A generational process: How will high-speed rail get to Pittsfield?

  • State Sen. Eric Lesser in his office with one of the printouts he has of maps of high-speed rail in Massachusetts. CAROLYN KOMATSOULIS/BOSTON UNIVERSITY STATEHOUSE PROGRAM


For the Gazette
Published: 12/24/2019 11:07:31 AM

BOSTON – State Sen. Eric Lesser sits in his office gesturing at maps of high-speed rail in Massachusetts on the table. In 2014, the former Obama White House staffer came home and ran for state Senate, outlining on the campaign trail his plans for an ambitious infrastructure project. 

Five years later, he has large printouts of the final six options the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has developed. 

A feasibility study – which failed to pass the House in 2015, was vetoed in 2016, and wasn’t approved again in 2017 – is finally expected to be completed next spring. Lesser wants to create an economic corridor that will equalize the quality of life and housing in the whole state and take cars off the road, despite roadblocks like building through mountains. 

“The technology is not the issue, the logistics are not the issue, the issue is building the political will,” said the Democrat from Longmeadow. “For us in western Massachusetts, that’s always been the challenge because we have a relatively small share of the state’s population so getting attention and investment and focus on western Mass. projects has always been a challenge.”

Lesser said he thinks there is political support for rail from Boston to Pittsfield, although the Boston City Council voted to support only Springfield-to-Boston high-speed rail. U.S. Sen.  Elizabeth Warren said she supports rail from Boston to Springfield, and three of the six options MassDOT revealed involve bus service between Pittsfield and Springfield, options both Lesser and state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, oppose. 

Pignatelli believes there is political support but this project hinges not on east-west rail but on west-east rail. 

“We need a commitment to start it in the west. If we start in Boston and work west the political will will not be there. If you start in Berkshire County with west-east rail I promise you it will get to Boston. But if you start in Boston I can almost guarantee you it won’t get to the Berkshires,” he said. 

“My fear is we’ll do a study, we’ll spend hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, it will start in Boston, it will get to Worcester, maybe it will get to Springfield and then it will end,” he said.

Pignatelli said Boston is not even prepared for rail now with the congestion and population there and needs to get its act together and fix its infrastructure in order for this project to begin.

“It’s too much. I think it’s like a funnel effect,” he said. “There’s so much, whether it be trains or cars going down a funnel. I don’t know if South Station, which is the hub, is even capable of handling more trains going into Boston.” 

However, he said this is a generational, long-term process and as such there are more hurdles than just the location. 

“Even if we agree to a location today, there’s many, many more hurdles to overcome, environmentally, and then how much is it going to cost and how long is it going to take,” he said. “If it’s longer than three hours from the Berkshires to Boston, it’s not as attractive as driving your own car. At the end of the day, we’ve got to find a billion dollars somehow to make it happen.” 

$1 billion

When it comes to funding the project, Lesser has some ideas, including a Fair Share Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution which would raise taxes on people with annual over $1 million. The proposal received the first of two required approvals in successive legislative sessions earlier this year.

He also said he has enabling legislation for the proposed Transportation Climate Initiative to specifically direct the funds to underserved regions, as well as a regional ballot initiative he filed to allow each region to fund its own segments of the route. Although he said he doesn’t know if they will raise taxes, he also said anything that is done has to be done “in a fair way.” 

“Western Mass. residents pay taxes to support Boston infrastructure,” Lesser said. “Potentially redirecting some of those funds back to western Mass. is a way you can fund it without raising taxes.”

U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, a former Springfield mayor, had similar thoughts in remarks to the New England Council last month. 

"If we're to have a major fix of the MBTA, which everybody of Massachusetts pays for, east-west rail ought to be the price for western and central Massachusetts,” he said, according to the State House News Service. 

This sentiment was partially echoed by Jonathan Butler, the president and CEO of 1Berkshire who is involved with the project.

“The volume of dollars that’s spent on transportation infrastructure in eastern Mass. significantly exceeds what’s spent out here in western Mass.,” he said. “It could very much change the game for the economy in the Berkshires.”

