PITTSFIELD — While Gov. Charlie Baker has indicated that he would like federal infrastructure dollars to support east-west passenger rail, some Berkshire County officials still want greater commitment to the Pittsfield-to-Springfield leg.
Western Massachusetts leaders long have called for passenger service to connect Pittsfield and Boston via Springfield, although Baker has said little publicly about the project.
The Baker administration said Thursday that it plans to collaborate with Amtrak to pursue money for the project. Tucked into a news release about the administration’s plans for using federal infrastructure dollars is a mention of progress in talks with CSX Corp., which owns tracks on the line west of Worcester.
“Given productive negotiations with CSX to enable increased passenger service, the Commonwealth intends to work with Amtrak to compete for funds to invest in service improvements between Springfield and Worcester as an initial step to expand service between Boston and Albany,” the release said.
Supporters of east-west passenger rail in Massachusetts hope the project can receive money through the newly signed federal infrastructure bill. Yet, some question whether the state is committed to the Springfield-to-Pittsfield leg of the journey.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, sees that statement as “a big deal,” although the apparent priority given to the Springfield-to-Worcester stretch does little to address his concern that the project will not reach Pittsfield.
“I think there’s a serious flaw that the Western Massachusetts delegation has to pay attention to,” Pignatelli said. “It’s very clear to me, and this has been my fear for quite some time, that this rail will not get beyond Springfield unless we start in the west, in Pittsfield, and go east.”
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer shares that concern. She said that while she is glad to see “some commitments” from Baker, she wants the state to prioritize Pittsfield and the Berkshires.
“First, I’m glad that this really massive, generational transportation investment is still on the table,” Tyer said. “At the same time, I’m disappointed that the segment between Pittsfield and Springfield doesn’t appear to be a priority for this first part of the development of this rail system. ... By excluding that segment from this first round feels like it might be easy to just exclude it altogether, and that would be a real detriment to the vision of having this connectivity all across the commonwealth.”
The state Department of Transportation initially weighed proposals to use buses for the Pittsfield-to-Springfield leg, rather than extend rail service to Pittsfield. Pignatelli’s objections to those scenarios led state officials to dub him the “bus killer.”
Pignatelli and Tyer said that they would support starting work in Springfield and going east and west at the same rate. Pignatelli voiced that proposal on a recent call that state lawmakers had with U.S. Reps. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, and Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, he said.
“I’ve asked the two congressmen to say: We got you the money, it’s here, and we want you to start it in Western Massachusetts,” Pignatelli said. “I think the other members of the Western Massachusetts delegation will have to join me in that concern and in encouraging our very influential congressman to make that call.”
A spokesperson for Neal, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said that Neal continues to work with the Baker administration and state lawmakers on the project.
“Chairman Neal remains committed to ensuring that funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that he crafted and worked to pass goes to improving rail from Boston to Worcester to Springfield and Pittsfield,” Communications Director Margaret Boyle said in an email. “Conversations with Governor Charlie Baker, his Administration, and state legislators are ongoing to ensure that there is regional equity in the allocation of this historic federal investment.”
Pignatelli said he believes that the opportunity that the federal infrastructure bill provides is the best that “west-east” rail ever will have. The present moment also provides a chance to capitalize on the “live here, work there” possibilities of remote work, he said, and to construct a west-east connection between Albany, N.Y., Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester and Boston alongside north-south connection to New York City.
“The Mass. Turnpike started in West Stockbridge and got to Boston,” Pignatelli said. “If we start in the west, then we’ll have a statewide rail system that we’ve all been talking about, not just rail at one point and buses at one point. ... We need to do it right, or it’s a waste of money.”