With a rush of recent developments, officials appear bullish on the prospects of a transformative rail project to better connect the commonwealth.
Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released a report recommending just such a service operated by Amtrak that would connect the western and eastern parts of the state. The recently passed landmark federal infrastructure package drives just such a plan closer to reality. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, a longtime proponent, certainly thinks so: “The money is now available to do that. It’s a matter of regional equity, and it could be a game changer for local economies beyond Boston.”
The energy on Beacon Hill is much the same, with the rail project’s supporters highlighting the incoming federal infrastructure funds and operational discussions as signals of positive development. Some in Western Massachusetts, however, worry about forwarding a plan that would continue the trend of underserving our end of the state. Regional representatives, for instance, targeted a MassDOT feasibility study for the rail project that seemed to undercut regional ridership estimates as a sign of questionable commitment to a regionally equitable approach.
We share the overall optimism on this critical transit infrastructure project while echoing the Berkshire delegation’s calls for parity in the plan. The most basic sense of regional equity demands nothing less for a proposal predicated on investing so much in the future of the commonwealth. Note that we stress equity, not equality. Of course the higher population density in the eastern part of the state demands more total resources, but our neck of the woods at least deserves proportional attention on this and other important infrastructure matters. Whether you ask a legislator or a civilian from Western Massachusetts, that has certainly not been the experience. Not to mention that we in the Berkshires pay $30 million a year in Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority revenue via sales tax which rarely if ever benefits us even as public transportation access languishes in our region.
The East-West Rail plan offers a real chance to ambitiously address this longtime inequity, which could prime pumps all across Massachusetts. Spurring growth in the corners of the commonwealth most starved for it is a boon for those regions as well as the state’s coffers more broadly. Amid the shakeup of the pandemic, Berkshire County has shown signs of being primed for that growth.
If done correctly, this could connect all Bay Staters to better economic opportunities, relieve greater Boston’s housing squeeze and curb vehicle emissions in one fell swoop. But it will only accomplish those goals in full if it actually reaches out to all Bay Staters. That must mean equitably extending any plans for affordable and convenient passenger and commuter rail access to Western Massachusetts — ideally to Pittsfield.
Whatever its ultimate form, making this rail plan into reality will be a massive undertaking. It will not be cheap, but the federal infrastructure package puts the funding in play. It will not be simple, but the political momentum has never been greater and shouldn’t be squandered. Aiming high — and westward — is worth it here. The rail plan’s supporters have also highlighted the possibility of seeding rail networks that cross state borders, such as Amtrak’s proposal for a Boston-to-Albany, N.Y. line that would run through Pittsfield. The regional economic and connective dividends down the line are potentially massive.
We appreciate the Berkshire delegation’s strong advocacy for its region and constituents in rail plan talks. The reality with which Western Massachusetts leaders are all too familiar is that, like any other statewide plan, we likely won’t get everything we want. We therefore ask our lawmakers to walk a purposeful but thoughtful line here. Do not let perfect be the enemy of good — the Bay State desperately needs this rail project and the ideal window of opportunity won’t last forever. Still, we encourage the Berkshire delegation to keep pushing and educating their Eastern Massachusetts peers on the need to live up to this plan’s ambition and potential by making it fair and regionally equitable.
We sincerely hope that the rest of the state’s leaders will listen to their colleagues in the western part of the state and take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to lift all boats, or in this case passenger rail cars, across Massachusetts.