Track services

MA: Plans for Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Service on Track; authority unlikely before 2023

SPRINGFIELD — State legislators in western Massachusetts say they speak with one voice on passenger rail service in the region.

They’re excited about connecting Boston with Springfield and Pittsfield, but, shielding their influence, aren’t sure of the details of what could turn out to be a massive project. They also say they are in no rush to create a Western Massachusetts Intercity Rail Authority, instead wanting a commission to study the authority before establishing it.

“I think we will soon come to a railway authority. I have no doubt about that,” said state Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, who is retiring from the Legislative Assembly. “I think it’s more important to get it right. Doing things well does not mean walking. »

Wagner said the state won’t miss a funding opportunity if the authority doesn’t exist until the first quarter of 2023, after he leaves office.

Interviews over the past few weeks with nearly 20 lawmakers in central and western Massachusetts revealed no opposition to east-west passenger rail service as a concept. There does, however, appear to be some reluctance to engage in the creation of the rail authority – which US Representative Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield and Governor Charlie Baker advised in April is a necessary step in the process. .

The Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that will distribute federal money, says authority is needed. And Baker has made it clear that east-west passenger rail should be administratively separated from the struggling Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

Neal, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said his team is still considering the impact, if any, of a delay in establishing authority on the project.

Meanwhile, Neal remains optimistic and says the Senate’s vote last week on an infrastructure bond bill sends a message to Washington that the Bay State is committed to improving rail service. passengers to western Massachusetts. Neal said he also spoke personally with State Senate Speaker Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano to enlist their support for the effort.

“I think the momentum continues,” Neal said. “One by one, the objections fell by the wayside.”

Neal said he was talking with Amtrak and expected announcements soon on potential developments in the rail service effort.

The state Department of Transportation said it was in talks with Amtrak about adding new east-west service as an intermittent leg, while the largest passenger rail project which will require track work and other improvements continues.

State Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, is among the senators from western Massachusetts who increased the amount of east-west rail in the bond bill from $250 million to $275 million. He expects legislation establishing an authority to be tabled in 2023, the next legislative session, and said it is likely to pass.

“I don’t see that as a sticking point,” he said. “There are questions.”

Velis said it was now up to a House-Senate conference committee in the coming days to iron out the two houses’ differences on the bond bill.

State Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow, says the bond bill asks the study commission to make its recommendations for an authority by the end of this year.

“It’s a very tight turnaround,” Lesser said. “The idea here is to work through the technical work on the link, the governance. What happens to the train as it passes east of Worcester? How does it work with the MBTA? Then, to build consensus among stakeholders along the way.

This will involve transportation officials, Amtrak, planning agencies and groups east of Worcester, but still along the route to Boston.

“There needs to be a process of building buy-in from the legislature,” Lesser said.

Neal has lobbied state lawmakers in recent months to advance east-west rail, his beacon issue for years. Neal was instrumental in passing the bipartisan, trillion-dollar federal infrastructure bill. It includes $66 billion for Amtrak nationwide and $2.5 billion for mass transit in Massachusetts.

“It’s an opportunity that won’t be taken again,” Neal said.

The end of the state legislative session on July 31 is also looming. Barring an extraordinary event, anything that isn’t done in the next two weeks will remain so at least until early 2023.

State lawmakers across the region, especially those outside Greater Springfield, say the creation of an authority is premature. They say they were taken aback by the authority’s talk despite the state transportation agency’s November white paper calling for Amtrak to run the trains — still seen as the best option — and a rail authority from Western Massachusetts to manage and oversee the service.

That’s still the administration’s position, said Kristen Pennucci, director of communications for the department. She also noted that an authority is not required to immediately access federal funds, a point the region’s state House delegation keeps coming back to as they share their views on effort.

Talks continue with Amtrak to make smaller, but more quickly implemented and less expensive, improvements to east-west service, Pennucci said. Amtrak could add one or two more trains to the only long-distance Lakeshore Limited that now runs east-west.

“I actually think we’re on very strong footing,” said State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, among rail supporters who want to ensure rail service to all parts of the region is addressed. .

State Sen. Adam Gomez, D-Springfield, said members of the delegation have been meeting weekly for months with state transportation leaders and each other on the subject.

“We’re just trying to make sure we’re moving forward with the same energy,” Gomez said. “The truth is, it won’t happen tomorrow.”

Wagner pointed out that state lawmakers had already given the Baker administration a $50 million bond authorization — in 2020.

“Not a penny was spent,” Wagner said. “There’s a big difference between talking about doing something and doing something.”

Neal said for months he worked on building a relationship with a suspicious baker. The announcement at Union Station in the spring marked the culmination of those discussions: a final celebration that Baker was on board, but failed to acknowledge the scruples of some lawmakers.

Both versions of the bond bill approved last week call for commissions to study how best to set up an authority to develop the service and oversee Amtrak, which would provide and operate the trains, sell tickets and market the service. service – just as it does the Valley Flyer from Springfield to Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield and just as it cooperates with the Connecticut Department of Transportation on the Hartford Line service to Springfield.

The bond bill also allows the money to be used for other passenger rail projects, not only east-west rail, but also the Berkshire Flyer service to Pittsfield from New York via Connecticut and the Valley Flyer service on the north-south route.

“Remember, this is still a demonstration project,” Comerford said of the trains passing through Northampton. “We wouldn’t want to lose this funding if we don’t show goodwill.”

Mention is also made of the North Tier Passenger Route which would also flow from Boston, but along the northern edge of the state via Greenfield and North Adams and into New York State north of Albany.

“I’m getting more parochial about it all the time,” said state Rep. John Barrett, D-North Adams. “We’re talking about decent quality passenger rail service from west to east.”

The economy of his part of Berkshire county depends on better connections, according to Barrett. “Our only salvation is decent broadband and decent rail service,” he said.

Barrett said he wanted to see a detailed plan of what needs to be built or repaired.

In a preliminary report released in October, state Department of Transportation researchers said passenger rail service could draw 278,000 to 469,000 passengers a year. But the cost of necessary track upgrades would range between $2.4 billion and $4.6 billion. Critics of the study said it overestimated costs and underestimated ridership.

Between plans for East-West Rail, the Valley Flyer, and the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Hartford Line, Union Station in Springfield could one day see 16 or 20 trains a day, arriving from all four cardinal directions.

“Think about what that does for foot traffic, for the vibrancy of downtown,” Lesser said. “It’s transformational.”

Joseph J. Giulietti, Connecticut’s transportation commissioner, said he regularly talks with his counterparts in Massachusetts and with Amtrak about adding trains and, possibly, electrifying the so-called inner route of New Haven to Hartford, Springfield and on to Boston.

“It gives you flexibility,” Giulietti said.

He said Connecticut has seen what frequent commuter trains can do to spur residential development along the Hartford Line in Meriden, Wallingford and elsewhere.

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