eastern Massachusetts, although congestion in Eastern Massachusetts is one of the main issues the new route is supposed to solve.
"Pittsfield is the only station and really the only population center, I guess, other than Westfield and Dalton, Ofsevit said. "The hilltowns are some of the least densely populated areas on the East Coast. So, it's hard to have a lot of riders to catch from there other than [those] going to Pittsfield.
"The other piece is that Pittsfield to Springfield [rail route] is quite slow and really there's not much of a way to make it faster. It's hard terrain to get through on a train, and the train goes quite slowly, so it's a lot of 25, 30, 35 miles an hour. It's a beautiful ride [but] it probably takes longer than a bus running from Springfield to Pittsfield would."
Ofsevit thinks that improving bus service in the Berkshires is a matter perhaps even more urgent than the rail extension.
But, he said that, if there was data showing the rail would attract decent ridership — especially if it could continue to Albany — it would make sense to run some, or all of the trains, to Pittsfield.
However, even if Massachusetts lawmakers decide against extending the line to the Berkshires, Ofsevit thinks other solutions — such as launching another daily train to Albany — should be considered because of the county's limited transit connections to the region.
"It would be good to have those connections because right now in Pittsfield, you get one train a day to Albany and you can get on about three buses a day to Albany, and that's the connections with the outside world."
One example: A job lost
Corley, who thinks the rail extension should reach Albany, recalls a conversation with a former Berkshire representative about a county resident who had to refuse a job offer because of a lack of commuting options.
And she warned that keeping communities such as in the Berkshires disconnected from main transit arteries could have huge socioeconomic implications for the region.
"Rail and transit are just like any other infrastructure system," she said. "Our development, social development and economic development follow our infrastructure. You're keeping a lot of communities from developing and growing by not providing them with connectivity through transit. You're finding a lot of families are poor, and remain poor, because they can't get to services — because they can't get to opportunities — because of lack of transit."
Corley believes lawmakers should think regionally in approaching transit development in Massachusetts to create jobs in the region, as well as help its residents in gaining access to urban hubs outside the state.
She also said that a reliable transit system would eventually allow Berkshire residents to get out of their cars and depend on local transportation, leading to further growth of the community.
"We also know that walkability increases the value of land and property, which will also help to actually improve the city of Pittsfield, to kind of bring in additional revenue streams.
"And so to get people out of their cars, you really need to have a really strong transit system and that transit system will be able to connect people to better opportunities."
The Springfield Republican contributed to this story.