Butler also said this is a generational project which could level the playing field throughout the commonwealth since western Massachusetts has a population scarcity problem and eastern Massachusetts has a population density problem. He also said buses are unacceptable. 

“We’re very conscious right now as we look around the country as to how transportation is evolving,” he said. “We’re trying to be more green, we’re trying to meet the demands of the next generation workforce.” 

Plus, according to Lesser, Butler, and Pignatelli, Pittsfield could benefit from its location which is close not only to Boston but to other cities including Montreal.  

“We have an opportunity to get it right,” Butler said. “The next step would be connecting Pittsfield with Albany or Pittsfield to New York City. The better quality of rail access and broadband access strengthen our position geographically to benefit from the population centers and the centers of commerce.”

Environmental factors

Furthermore, Lesser wants to take cars off the road with this project which he said would help mitigate global warming, since 40 percent of all Massachusetts greenhouse emissions come from transportation.

Jane Winn, the executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, said taking cars off the road is helpful but concerns remain. 

“We don’t know all the impacts. One of the things we’re really worried about is extending the sprawl zone out to the Berkshires,” she said. “As you can easily access Boston from further and further away the more sprawling development you get. That tends to fragment wildlife habitat. That’s one of our big worries.”

She said two things the group would want to see are ways for fish and wildlife to have a way around or under the tracks as well as electrified rail. Furthermore, she is concerned the train would end up being expensive to ride.

“It would be a shame if we’re fragmenting wildlife habitat for something that’s only going be used by a relatively few elite people instead of providing access to the people who need it the most,” Winn said. 

Berkshire County rail has not always been the goal. Although Lesser said he has always backed a route from Pittsfield to Boston, a MassLive article from 2014 quotes him as supporting rail to Springfield. Pignatelli said the Berkshire delegation has stood together and said the legislation wouldn’t get by them if it didn’t go all the way west. However, he said Lesser now supports the idea of starting in the Berkshires. 

Lesser, when reached for clarification, said he uses Pittsfield and Springfield interchangeably and since he is the senator for Springfield he focuses on it because he lives there. He said the language of the bill had been amended to say Pittsfield and both the legislation filed over the last couple of years as well as the study they worked on with the governor says Pittsfield. 

“We absolutely want it going all the way to Pittsfield,” Lesser said. “Smitty has definitely been a big partner with us in helping to push that Pittsfield element.”

But even a link to Pittsfield is not the only goal.

“The first day I was in the Legislature, I had a meeting with the people who were involved in the high-speed track from Boston to Springfield,” said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams. “I said I will never support a plan that does not come into Berkshire County. They amended the study to include a feasibility study to see if they could continue it.”

Northern Berkshire County, which Barrett represents, is struggling. This rail, if built, will stop in Pittsfield. For Barrett, the rail will help the entire county but, in the meantime, there is another measure to specifically help northern Berkshire County. 

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, filed legislation to study the impacts of rail between North Adams and Boston, which Barrett said involves taking an existing freight rail line out of Boston – which stops in Fitchburg and North Adams and goes on to Vermont – and using it for passengers.

“It used to be the direct link from northern Berkshire to Boston going back almost over 60 years ago,” Barrett said. “I just want to see passenger service restored. I think they can do that within the next five years, if not less. The high speed is many years down the road. In the interim you’ve got this available.”

Self-esteem for the 413

“Some of this I also think is about self-esteem, for us, being from the 413,” Lesser said. “It’s time for our region to also step up and say we need plans that benefit the whole state.”

Although he said the biggest impact will be on jobs, there are also effects for the community and culture of the state as a whole.

“I’ve had a lot of people write to me and say it will be easier to get to Fenway Park,” Lesser said. “It would certainly be easier for Boston folks to get to the Berkshires and to utilize the cultural attractions and visit the Norman Rockwell museum and go to Tanglewood and everything else.”

Carolyn Komatsoulis writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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