BOSTON — Legislative action to create a new public authority that would oversee an east-west passenger rail expansion into Western Massachusetts would be “very premature,” House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Wednesday.
Casting some doubt on a priority of both Gov. Charlie Baker and one of the most influential Democrats in Congress, Mariano on Wednesday passed on an opportunity to express support for a new east-west rail authority and said state lawmakers want more information “before we move forward.”
“We have the chairman of [the] Transportation [Committee] and some of the Western Mass. folks working on requests for some information, some expanded information, that we’re going to need before we move forward on any rail,” Mariano told reporters after Democrats met in a private caucus.
“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,” Mariano added when asked if he supports creation of a new rail authority to govern the potential expansion. “It’s very premature.”
Running regular passenger train service west of the MBTA commuter rail’s endpoint in Worcester would connect the state and open up new economic and housing opportunities, according to supporters of east-west rail, who have faced questions about the cost of the expansion and how it would be paid for.
In April, Baker and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, announced they agreed to a “path forward” for east-west rail, relying in large part on federal funding available in a new infrastructure law.
Neal, who chairs the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee that has significant power over federal dollars flowing to Massachusetts, said at the time that the agreement pivoted on the Legislature using an infrastructure bond bill to create an east-west rail authority.
The Joint Committee on Transportation and Joint Committee on Bonding both opted against adding a new authority to redrafts of the more than $9.7 billion infrastructure bond bill.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said the expansion was “extremely important for economic development in Berkshire County,” and she remained committed to seeing it through.
“There’s many different pathways to get to that,” she said. “If one pathway doesn’t seem viable at the time then we’re going to continue to explore other pathways.”
And contrary to Mariano’s characterization of it being “premature” to form a rail authority, Farley-Bouvier said the time to act is now.
“There is some urgency around the availability of federal funds at this time and we want to do whatever we can to have access to those federal funds,” she said. “So if it’s not the language of having a Western Mass rail authority in place, we want to make sure we pursue the funding in another way.”