Our Opinion: Getting NYC link back on track

The restoration of passenger rail service between Pittsfield and New York City — dormant for over four decades — has become a transportation Holy Grail for Berkshire County over the past several years. Like the Grail, it extends the promise of redemption and revitalization, and it has proved just as elusive to attain.

It would be hard to overestimate the impact direct rail service from NYC to Pittsfield and the towns of South County would have on the economy of the Berkshires. Clearly, direct service would facilitate tourism to an area that is increasingly dependent upon visitors from the tri-state area who come to Berkshire County to enjoy its summer cultural offerings, fall foliage and winter sports.

Over the past 20 years, the internet has spawned a new class of telecommuters who no longer need to be physically on site to perform their jobs. If universal high-speed internet access becomes a reality in Berkshire County (a goal that is coming closer to being reached), a Manhattan worker could live "out in the country" and visit the city occasionally, rather than the other way around. And who wouldn't want to? The air is clean, the scenery is gorgeous, the housing is cheaper, the pace is slower and the general cost of living is lower. The county's trend of gradual decline in population would be reversed, economic activity would increase as former city dwellers demanded services and venues that they had come to expect, and local Berkshirites would be more likely to remain as the prospects for gainful employment began to look rosier.

Due largely to the efforts of state Senator Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, the Senate and Governor Baker have endorsed the convening of the NYC/Berkshire Passenger Rail Working Group under the auspices of MassDOT (Eagle, September 21.) Its task is to explore the feasibility of such a project and come up with concrete proposals for details and cost by March 1 of next year so that it may be included in the 2018 budget.

Past efforts to realize such a project have foundered on matters such as dependency on the state of Connecticut to finance a large proportion of the upgrade of track — currently suited for rail traffic — to passenger-level quality to connect the Berkshires to Grand Central via Metro North. The latest plan is more promising, and more financially attainable. "What has changed the conversation is that we're targeting track that already has passenger rail on it," Senator Hinds said. "We can do it at less cost and in less time, because we're going from Pittsfield through West Stockbridge and on to the Amtrak line [to Penn Station] between Albany and New York City." He added that MassDOT is all aboard because initially, the service is being deliberately modeled after the Cape Flyer, a seasonal train that leaves Boston for Provincetown on Fridays and returns on Sundays.

After so many attempts, this could perhaps be the time when the planets align for Berkshire County to be included once again in the greater New York City transportation network and to reap its benefits. The first public meeting of the working group will be at 4 p.m. tomorrow at MassDOT headquarters in Lenox. There is a lot of track to cover but it must start somewhere.


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