MassDOT buys Housatonic Railroad line between Pittsfield, Connecticut

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has purchased the Housatonic Railroad line from Pittsfield to Canaan, Conn. This view is where the line passes the Lenox Train Station in Lenox Dale.

The state's plan to purchase of the 37-mile Housatonic Railroad line between Pittsfield and Canaan, Conn., is a done deal.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced completion of the acquisition Thursday, seven months after the proposal to take over the company's Berkshire freight line was approved by the department's board of directors.

The purchase price of $12,130,000 was financed from former Gov. Deval Patrick's transportation bond bill approved by state lawmakers. The agency also paid $900,000 for the "Coltsville Spur," which would extend the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail from Lanesborough into Pittsfield.

When MassDOT unveiled its intention last summer to negotiate with Housatonic Railroad, Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey, a Patrick appointee who resigned Oct. 31, touted the deal as a forerunner to the possible restoration of passenger service connecting the Berkshires to New York City.

Housatonic Railroad had rolled out its $200 million passenger train proposal in June 2010.

"Studies have shown that a Berkshire County rail connection to New York City would be a winner," Davey said last July. "This purchase and the initial upgrades in the line represent historic steps toward improved access to the Berkshires for tourists and residents alike."

But as state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed out in an Eagle interview on Thursday, the views of Gov. Charlie Baker and just-appointed Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack remain unknown.

The rail line is "probably not even on the governor's radar screen," said Pignatelli, citing his focus on urgent needs such as closing the mid-year, $768 million state budget gap.

Officials with the governor's staff could not be reached Thursday evening for comment.

The Patrick administration considered state ownership of the line vital to keep freight moving from major employers in South Berkshire. Prior to track improvements, speeds on the Housatonic's Berkshire line remain limited to 25 mph.

Pignatelli explained that until MassDOT comes up with its own plan, Housatonic Railroad will fund the maintenance of the tracks.

According to Colin Pease, Housatonic's vice president of special projects, the state's purchase is "a boost for the company," which holds a "perpetual freight easement" and will continue to operate the trains. Currently, one freight per day runs in each direction on the Berkshire line, primarily on weekdays.

In a phone interview from his Concord office on Thursday, Pease described a private company's operation of a rail line owned by the state as "pretty traditional in eastern Massachusetts."

Improvements for the Berkshire tracks are likely to begin late this year, but most of the work will be done in 2016, Pease said.

The long-range dream of passenger service from Pittsfield to New York via Danbury, Conn., would require a connection to the town of Southeast, N.Y., where passengers could continue to Grand Central Terminal via Metro-North Railroad. First, a major investment by the state of Connecticut is needed to improve the tracks from Canaan to Danbury for public use.

"It's a good thing we have ownership of the Berkshire line," Pignatelli said. "An awful lot of work needs to be done, the new administration needs a lot more convincing, and before we spend any more money, we need a commitment from Connecticut."

Pease is anticipating an announcement by Gov. Dannel Malloy, of Connecticut, on Feb. 18 about the state's transportation priorities and funding resources.

"We have to close the link in Connecticut, since all the Massachusetts agreements are done," Pease said."While the track upgrades are important for the region's economy, what's critical in the long term for the Berkshires is passenger service."

Pease projected about two million one-way fares annually, but many of those would be repeat riders. "The trains would bring in several hundred thousand individuals, new people, each year," he told The Eagle.

For proponents of passenger service to New York, Pignatelli said he fears that the proposal may not become a top priority for the Baker administration, given the development of the $2 billion South Coast rail project that would restore passenger service between Boston, New Bedford and Fall River.

As a skeptic about ridership projections for the Housatonic proposal, Pignatelli wants to study the economic benefits of more frequent passenger service on the east-west Amtrak line between Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester and Boston.

"Let's do our due diligence and understand where we'll get the biggest bang for the buck and be in control of it, not another state," he said.

A report by Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard forecasts an infusion of $344 million into the county's economy over 10 years of construction and service. A Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study produced an impact of $625 million in additional goods and services over a decade, and the creation of more than 600 new jobs.

Following a $240,000 study funded by the federal government, the commission suggested that railroad stations could be built in downtown Pittsfield, Lee, Great Barrington and possibly Sheffield.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.