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House shaping up $250 million infusion for east-west passenger rail project

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The House Ways and Means Committee has included $250 million in a bond bill to be used for a long-sought east-west passenger rail project linking Pittsfield to Boston via Springfield, Palmer and Worcester. A vote is expected Thursday. The money would be for "transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, public hearings and engagement, acquisition of interests in land, vehicle procurement, construction, construction of stations and right-of-way acquisition."

Massachusetts representatives are readying a $10.4 billion bond bill that would set aside $250 million toward a proposed passenger rail extension linking western Massachusetts to eastern Massachusetts.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday began polling its members on the latest redraft of an infrastructure bond bill, now bulked up with additional funding aimed directly at a pair of issues legislative leaders flagged earlier in the morning.

A committee spokesperson did not immediately provide a summary of the bill, but said the spending for the MBTA and east-west rail are the only major additions compared to previous versions.

The bill includes $400 million to address safety problems at the MBTA flagged by a federal investigation.

A committee spokesperson said top Democrats plan to bring the bill forward for debate in a Thursday formal session.

The bill calls for $400 million to go toward “projects to address ongoing safety concerns related to the interim and final findings uncovered during the Federal Transit Administration’s Safety Management Inspection initiated in April 2022.”

The FTA’s probe, launched in response to a string of incidents, injuries and a fatality on the MBTA, is ongoing but already prompted federal overseers to order the T to make immediate improvements.

The House Ways and Means Committee redraft also allocates $250 million toward “transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, public hearings and engagement, acquisition of interests in land, vehicle procurement, construction, construction of stations and right-of-way acquisition” for the long-sought east-west rail project, which the bill says “shall include Pittsfield to Boston service via Springfield, Palmer and Worcester.”

House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka announced earlier Tuesday that they will convene an oversight hearing to examine problems at the MBTA. They also called for more deliberation about the “oversight structure, capital and operational funding” of east-west rail after Baker and members of the state’s congressional delegation said they had agreed to a “path forward” for the proposal.

But the House bill stops short of fulfilling U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s call for the Legislature to create a new public agency to oversee rail service in Western Massachusetts.

Instead, the legislation proposes creating a new commission to examine whether Massachusetts actually needs a new rail authority or could task an existing entity — perhaps the MBTA — with building and operating the rail expansion.

The bill would give one seat on the panel to the transportation secretary, three each to be filled by the House speaker and Senate president, one for the MBTA general manager or a designee, one for UMass Amherst’s chancellor or a representative, and one to be selected by the chair of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. The commission would face a Dec. 31, 2022, deadline to file a report.

Mariano and Spilka said in their joint statement they are still working through questions about “the oversight structure, capital and operational funding, and the preferred route alternatives needed for the success of East-West rail.”

“None of this has ever been really discussed,” Spilka later told reporters. “We need to know what is going to be a real part of that rail, how would it work, and what do we need to do to support it.”

A Department of Transportation study in 2020 forecast that extending passenger rail from its current endpoint in Worcester to Palmer, Springfield, Chester and Pittsfield would cost between $2.4 billion and $4.6 billion while attracting hundreds of thousands of riders per year.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz said the commission could also help answer funding questions and what balance of state and federal dollars Massachusetts needs to complete the project.

“There are still a lot of these particulars that need to be ironed out, but we want to get things moving, and I think this is the first step to be doing so,” he said.

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