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With the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill done, what's next for east-west rail in Massachusetts and the Berkshires?

  • 6 min to read
Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli speaks (copy)

The signing of the federal infrastructure bill and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's release of a recent report provide an opportunity to move east-west passenger rail forward, supporters say. Still, some say the state needs to take a more active approach to ensure affordability, convenience and reliability for riders, especially west of Springfield. “If you build a legitimate commuter rail system throughout the commonwealth, people will use it,” says state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, foreground. “If you don’t build a legitimate commuter rail system, of course the ridership will be low. ... I have never believed [the state was] truly committed to Western Massachusetts beyond Springfield."

“If you build it, they will come” has been the mantra of those who want to see passenger rail service connect Pittsfield and Boston through Springfield and Worcester.

Money to “build” that service, which would run along a combination of existing and newly constructed track, could come through the federal government’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which President Joe Biden signed Nov. 15.

Western Massachusetts lawmakers overwhelmingly hail east-west rail — or “west-east” rail, as Berkshire County supporters say — as a generational investment that would help their constituents access economic opportunities in the east and relieve Greater Boston residents of an increasingly unaffordable housing market, all while curbing vehicle emissions from highway travel.

Yet, beyond the funding question, some in Berkshire County say the state still needs to refine its approach to ensure that the project provides the affordability, convenience and reliability necessary to meet residents’ needs.

“I predict right now we’re going to have wonderful rail transit from Worcester to Boston, it’s going to be OK from Springfield to Boston, and it’s going to be nonexistent or very poor from Pittsfield to Springfield,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

The federal bill allocates $66 billion for Amtrak, a quasi-public corporation, to upgrade and expand its passenger rail service, including for the “Northeast Corridor,” which stretches from Richmond, Va., to Boston. Within that sum, $24 billion would go to federal-state partnership grants for Northeast Corridor modernization, $12 billion in grants would support intercity rail, and Amtrak would receive an additional $22 billion in grants, a White House summary says. 

Days before the bill’s signing, on Nov. 12, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released a report recommending that Amtrak operate east-west rail service and a “Western Massachusetts Intercity Rail Authority,” which has yet to be created, to manage and oversee service.

Those two developments mean that now is the time to move forward on the project, supporters say. But, even the most bullish observers have concerns with the MassDOT plan, questioning what kind of authority, funding and influence the state would give a Western Massachusetts rail authority. Others doubt whether Amtrak could run service with the speed and affordability commuters need.

“I am in favor of a sufficiently funded rail authority that includes Western Massachusetts and is not simply controlled by MassDOT out of Boston,” said Karen Christensen, founder of the Train Campaign, a Great Barrington-based group that advocates for passenger rail. “Beyond that, the jury’s still out.”

Current picture

Supporters long have known the project, which MassDOT has estimated would cost $2.4 billion to $4.6 billion, would require federal money.

Many see current discussions about money, operation and governance as a positive development.

“It’s a really detailed conversation now on governance, which I see as a good sign that everyone wants to make sure that we’re able to get the infrastructure for the rail in place as we’re talking about next steps with major funding,” said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

For state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, the combination of the infrastructure bill and the MassDOT report provides “the break that we needed and were waiting for.” While he has concerns — mainly that the proposed Western Massachusetts rail authority could be treated as a “forgotten stepchild” or a subordinate to the Boston-based Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority — the “unresolved question,” in his view, is whether Boston-area leaders will push for a share of the federal money.

“The ball is in the governor’s court, MassDOT’s court at this point,” Lesser said. “The federal money is there. The study is complete. We have the ridership numbers if they incorporate them properly. We have a blueprint in place for Amtrak operation and regional governance. It’s time to get it all done.”

Lesser and other lawmakers criticized the MassDOT feasibility study’s ridership estimates for leaving out potential riders who would transfer from the Hartford, Conn., metropolitan area, which is 25 miles, or an hour by train, from Springfield. While the MassDOT study estimated an annual ridership of 278,000 to 500,000 passengers, engineering consultant AECOM estimated 469,000 to 720,000 riders after incorporating Hartford.

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.

The low estimates led some to question the state’s commitment to the project. For Pignatelli, the MassDOT recommendation confirms those fears, and he opposes both the proposals for Amtrak to run service and a new regional authority to oversee it.

