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House clears $11 billion infrastructure bill that includes $250 million downpayment on east-west rail

Trail on tracks

The House on Thursday approved a nearly $11 billion infrastructure bond bill that includes $250 million toward the creation of an east-west rail extension into Western Massachusetts. The bill now moves to the Senate. 

BOSTON — The Massachusetts House took a major step Thursday toward injecting billions of dollars into work on the state’s transportation and environmental infrastructure — including $250 million toward a possible east-west rail extension.

The House voted 155-0 in favor of a nearly $11 billion infrastructure bond bill after approving a mega-amendment that tacked on about $560 million in additional spending, mostly consisting of local earmarks, as well as new reporting requirements for the beleaguered MBTA amid a blistering federal investigation.

The bill includes hundreds of millions of dollars to fix glaring safety issues at the MBTA.

Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus called the legislation “this session’s signature transportation bond bill.”

Agreement reached on east-west rail extension that would bring passenger service to Pittsfield

After an eleventh-hour gubernatorial veto doomed last session’s legislative push to require offering low-income fares across the MBTA, the House decided against making another pass at the issue. The bill now moves to the state Senate.

Before sending it to the floor for Thursday’s debate, House leaders bulked up the bill with $250 million for early steps toward a Western Massachusetts rail extension and $400 million that the MBTA would use to correct harrowing safety problems identified in an ongoing federal investigation.

The bill allocates $250 million toward the long-sought east-west rail project, which the bill says “shall include Pittsfield to Boston service via Springfield, Palmer and Worcester.”

Leaders earlier this week called for more deliberation about the “oversight structure, capital and operational funding” of the project after Gov. Charlie Baker and members of the state’s congressional delegation said they had agreed to a “path forward” for the proposal.

But it stops short of fulfilling U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s call for the Legislature to create a new public agency to oversee rail service in Western Massachusetts. Instead, it proposes creating a new commission to examine whether an existing entity could building and operate the rail expansion.

A Department of Transportation study in 2020 forecast that extending passenger rail from its current endpoint in Worcester to Palmer, Springfield, Chester and Pittsfield would cost between $2.4 billion and $4.6 billion while attracting hundreds of thousands of riders per year.

The infrastructure bond bill now heads to the Senate, where top Democrats have not signaled if they support setting aside a pool of money for the MBTA’s safety response.

A spokesperson for Senate President Karen Spilka did not directly answer a question about whether she supports the additional MBTA dollars, saying only that the Senate president “looks forward to reviewing the bond bill in its entirety.”

The spokesperson also pointed to a joint statement from Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano from Tuesday in which the duo announced they would seek an MBTA oversight hearing but stopped short of taking a position on funding to respond to FTA findings. Their statement did make clear that both leaders “expect to increase the amount of available funding” for east-west rail.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, one of the chamber’s three Republicans, said he believes “the T does need funding.”

”The T has needed additional infusions of resources for quite some time, and the Baker-Polito administration has been making some of those infusions together with the Legislature,” Tarr said Thursday. “It seems to me that we have some serious safety issues that need to be addressed at the T. Part of the consideration here needs to be: how will the additional resources be used to improve safety as opposed to just expanding the system?”

”That’s particularly my concern with the western expansion,” Tarr added. “I think there is good reason to proceed with that, cautiously, but first and foremost we need to think about how we improve the safety of the MBTA. We need to think about resources that need to go to that, but we also need to think about the continuing levels of subsidy for the operation. Years ago, we had agreed to forward funding in trying to make the T self-sufficient. Given what’s happened with the pandemic, that simply is not possible, and we’re still in a period of recovery, in my opinion, but we need to think about how those dollars are used.”

The infrastructure bill would steer about $2.8 billion toward the federal highway system in Massachusetts and another $1.35 billion to non-federally aided roads and bridges here.

It also calls for more than $1.3 billion to support MBTA capital improvements such as electrifying commuter rail trains and replacing the Green Line fleet, $200 million to promote or support electric vehicle rollout, nearly $65 million for regional transit networks and authorities, and several other spending provisions.

Baker kicked off debate by filing a $9.7 billion bond bill in March that he and his deputies said would maximize the impact of federal dollars flowing to Massachusetts under a new infrastructure law and also position the Bay State to compete for additional grant funding.

The bipartisan infrastructure law made billions of dollars available to states in competitive grants, but to get in the running, the Legislature needs to approve all of the spending upfront before the federal government reimburses.

About $3.5 billion of the original pot Baker proposed would put state dollars on the table toward grants.

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