Senators want to know why high-speed rail study cut from state budget

  • State Sen. Eric Lesser

Monday, July 10, 2017

Two Massachusetts state senators told the Gazette Monday lawmakers would need to “get to the bottom” of why a proposed high-speed rail study was stripped from the state’s budget in closed-door negotiations last week.

The $40.2 billion spending blueprint included a line item for the feasibility study, the first step in one day connecting Springfield to Boston via high-speed rail. The legislation passed 38-0 in the Senate earlier this year.

But the language disappeared after a House-Senate conference committee met last week to reconcile differences between the chambers. This is the third year the study failed to win final approval.

“We have to get to the bottom of why we’re having problems getting this study done,” Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, told the Gazette.

Last year, the proposal made it to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, but he vetoed it, saying the state should study ways to cut travel times through all modes of transportation.

Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, has sponsored the proposal, saying those in western Massachusetts should not have to carve out several hours to travel to Boston and back. He said residents here would have better access to Boston-area jobs, while those out east would have better access to lower costs in this area.

“There was no explanation given,” Lesser said Monday when asked why the six-member conference committee did not approve the plan.

One reason could be because of concerns from Peter A. Picknelly, CEO of Springfield’s Peter Pan Bus Lines. Last year, he penned a letter to the governor opposing the study.

Picknelly said Monday he did not call the governor or conference committee lawmakers this year.

“I did no such lobbying this year,” he said. “I sent one letter last year and that was it.”

Still, he opposes the plan, saying the state should study, among other things, van pooling or adding more lanes in high-traffic areas — in addition to high-speed rail.

“Study it all,” Picknelly said. He also said calling the line “high-speed rail” is “disingenuous” because the train would likely stop several times between Springfield and Boston, and travel through hilly terrain. He also said the federal government would “heavily subsidize” any future rail, which would amount to unfair competition for his business.

Behind closed doors

In a statement last week, Lesser blamed “entrenched interests” — without naming names.

“This is an item that had broad bipartisan support,” Lesser said. “Something happened between this year and last year, and that’s what we need to get to the bottom of.”

Among six lawmakers who sat on the committee that hammered out the final budget, two of them represented parts of western Massachusetts: Reps. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and Todd M. Smola, a Republican who represents parts of Ware and Hampden County.

Smola, who co-sponsored the high-speed rail legislation, said: “We just couldn’t reach consensus on that.”

When asked if he argued for the line item, or who on the committee pushed against it, Smola said he could not talk about closed-door deliberations.

“The conference committee is a closed-door process,” he said.

Kulik, one of many co-sponsors of the feasibility study, did not return two calls and an email from the Gazette on Monday. The other four committee members — Rep. Brian Dempsey, and Sens. Karen E. Spilka, Sal N. DiDomenico and Viriato M. deMacedo — also did not respond to requests for comment.

Smola did say that, in general, this was a tough budget year for the state. Negotiators had to trim between $400 million and $500 million from spending plans lawmakers previously approved this year.

“There were some tough decisions that had to be made,” Smola said.

But Rosenberg said the death of the feasibility study was not because of a funding issue, noting the study would have been a small part of the $40.2 billion budget.

“It’s not about the money,” Rosenberg said.

Lesser said the project did not include a price tag in budget documents because the Massachusetts Department of Transportation would absorb most of the cost. He said similar studies can cost about $250,000.

Rosenberg said he “can’t answer” why the study has yet to be approved after three years. But he said the Senate had done its part, pushing the measure through on a 38-0 vote this year.

“We need our colleagues in the House to join us and be as committed to it as we are,” Rosenberg said.

Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said the high-speed rail proposal is different than proposed upgrades to the Inlander Route, a project that would boost Amtrak service from Boston to Springfield.

“He (Lesser) is talking about trains that we know about from other parts of the world — Europe, Japan, China, etc.,” Brennan said. “To do that is a much, much more complicated endeavor, and so the logical place to start is feasibility.”

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.