Ridership estimates for east-west rail pose potential problems for critical funding

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

By Lauryn Allen
BU News Service

BOSTON – Train riders could get between Boston and Pittsfield 20 minutes quicker between the highest and lowest-cost options for east-west rail. Still, the price tag could be almost double, according to the final three design options presented by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation at a virtual advisory committee meeting Wednesday. 

Ethan Britland, the DOT project manager, said the primary difference among the three alternatives lies in the segment between Springfield and Worcester, where travel times and costs vary depending on the speed and infrastructure of the options.

If chosen, the lowest-cost alternative would offer an average travel time from Boston to Pittsfield of three hours and nine minutes, while the most expensive option would have an average time of two hours and 49 minutes.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said she was surprised and discouraged by the relatively low difference in travel times. She also noted that slow speeds along the rail, particularly for the Springfield to Pittsfield segment, may put off potential riders because the travel time is too similar to the time it takes to drive.

MassDOT consultants estimated costs for the project to range from $2.4 to $4.6 billion and ridership to reach 278,000 to 469,000 boardings annually. The benefit-cost analysis of the project positions it at 10% below the threshold needed to be competitive for federal funding, according to Britland.

State legislators at the meeting found these ridership estimates concerning and worried that these estimates compared to the cost of implementing the east-west rail could tank the project.

State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, said MassDOT’s ridership projections based on less desirable lines such as the Hartford Line are low and ignore more comparable lines with higher ridership.

“It’s not a fair comparison to compare [the] New Haven-Hartford corridor to the Springfield-Boston corridor,” Lesser said. If MassDOT could incorporate the Worcester-Boston and Providence-Boston lines in its analysis, the study would likely yield higher and more accurate ridership estimates, according to Lesser.

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, called on U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, to use his role as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to make sure the project gets the critical funding from Congress that it needs.

Pignatelli also questioned the state’s commitment to the east-west rail because of its current plan to have the project begin in Worcester and move west from there. He suggested instead that construction begin in Springfield and proceed east and west simultaneously so it actually gets done. 

“I won’t live long enough, and my grandkids won’t live long enough if we start in Worcester to get to the Berkshires – so let’s do it right,” Pignatelli said.

“Let’s build it for the next 200 years, start in Springfield, go west, go east at the same time, same pace, and we’ll be winners in all of the commonwealth, not just parts of it,” he said.

MassDOT said it plans to release its final report of the feasibility of the east-west rail on Nov. 30.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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