Berkshire Flyer group 'ready to take the leap' from vision to reality

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PITTSFIELD — After two years of work, a detailed plan to bring more people to the Berkshires from New York City by rail is drawn up and on the table.

And around that long table at the Intermodal Transportation Center on Friday, local and state officials celebrated the completion of a 40-page plan for the Berkshire Flyer, a two-year pilot for seasonal, weekend service on Amtrak set to run 20 weeks per year from Penn Station.

Mayors, legislators and local officials all beamed at the idea that the Flyer, with a planned June 2020 start, would stop on Columbus Avenue, releasing passengers who then would travel around the county and infuse a limping rural economy with more money.

"It's a benefit for the entire county," said North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard, adding that it is "critical" to make sure visitors have a way to get around once they arrive in Pittsfield.

Others see a lot of untapped possibility, beyond what even has been explored.

"Imagine someone from Europe who comes to visit the city and who makes this loop now from New York City to the Berkshires to Boston," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, who has committed to leasing parking spaces across the street to rental car companies, after the old parking garage is torn down and turned into a surface lot.

The report detailing how everything will happen, and the market research to back it up, will head to the Legislature for the money to make the project go.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, whose 2017 legislative initiative funded the work and set the vision in motion, said the service is just one infrastructure improvement — like high-speed internet — needed to revitalize the region.

"It's part of throwing everything at the wall," Hinds said. "It's starting to chip away at those potential inhibitors to growth in the region ... we're ready to take the leap."

The train would leave from New York at 2:20 p.m. on Fridays and arrive in Pittsfield at 6:10 p.m., after cutting east from the Albany/Rensselaer station. The Sunday departure from Pittsfield would leave at 2:45 p.m. and arrive in New York at 6:45 p.m. The cost will be $70 to $75 for a one-way ticket for the 3 1/2-hour, one-seat train ride.

Hinds said it's one way to increase tourist spending in the Berkshires, pegged in a 2016 study at $462 million every year. "It's our third-largest industry," he said. "Are there populations that are not coming here that could be coming here?"

Marketing is designed to pull in Generation X and older millennials, with the aim of fortifying the Berkshires with younger people who might move here, said Jonathan Butler, a member of the Flyer subcommittee and President and CEO of 1Berkshire, which partnered with other local and state agencies to brainstorm the pilot program.

But marketing won't ignore older populations, like second-home owners from New York City. And it will include advertising in New York City.

Still more to do

Doing all this and running the pilot for two years will cost about $614,000, including $50,000 for marketing. The first year will cost $422,000, and be offset by estimated revenue of $185,000.

The money will, in part, come from U.S. Federal Highway Administration funding for programs that relieve congestion and improve air quality.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said she was confident that the entire local delegation would work to secure the money.

Also, the pilot service needs a governing entity, and Amtrak still has to finalize its contract with the state Department of Transportation, which has been key in planning but is not funding the project.

Speaking to concerns that freight traffic along the 50 miles of mostly single track between Albany/Rensselear and Pittsfield could make for late trains, Amtrak's Kevin Chittenden said he is confident that Amtrak will be able to work this out with CSX, which owns the track.

"It shouldn't be any different than any of our other routes," he said.

And like any pilot program, it will have to evolve as information is gathered, said Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, another key player in developing the Flyer.

"As a pilot, it is going to have to be a work in progress," he said. "We're going to have to be somewhat flexible as this thing unfolds."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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