State airs east-west rail ideas

  • In this Friday, Oct. 14, 2016 photo, an Amtrak Acela train passes through Mystic, Conn. A plan to speed up Amtrak's high-speed rail corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., is welcomed by business commuters but finding its strongest opposition in some shoreline towns in Connecticut. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Michael Dwyer

Staff Writer
Published: 2/7/2020 12:05:40 AM
Modified: 2/7/2020 12:05:29 AM

SPRINGFIELD — On Thursday, six visions of what east-west passenger rail service might look like were presented to the public and the members of the East-West Passenger Rail Service Advisory Committee by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

And one sentiment that was expressed by both the public and members of the advisory committee was a desire to nix plans that substitute new rail service to the Berkshires with buses connecting riders to train service.

“Anything that has a bus-only option from the Berkshires to Springfield should be eliminated immediately,” said Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, a comment that elicited a number of murmurs of agreement from those in attendance.

Speaking after the meeting, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, also voiced opposition to the idea of moving forward with a plan with a bus component.

“People in the Berkshires have said, ‘We do not want bus service, we want actual train service,’” said Sabadosa. “And yet we were once again presented with bus service.”

Of the six plans for establishing east-west rail service presented, three of them include bus service from Pittsfield to Springfield, with one of them extending that bus service to Worcester as well.

The DOT is examining “the costs, benefits, and investments necessary to implement passenger rail service from Boston to Springfield and Pittsfield, with the speed, frequency, and reliability necessary to be a competitive option for travel along this corridor.”

The advisory committee includes public officials and those in the private sector, and advises both the study’s project team and DOT’s leadership.

This spring, the DOT is set to release its findings in a final report.

The most basic of the plans combines bus service with a train from Springfield to Worcester where riders would transfer to the MBTA. This plan would cost a little less than $2 billion, would have an estimated 36 weekday riders and would include a stop in Palmer.

By contrast, the plan with the biggest scope would extend high-speed rail from Pittsfield to Boston, with stops at Lee, Blandford Service Plaza, Springfield, Palmer and Worcester, along a new electrified railroad line which could enable speeds up to 150 mph. This line would mostly be in the Interstate 90 corridor.

This plan has the biggest ridership number estimates by far, at 820 weekday riders, but it’s also the most expensive, clocking in at $25 billion.

Sabadosa said this was the plan that she favored.

“If we’re talking about bold vision, let’s go for option six,” she said. “We shouldn’t be back here 10 years from now wondering why we’re running diesel trains when the rest of the world has moved to electric.”

In the meeting, Sabadosa was critical of the ridership estimates for east-west rail service. She said the Vermonter line had more than 21,000 riders in fiscal 2018 from Northampton only. The Vermonter runs from northern Vermont through New York City and all the way to Washington.

Sabadosa contrasted this with the yearly ridership estimate for one of the plans, which would extend passenger rail service from Pittsfield to Boston along the existing CSX rail line, which clocked in at about 72,000 riders.

“I don’t understand the modeling,” she said.

The response Sabadosa received was that connecting to New York City is a major driver of ridership. Sabadosa replied, however, that the numbers “seem very low based on the behavior that we’ve already seen from this part of the state.”

Anne Miller, of Palmer, also echoed this in the public comment period, saying that of the potential riders from Palmer, “most of them are going to be going to Boston.”

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said on a recent conference call that some stakeholders will find ridership projections from the study lower than expected. She said the numbers do not assume any population or employment changes as a result of new rail service.

Five of the six expansion plans have estimated capital prices a little over $5 billion or less. But Pollack said the numbers are “sobering” because the capital expenses would work out to tens of thousands of dollars per new rider added, several times higher than other projects around the country offered as comparison.

The study team will hold a public meeting Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at UMass Center at Springfield in classroom 014, where members will present information on the study and the six plans.

There will also be another meeting of the advisory committee on Feb. 24 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel, which will also be open to the public.

After these meetings, the study team will decide on the final three plans.

Reporting from State House News Service was included in this report.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.


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