MassDOT jacks up east-west rail ridership estimates

  • The Amtrak Vermonter stops in Northampton en route from Springfield to Greenfield on a special inaugural train ride in 2016.  STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

State House News Service
Published: 6/10/2020 6:51:32 PM
Modified: 6/10/2020 6:51:22 PM

BOSTON — A passenger rail expansion to western Massachusetts would generate as much as four to five times as much ridership as the initial estimates in a Department of Transportation study that drew swift criticism for its methodology when it was released in February, officials announced Wednesday.

After revising the study’s framework in response to complaints from lawmakers and other project stakeholders, MassDOT consultants found that the long-sought East-West connection – which would give cities such as Pittsfield and Springfield and the communities around them access by train to Worcester, Boston and stops in between – could draw hundreds of thousands more riders per year than previously estimated.

The revised projections, which Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack described to reporters on Wednesday ahead of an East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee meeting, could give new momentum to supporters of the idea of making passenger service available west of Worcester to better serve the state and help reduce traffic, greenhouse gas emissions, and the strain on the housing market.

“What we learned from this exercise is the methodology we used probably did, in fact, underestimate what the ridership potential is, and we should not use that methodology going forward as we do refined ridership estimates,” Pollack said.

Pollack said the department believes its process for estimating costs, which range between about $2 billion and nearly $25 billion for the six options on the table, remains sound. The expansion would require federal funding, but Pollack said costs outweigh benefits too much to qualify under existing eligibility rules.

However, several onlookers remain concerned about MassDOT’s analysis even after the update, arguing that the study draws comparisons to rail systems too different from the proposal and that it overestimates costs.

“It was a step in the right direction in the sense that they did revise the ridership numbers up, and I’m grateful they did that,” Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who is part of the Advisory Committee, told the News Service. “But there is still a lot missing, and I still don’t think it’s reflective, frankly, of common sense, which is that our commonwealth is too expensive, too unequal, and housing and congestion remain nightmares for families that live here.”

Jarred Johnson, chief operating officer of the TransitMatters advocacy group, said in an interview that many of his past concerns about the study – including its focus only on long-term solutions and cost estimates far higher than previous examinations of rail service in the area – remain.

“It certainly isn’t how we would do a study,” Johnson said.

Commuters who live in the western half of the state are forced either to join the daily grind on the traffic-filled Turnpike or to travel by car or bus to Worcester to pick up train service. Tracks run through Worcester, where MBTA commuter rail service ends, to Springfield and Pittsfield, but the only passenger train that links all of the communities is a Amtrak trip from Boston to Chicago.

Lawmakers and other project stakeholders knocked the original version of the study released in February because it based ridership projections on current commuting trends, rather than accounting for how the availability of new service would induce demand and change those patterns, and because it used a narrow field of existing train lines as comparisons.

Following that feedback, consultants developed two adapted models. One used a larger section of the Springfield-to-Hartford line including New Haven as a proxy and adding induced demand, and the other used Amtrak’s Downeaster as a proxy, which already accounted for induced demand. Both also adjusted the area from which they estimate riders will come.

The original study projected about 72,250 annual riders on the third of six project options, which would upgrade and realign existing rail tracks to run passenger service from Boston to Pittsfield. In the first new model based on the Hartford Line, annual ridership swelled to 278,300, and in the second using the Downeaster as a framework, it increased even further to 358,500.

Study authors only conducted the new analysis on alternative three, and Pollack said the other options would likely experience a similar fourfold-to-fivefold increase in riders under the new methodology.

Lesser argued Wednesday that the revision still falls short because the two proxies, particularly the Hartford Line, are not viable comparisons to the potential Pittsfield-to-Boston route. Hartford and New Haven, he said, “are much smaller cities than Boston, much less expensive and have much more parking.”

He suggested studying trains between Boston and Providence, Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, or New York City and Beacon, New York as closer parallels to how western Massachusetts and Boston relate, but authors did not include any of those. Lesser also argued that cost-per-mile estimates are “out of sync” with past analyses of rail projects in the region.

“It begs the question: how earnestly is MassDOT engaging on this, or is the study being used as a way to kill the project before it even starts?” Lesser said.

Johnson said TransitMatters has “grave concerns” about the cost estimates in the original and revised study, pointing to the 2016 Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative study as evidence that MassDOT’s cost estimates are too high.

He questioned why the department believes it would cost nearly $2 billion to perform upgrades and run passenger trains along tracks that already ferry Amtrak commuters.

Johnson also said he is disappointed that the administration is studying only major transformations to create a rail connection rather than running trains on the existing infrastructure now while simultaneously drafting a plan to speed up service.

“There are plenty of folks who want a high-speed rail project, but they also want service today,” he said. “What the state should have been looking at is: how do we get service operating today, and then how do we do an add-on where every few years, we’re doing projects that take 5 or 10 or 20 minutes off the travel time?”

Defending the study’s cost estimates, Pollack said previous examinations only looked at expanding passenger rail between Springfield and Boston.

Between Springfield and Pittsfield, she said, the geography includes more hills and bridges that MassDOT believes would need to be reconstructed rather than rehabilitated, all of which would require more work.

Federal funding is seen as critical to the project, and Pollack said accessing it could pose a challenge because the project as currently envisioned appears ineligible for federal support.

To qualify for grants from the Federal Railway Administration, a project must have a benefit-cost ratio of 1.0 or higher, indicating that benefits outweigh the costs, Pollack said. That ratio for alternative three in the revised study would be between 0.08 and 0.11 and would not meet the required threshold at the current cost estimate unless it attracted more than 3.6 million riders per year, according to Wednesday’s presentation.

Even with the increased ridership estimate, Pollack said, the project will not qualify for federal funding unless Congress embraces legislation from U.S. Sen. Ed Markey creating a pool of money with broader eligibility.

“Even with these higher ridership estimates – substantially higher ridership estimates, four to five times higher ridership estimates – as affordability is conventionally defined in the train world, whether it’s capital cost per rider or benefit-cost ratio, East-West Rail still does not meet either of those thresholds,” Pollack said.

Markey filed a bill on May 29 that, according to his office, creates a new grant program aimed at supporting projects like East-West Rail that do not face the same criteria as existing infrastructure programs.

The most expensive project Massachusetts backed without federal support is the first phase of the $1.1 billion, 36-mile South Coast Rail expansion, Pollack said, a construction cost of roughly $684 per rider. Construction costs in the updated, higher-demand East-West projections would range between $4,407 per rider and $5,678 per rider, according to the department’s Wednesday presentation.

Asked Wednesday if the COVID-19 pandemic and the national economic downturn it prompted would impact the state’s willingness to spend on the project, Pollack said it will be “months and probably years” before officials hit the crucial proceed-or-stop decision point.

“I think we will have real data for real people to see how much COVID did or did not change travel and the desire for rail travel,” she said. “This is a project that people have been talking about for a long time, and we think we still have – even with the pandemic – an obligation to at least continue to finish this study.”

MassDOT presented the updated findings to the Advisory Committee on Wednesday, and the panel – which includes many western and central Massachusetts elected officials and business leaders – will select three options. They could choose from the list already available or opt to select a hybrid as worth additional study.

Once the committee chooses, MassDOT will develop additional ridership and updated cost estimates for the three potential choices, including funding and revenue factors, into a final report targeted for a September release.

The panel did not make a final decision during Wednesday’s meeting, but members voted overwhelmingly in favor of removing from consideration options that would link Pittsfield and Springfield by bus rather than by train.

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, described the proposal before the group as a “generational investment.”


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