Pioneer Valley Business 2014: Development hopes ride on expanded rail
NORTHAMPTON — Early next year, passenger rail service is slated to return to Northampton for the first time in more than 25 years, a development that Mayor David J. Narkewicz says could be a “game changer” for the city.
With the city’s Passenger Rail Advisory Committee meetings often packed with residents and strong enthusiasm for completion of the so-called Knowledge Corridor project, Narkewicz sees Northampton benefiting from the Amtrak Vermonter’s daily presence.
“We view that as an important economic development engine that will bring more people to Northampton,” Narkewicz said.
The $83 million project, which includes 49.8 miles of upgraded Pan-Am Southern tracks between Springfield and the Vermont border, and new construction of passenger platforms in Northampton, Holyoke and Greenfield, brings with it the potential for more tourists visiting Northampton and more residents commuting to their jobs.
Funded through $73 million in federal stimulus money and $10 million from the state, initially the Amtrak Vermonter will continue to only offer one round trip a day, ending at its northern terminus in St. Albans, Vt.
But the train will be significantly faster, with speeds 65 to 70 miles per hour on the rebuilt tracks and the elimination of the 50-minute detour through Palmer and Amherst in use since 1989.
Construction of Northampton’s rail platform will start this spring at Union Station, a former restaurant set to reopen after extensive renovations.
Narkewicz said it remains uncertain how much will be invested in the actual platform, as details about this project are being worked out. The intent is to go out to bid this spring and begin construction later this year.
While having the Vermonter in a more direct route will have a favorable impact on the population centers in western Massachusetts, regular rail service could prove an even bigger boon, according to Timothy Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.
Brennan said transit-oriented development, or TOD, occurs within a half mile of any train stop, as these become hot spots for development of housing, retail shops and entertainment destinations.
“The level of development from transit-oriented development is related to the amount of service you offer,” Brennan said.
Understanding this, officials are trying to enhance what will be offered.
One proposal, Brennan said, is to have the state take deactivated MBTA trains from the Boston area and donate these to create an “intercity service” for western Massachusetts.
This concept may be included in the state’s five-year, $12.4 billion transportation bond bill.
“They would get money in the transportation bond bill and redeploy them in the Pioneer Valley,” Brennan said.
Narkewicz, Greenfield Mayor William Martin and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse sent a joint appeal to Richard Davey, the secretary of the Department of Transportation, Feb. 7 urging state officials to support this idea.
“We believe this proposed service of up to 10 round trips per day will deliver many significant positive impacts including a cleaner mode of travel, traffic volume reductions on I-91 and increased tourism with discretionary consumer spending,” the mayors wrote.
Specific to Northampton, the letter notes that more rail service improves the city’s strength in “cultural, educational and tourism assets.”
“The whole expectation is we’d get, for the first time in western Massachusetts, an alternative to auto travel,” Brennan said.
Brennan said offering riders a variety of times and runs is essential. “We want to get more service than the one train a day,” Brennan said.
Another plan, should this not work, has been to find out if existing Amtrak shuttle trains that end in Springfield can continue up the Pioneer Valley to Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield.
“Now that the rebuilding of lines and stations is well underway, we’re attempting to get more service.” Brennan said.
Brennan said this comes at a time when the state is planning for the rebuilding of Interstate 91 as it passes through downtown Springfield, a project that may cause significant traffic delays for commuters.
“This will be another way to move passengers up and down the Valley in an alternate mode,” Brennan said.
Any more frequent service would also tie in to efforts to expand commuter rail service in Connecticut, where by the end of 2016 there will be more regular runs between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.
Brennan said maximizing public sector control of the line should ensure these projects come to fruition. The state is interested in purchasing the line from Pan-Am and is in the final stages of negotiating this $17 million acquisition.
As the Knowledge Corridor nears its formal launch, expanding rail service to other locales remains in the study stage.
An ongoing feasibility study for the Inland Route — with passenger service between Boston and Montreal — is being explored and should be finished sometime in 2015, Brennan said. Any actual work on the tracks may still be five to 10 years out, Brennan said, as CSX owns the Worcester to Springfield freight lines and a determination would need to be made on accommodating additional passenger trains.
“There is definitely interest on the part of the state to move this forward,” Brennan said.
One Hampshire County community that won’t benefit directly from the Knowledge Corridor is Amherst, as the end of the detour means its Railroad Street station won’t be used for picking up and dropping off passengers.
The Central Corridor project remains an interest to Amherst officials, as well as those in Palmer and the Connecticut towns of Storrs and New London.
Amherst Town Manager John Musante said both the Central Corridor and Inland Routes would supplement the Knowledge Corridor, if they happen.
“We see the Central Corridor and east-west as logical components in reinforcing the strength of each other and ridership of all,” Musante said.