Berkshire legislators on board with 'directional' thinking for rail service

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As an opportunity emerges for a long-awaited statewide rail project, proponents say getting it right hinges upon an understanding of what's at stake.

Rail service from Pittsfield to Boston, lawmakers say, would connect Western Massachusetts with economic opportunities in the east, while giving those in the east access to affordable housing and a Western Massachusetts lifestyle.

Yet a "west-east" mindset is about more than just a train: it marks a shift from a decades-old development strategy that has prioritized Boston and the eastern suburbs.

"I think 'east-west' in certain respects bakes in the orientation we have in our state to always put Boston first," said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow. "Reframing it as 'west-east' at least starts to tilt the balance toward Western Mass. for once. It's a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but it certainly has a very serious, substantive subtext and undertone to it, and that is that we need to think about infrastructure and public spending in Massachusetts in ways that are equitable."

The project, which could cost $2 billion to $25 billion, also would help decrease highway congestion, said Mike Bloomberg, chief of staff to Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. He said it's necessary to address long-standing policies that have encouraged suburbanization and auto travel at the cost of climate change and affordability.

"It's not just as simple as `build a rail,' " Bloomberg said. "Are we taking the mindset of increasing transportation equity and decreasing carbon emissions? You'll find it's much more complex. It has to do with housing. It has to do with zoning."

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is expected to finish its rail study in the fall, and the hope is to have a plan "shovel-ready" if federal infrastructure funding, which faces an uncertain fate in the Republican-led Senate, also arrives then, said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

With the state's economy in need of job creation, now is the time to act, Lesser said.

"At the height of the Great Depression, America built 800 airports and more than 70,000 bridges, and one of the things that helped get us out of that depression was infrastructure and spending on infrastructure," he said, suggesting that rail construction could create thousands of jobs. "I actually think that in the new environment we're in, this project is even more urgent and is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I would say, to get it right."

Connecting the commonwealth

While Boston becomes increasingly expensive for the middle class, Western Massachusetts has experienced population loss as young people leave to find jobs elsewhere.

Lawmakers see these as complementary challenges that require infrastructure investments.

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In Boston, "people couldn't get around because the T was too crowded, the roads were congested and the infrastructure had not kept up with growth," Lesser said.

"It's not a project for Western Mass.," he said. "It's really a statewide imperative that we have infrastructure."

Lack of transportation infrastructure in Western Massachusetts, in addition to poor internet and cell service, has hindered local economies, Hinds said. Rail connection also could help build new economic partnerships, particularly in manufacturing or the growing life sciences sector.

"We think we have the ingredients, and a lot of this is coming together at the right time," he said.

Particularly if the rise of remote working continues beyond the pandemic, rail could bring more people west who desire the region's access to nature and culture, Hinds said.

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"Someone could live in Pittsfield, or Lenox or North Adams, and maybe a day a week or a couple of times a month commute into Boston by train for meetings," Lesser added.

"We've got a very nice lifestyle in terms of Western and Central Massachusetts," said U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield. "We don't have that congestion, you don't fight that daily traffic, and it's a pretty nice place to live — a nice place to raise families."

'Development mistakes'

Boston's traffic jams and soaring housing prices can be attributed to Massachusetts' post-World War II development model, according to Bloomberg. The state has prioritized suburbanization and highway construction, aiding climate change and "white flight," he said.

"We need to start rectifying the 80 years of development mistakes of purely auto-centric infrastructure," he said. "It's less equitable, it's more harmful to the environment, it's less healthy, all of the above."

Zoning restrictions on multifamily homes not only limit affordable housing, but also continue a legacy of racial exclusion, Bloomberg said.

Lesser also raised equity concerns, noting that Springfield, which has the second-most nonwhite residents of any Massachusetts city, has the highest asthma rate in the U.S.

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"In the current moment, in terms of a reckoning over race and over equity you have a six-lane highway going through the Pioneer Valley, right through the heart of Springfield, that has created immense air pollution," Lesser said. "[Rail] would reduce the car pollution dramatically, which would help reduce the asthma rate."

'West-east'

While the project is commonly called "east-west" rail, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, will correct anyone who uses that name.

"I'm not convinced if it's called east-west, it'll get to the Berkshires," he said. "If we start in the west, I guarantee you that rail will get to Boston. If we start in the east, in my lifetime you may see it get to Springfield; you won't see it get to the Berkshires."

"I say `west-east,'" added state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. "I just don't want to have the Springfield-to-Pittsfield leg of this to be forgotten. It took us a great deal of work and advocacy to have the Berkshires included at all."

Although three of the six options presented to a rail advisory group had rail service end in Springfield and a bus between Pittsfield and Springfield, Western Massachusetts lawmakers have vowed to eliminate those options.

MassDOT recently updated its ridership estimates, but Lesser believes that they still are too low.

Pignatelli estimates that construction on the Pittsfield-Boston link would take 10 to 20 years, and would require local, state and federal permits.

The long-term goal is to have a rail network, including the Berkshire Flyer line to New York, that could reestablish Western Massachusetts as the crossroads for commerce that it was over a century ago.

"Nothing would transform or create more opportunity or more jobs or more potential for families in Western Mass.," Lesser said.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports and 413-496-6221.


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