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Opinion
Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Keep East-West Rail moving down the track

It’s not quite full steam ahead, but at least it’s a start. On Tuesday, the state House gave initial approval to the redraft of an infrastructure bond bill that allocates $250 million for passenger rail expansion across Massachusetts.

After an agreement announced earlier this year laid out a procedural path for East-West Rail, we expressed concern that Beacon Hill leadership was not maintaining the momentum gathered for this great leap forward on public transit and rail connectivity for the entire commonwealth. Credit where it’s due: This move gives some welcome legislative attention to the matter. It’s certainly nice to see a considerable figure next to the mention of passenger rail expansion to our oft-overlooked half of the commonwealth. Still, inclusion in the bond bill does not yet guarantee that this amount would be spent on this worthy endeavor.

It absolutely should be, though, given the bountiful benefits East-West Rail would bring. This only further behooves the Legislature to move with purpose to push this project farther down the tracks so that this critical funding can be put to use. Converting this dream of a great leap forward for Mass. transit into a reality will obviously require federal funding along with state money. The massive infrastructure package pitched by the Biden administration and passed by Congress last year put a sizable pool of federal dollars in play. We’ve stressed it before, and we’ll stress it again: Beacon Hill should tap these funds sooner than later, as their shelf life might not be permanent. Democrats’ midterm anxieties underscore the ever-shifting sands of Washington’s political reality, which could result in, among other things, the Republicans taking the House and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal losing the powerful House Ways and Means chairmanship.

It’s neither necessary nor wise to wait and see if these possible outcomes have adverse effects for East-West Rail’s future before it even gets out of the station. Floating some serious starter funding on the state side is a good step that ought to be followed by further steps to begin accessing the federal funding while it’s available. Creating a new public rail authority to oversee the westward expansion would be a good start so that there’s a dedicated place for those federal funds to start flowing — a low-cost measure that could be tacked onto the infrastructure bond bill, as Rep. Neal initially suggested at the April summit where the current framework was announced.

In its current state, however, this legislation instead proposes creating a new commission to examine whether Massachusetts actually needs a new rail authority or could task an existing entity with building and operating East-West Rail. Again, it’s a start, and some forward motion is better than none. Maintaining forward motion on this matter should be a priority, though, and the best way to do that is by taking concrete steps toward instead of merely talking about taking steps — e.g., thoughtfully creating the necessary rail authority instead of creating a commission to determine whether to create an authority.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano said last week that such a move would be “very premature” because “the jury’s not in on what this is going to cost and what the federal component is going to be and what the state commitment has to be.” This week, he and Senate President Karen Spilka called for more deliberation on a clearer picture of the funding and oversight structure of the project. By all means, deliberate — but don’t let that deliberation turn into needless delay. If it does, it would be both unfair and painful for the western half of the state that often feels overlooked and underserved while watching sizable swaths of funding disappear into the MBTA and other Eastern Massachusetts-centric infrastructure projects without proportional deliberation or hesitation. We hope this perspective is heard — and understood — when the infrastructure bond bill heads to formal debate at Thursday’s session.

Now is the time to preserve the momentum for a landmark rail proposal that stands to better connect the commonwealth, extend service to its underserved corners and prime the pump for regionally equitable development. The $250 million included in the infrastructure bond bill at least recognizes the head of steam built up for this important project by regional advocates and Western Massachusetts lawmakers. Don’t waste it — keep this crucial endeavor moving down the track and ensure this funding ultimately helps this important transportation project finds its destination.

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