“What we advocated for was a commuter rail system throughout the commonwealth,” Pignatelli said, making a distinction between passenger rail and commuter rail, which, he said, must be more convenient and affordable. “To have a separate governmental structure for Boston versus Western Massachusetts says to me that they are not committed to Western Massachusetts, especially beyond Springfield.”

Berkshire County residents pay $30 million per year in MBTA revenue through the sales tax. For each dollar of a sale in Massachusetts, 6.25 cents are paid in tax, 1 cent of which goes to the MBTA. Pignatelli said the MBTA should have been created as a “Massachusetts Transportation Authority,” rather than an agency focusing on Greater Boston.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and Pignatelli drew attention to proposals for fare-free MBTA service while criticizing the lack of state investment in public transportation for Berkshire County, where buses run infrequently and do not run on Sundays.

“Whether or not there should be free public transportation is a very interesting question,” Farley-Bouvier said. “There’s going to be no cost to the rider, but there’s no such thing as free. Somebody’s paying for it, and we’ve been paying for the T for a very long time while there has been a complete disinvestment in public transportation in Berkshire County.”

With the federal infrastructure bill done, state lawmakers should push “to ensure the infrastructure money is truly dedicated to a Pittsfield-to-Boston rail line,” Farley-Bouvier said, while continuing the conversations around who would operate and manage service along the line. Farley-Bouvier is “not against” the proposal for a regional Western Massachusetts rail authority, she said, but is “very skeptical that if we create this, it’s going to be funded equitably.”

Operator choice

MassDOT, in its Nov. 12 report, suggested that Amtrak was the best fit to operate service because federal law gives it a right of way to operate on railroad-owned tracks. In January’s final report of its East-West Passenger Rail Study, it said, “MassDOT is not a railroad and does not have the capacity to assume the responsibilities of one,” identifying the MBTA as the only commuter rail agency in the state.

While the more recent report said it considered the MBTA as an operator, it raised concerns with the right of way to CSX-owned tracks west of Worcester and said the Pittsfield-to-Springfield leg would have to be operated as “a separate service.”

“Although operation of the East-West service by the MBTA would be technically possible, there would not be many benefits achieved from the expansion of the MBTA’s mission and oversight to include intercity rail service in Western Massachusetts,” the report concluded.

Amtrak’s right of way to the CSX-owned track makes it “the easy option” for the project, Christensen said, although she said Amtrak has focused on long-distance routes between large cities, rather than the quick and affordable service that supporters want in east-west rail.

“I don’t see this as hopeless, but it’s definitely a change for Amtrak,” she said.

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said the partnership can work if Amtrak, MassDOT and the governor’s office commit to “making it successful, including the timetable, the efficiency and the pricing.” Amtrak, he noted, operates service on the Valley Flyer rail line from Greenfield to New Haven, Conn., an arrangement that, he said, “has worked fairly well.”

Pignatelli and state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, say the state should hold out for something better, arguing that Massachusetts need not allow CSX to dictate its options. In 2015, the state purchased 37 miles of the Housatonic Railroad line from Pittsfield to Canaan, Conn., and they said the state now could consider buying the west-of-Worcester tracks from CSX if it were serious about the project.

CSX also is seeking to acquire Pan Am Railways, which owns some of the track required for passenger service from North Adams to Boston through Greenfield along the “northern tier.” Barrett and Pignatelli would like to see state leaders oppose that acquisition unless CSX agrees to allow operators to run passenger service along its tracks.

“I think in 150 years, no one has stood up to the railroads,” Barrett said. “Mediocrity seems to be the word of the day, and Western Massachusetts and the Berkshires should not accept mediocrity when we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for funding to build a state-of-the-art service.”

For the northern tier, the proposal for a Western Massachusetts regional authority has brought some optimism. Barrett said he is open to the idea, despite concerns over funding, and state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, sees the proposal as “the starting point of a discussion about what the future of rail could look like here in Western Massachusetts.”

Supporters of rail transportation often emphasize the possibility of creating networks that cross state borders.

Amtrak included a proposed Boston-Springfield-Albany (N.Y.) line, which runs through Pittsfield, in a $75 billion investment plan that it published in late May. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, said at a Nov. 19 news conference that he plans to meet with the head of Amtrak and continues to “lobby” Gov. Charlie Baker for east-west rail.

“If this is ever going to happen, this is the time to do it,” Neal said.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

Statehouse reporter

Danny Jin is the Eagle's Statehouse reporter. A graduate of Williams College, he previously interned at The Eagle and The Christian Science Monitor.

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