For Massachusetts lawmakers, east-west rail dangles within reach

MBTA commuter rail trains at South Station. Photo by Edward Orde/Wikimedia Commons

By Lauryn Allen
BU News Service

As an 18-month feasibility study for an east-west rail line to connect Boston and Pittsfield comes to a close, state and federal lawmakers remain optimistic about securing funding for a project they say would bring transportation and economic development to western Massachusetts, despite continued concerns over too-high costs and too-low ridership estimates calculated by the state.

Consultants for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation have estimated costs for the project to range from $2.4 to $4.6 billion with ridership reaching 278,000 to 469,000 boardings annually. As it stands, the rail project is 10% below the threshold needed to be competitive for federal funding, based on the cost-benefit analysis conducted as part of the study.

As a leading advocate for the east-west rail, Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, has been vocal in his disapproval of the state’s low ridership calculations.

“It frankly raises a question of how serious MassDOT is about this in the first place,” Lesser said. “Are they studying this to death to strangle it before it even gets off the ground, or are they looking at this from the perspective of ‘What do we have to do to make it happen? What do we have to do to make the project possible?’”

Lesser said the report’s failure to include potential increased demand in its ridership estimates overlooks a key aspect of east-west rail. 

“The point of this project is not to lock in patterns of life that already exist,” Lesser said. “The point of this project is to change those patterns and that development. It’s to bring new people to western Mass., to bring new businesses to western Mass. and to eastern Mass., to bring new development, new denser housing that’s walkable and more environmentally sustainable.”

In an Oct. 21 meeting, Ethan Britland, MassDOT’s project manager for the feasibility study, recommended that more analysis of the potential economic and community benefits of the passenger rail be done before moving forward.

Without a serious commitment from the state and from Gov. Charlie Baker, the project could easily fizzle out despite having support on all other fronts, according to Lesser. Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack expressed skepticism the project could be built without federal funding, even with sharply higher ridership estimates.

“We could see a window pass us – of having a recovery bill, having an infrastructure package approved, having our federal delegation pushing it very hard, having a president that’s supportive, but the missing piece is our own state’s Department of Transportation,” Lesser said. “We need more energy, we need more enthusiasm from [Baker].”

That’s a point stressed by U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat who chairs a congressional committee that controls federal purse strings.

Neal said he will not advocate for more funding for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority until he sees greater support for east-west rail in the Statehouse.

“I think that we need to marshal the resources of metro, central and western Massachusetts to insist that there be geographic equity in the state.” Neal said. “We’ve all paid for the MBTA. I understand the role that it plays in the capital region, but simultaneously, there are pressing needs in central and western Massachusetts for improved transportation investment as well.”

Support for the MBTA and east-west rail are not mutually exclusive, according to Lesser.

“We need to pull ourselves out of this sort of thought matrix that it’s either the MBTA or it’s this. It’s both,” Lesser said. 

Investing in east-west rail would help the MBTA, according to Lesser, because riders would likely utilize both services when transporting themselves around the state. 

For lawmakers and advocates, this project is essential to remedying regional disparities caused by unequal access to public transportation. 

Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said the east-west rail is vital to ensuring all regions in Massachusetts are on an even playing field. 

“Unless we properly invest in infrastructure that connects the entire commonwealth, including rail and internet investments, we risk exasperating the tale of two states,” Hinds said. “Our commonwealth’s success hinges upon the success of every region of our state, and these investments will allow us to take advantage of the movement toward remote work, attract more investment in the region and much more.”

Karen Christensen, a member of the Western Mass Rail Coalition, echoed the belief the project is a multi-faceted solution to problems faced by the state’s urban and rural communities.

“It’s about having the best of both worlds: opening economic and educational opportunities to rural communities, and giving urban workers far more options, reducing congestion and emissions in cities and bringing back the dynamism that characterized western Mass. towns, large and small,” Christensen said.

Economic development experts see the rail project as an important step toward promoting economic growth in western Massachusetts and improving the quality of life for people living in the region.

Tim Murray, the president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and a leading advocate for the now-expanded commuter rail service between Worcester and Boston, said that based on his experience with the Worcester line, he expects the private sector to grow in areas served by east-west rail.

Murray added that the passenger rail would allow more people in the state to take advantage of job opportunities and affordable housing across the commonwealth.

“The ability for people to have a range of options on where to work and find quality housing options that they can afford are facilitated by frequent commuter rail service,” Murray said. “This formula would undoubtedly unfold along the route of an east-west rail corridor given the quality of life and housing costs in many communities west of Worcester.”

Rick Sullivan, the President and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, said the passenger rail would give businesses the incentive to move westward because the cost of living and the cost of doing business is less expensive in western Massachusetts.  

“It gives opportunities for companies in the eastern part of the state to look to locate parts of their business operations here because the connection is that much easier,” Sullivan said. “The better the connections, the quicker the connections, the more convenient and robust the connections, the better it is for our economy.”

A good omen for the project according to lawmakers and transportation experts is potential support from the incoming presidential administration under President-Elect Joe Biden. 

In a Nov. 19 meeting on the future of transportation in Massachusetts, Anthony Foxx, the former Secretary of Transportation for the Obama administration, called Biden a “transportation champion” and said that he expects a major surface transportation bill in the near future. 

“I can promise you that any large infrastructure package that President-elect Biden signs is going to have a substantial rail component,” Foxx said. 

Neal said he is confident in the Biden administration’s commitment to transportation.

“I’ve already talked to Joe Biden about this, and I’ve talked to members of his administration – people that are going to be right in the Oval Office with him,” Neal said. “They are all-in on infrastructure.”

For State Sen. Hinds, the administration and the feasibility study are intersecting at an opportune time. 

“Joe Biden himself views rail incredibly favorably, and the incoming administration has also indicated a federal infrastructure bill should be a part of our economic recovery effort,” Hinds said. “Both improve the chances that critical federal dollars could be on the horizon, which makes our preparation more important than ever.”

Foxx said that Massachusetts is doing exactly what it needs to be doing right now to set itself apart for federal funding as it finishes up its feasibility study for east-west rail.

“I think, for the state of Massachusetts, having a big vision for transportation is critical, and you can’t have a big vision at a better time, I think in my lifetime, than right now.”

The final draft of the feasibility study is slated to come out before the end of the year, according to MassDOT.

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