Working group members for a new passenger rail study are on board with resurrecting passenger service from North Adams to Boston through Greenfield. But, at least one of the project’s supporters wants to speed up the process.
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said he wants the state Department of Transportation to get the 18-month study finished in less time.
“The time for your studies is ridiculous, and we have to reduce it,” Barrett said at the working group’s first meeting, which took place Thursday, via Zoom. “This is critical, and I can’t stress that enough. It’s great, the high-speed, east-west service that they’re talking about, but this is an easy solution that can be there in the interim.”
The DOT’s Northern Tier Passenger Rail Study follows a two-year-long feasibility study for “east-west” passenger rail from Pittsfield to Boston through Springfield. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, has expressed hope that funding in the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill could support east-west rail.
State lawmakers, regional planners and transportation advocates are eager to resurrect North Adams-to-Boston rail service, which ended in 1958. Many share similar goals, including lowering vehicle emissions, improving mobility and bringing residents, businesses and economic development more broadly to the state’s “northern tier.”
How the project can receive money is less clear, but the working group, which mainly discussed goals for the project at its first meeting, will take up that question as well, a DOT official said.
“We will, as part of this process, be looking at some funding opportunities,” project manager Makaela Niles said in response to a question from Transportation for Massachusetts interim director Josh Ostroff.
“I think as we all on this call are aware, the recent infrastructure bill has monies attached to it, and I think we’re all excited about the potential in terms of transportation options and what that could lead to,” Niles said.
The other unknown is what will happen in the proposed sale of the North Adams-to-Fitchburg stretch of railroad. CSX is seeking to acquire Pan Am Railways, which owns those tracks. While federal regulators rejected an initial bid from CSX, the company has submitted a new bid. With a virtual public hearing set for Jan. 13, a decision could come in April and would become effective in May.
“Clearly, we have some shifting circumstances surrounding the northern tier right of way that we’ll keep an eye on. But, essentially, the study can proceed effectively while that is going on,” said Anna Barry, a project manager and vice president for HNTB Corp., a Boston infrastructure design firm working with the DOT on the project.
The DOT has invited CSX to participate in the working group, although no CSX official spoke at Thursday’s meeting.
Federal, state and municipal elected officials, as well as regional planning and economic development leaders, make up the working group. Berkshire participants include North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard, 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler, Berkshire Regional Transit Authority Administrator Robert Malnati, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Thomas Matuszko and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
Niles said to expect the next working group meeting, likely in the spring, to cover feedback on data collection regarding current conditions of the region’s travel market. She added that there also will be separate public information meetings and stakeholder engagement opportunities.