Markey seeks $25B in passenger rail money that could help connect Mass. cities

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is proposing an investment of $25 billlion over five years to create or restore passenger train service between cities. "We can connect all of the midsized cities in New England with each other," Markey said. "It will play a critical role in our recovery."

PITTSFIELD — Though people are avoiding trains due to the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey wants to give passenger rail a $25 billion booster shot.

The Massachusetts lawmaker said Friday he will file legislation proposing to invest $5 billion a year for five years to create or restore train service between cities.

"We can connect all of the midsized cities in New England with each other," Markey said. "It will play a critical role in our recovery."

He added: "We have to plan for a future that allows people to get back on trains again."

Markey's proposal, embraced in the House by U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, could be taken up if Congress tackles a long-awaited infrastructure measure. If not then, he vowed to push it during the administration of "President Joe Biden."

Markey, who faces a primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, outlined his plan for a Brain Train Act in a call Friday with Neal and Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.

Neal said he sees movement on a possible infrastructure bill.

"Now is the time to take the pressure off our highway system," he said. "We can make this very green-friendly."

Though public investments have expanded passenger rail service significantly along the Connecticut River, service from Massachusetts cities to and from Boston remains limited — and is the subject of a state Department of Transportation study. The cost range for improved east-west service runs as high as $25 billion, officials estimate.

"I think there's an opportunity here to build on the success of north-south rail," Neal said.

In early April, Kennedy included east-west passenger rail in his list of needed infrastructure projects in Massachusetts. Kennedy's plan includes work to connect Pittsfield with points east, including commuter service to Boston.

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"Expanded public transportation options, like passenger rail, will alleviate congestion on current infrastructure while multiplying the economic opportunities of regional communities," Kennedy said in the plan. "It would support infrastructure improvements including installing new tracks and platforms at existing stations, as well as the extension of rail lines in certain areas.

Feeling a disconnect

Tyer said people in Pittsfield have felt disconnected from other regions of the state, due, in part, to limited transit options.

"The idea that we would have the ability to get on a train and get to Springfield, Worcester and Boston is something people in our city have dreamed about for a very long time," Tyer said. "It will profoundly change the livability of our city."

When asked how he landed on $25 billion as a sum able to move the needle on passenger rail, Markey said he wanted to make a point.

"I selected $25 billion in order to make it a big number," he said. "I believe this is the kind of idea that is going to garner a lot of support."

Ben Heckscher, of the Western Massachusetts Rail Coalition, said that it is easier for rail passengers in Massachusetts to get to Connecticut and points south, or north, than to their own state capital.

"We'd like to see the east-to-west service expanded," he said.

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