Passenger rail commission hears extensive testimony at public hearing in Northampton

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 03-22-2023 9:56 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Supporters of enhanced passenger rail service in western Massachusetts packed the Senior Center Tuesday to testify before the legislative commission studying the project’s governance and funding.

From as far afield as Greenfield, Palmer and Worcester, speakers shared their experiences and suggestions for the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission, chaired by Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, and Sen. Ben Crighton, D-Lynn, which is gathering testimony through the course of six public hearings.

Submitting written testimony on behalf of the Western Mass Rail Coalition, Ben Heckscher listed five questions he said need to be answered. Heckscher, the co-founder of Trains in the Valley, said the Department of Transportation should design, permit and build the necessary infrastructure; Amtrak should provide the service; a new passenger rail authority should oversee it; it should be funded by a dedicated revenue source, such as a portion of tax revenues; and that an interstate rail compact will be needed for promotion and development.

Several speakers highlighted the inadequacy of the current rail network for passengers traveling in any direction.

Northampton resident Gina Nortonsmith said she works in Boston and, since getting a promotion, is faced now with having to travel there more often. Without a car, she said, the cost can be high. Bus fees and schedules change, she said, and although she likes to ride the train from Boston to Springfield, there’s no decent connection to a northbound train when she gets there.

“This is an easy fix. Please fix it. Make it easy for us,” she told the commission.

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Marsha Pelletier of Northampton offered similar testimony, saying a trip to Boston for her involves parking at the train station and walking to the bus  station to catch the bus to Boston. On the way home, the train takes her to Connecticut where, if everything’s on schedule, she’ll have 20 minutes to catch a northbound train.

Acknowledging that there’s a balance to be struck between convenience and speed, Ana Devlin Gauthier, an Amherst town councilor, urged the commission to make sure there are enough stops on the line so that people in rural areas aren’t left out. Like several others, she also said there should be some partnership with the regional bus services to provide access to more people without cars.

Alex Jarrett, Northampton city councilor, echoed these concerns, saying rail service needs to be frequent and appropriately priced, and be connected to bus service.

The mayors of Northampton and Greenfield both offered support for improved rail service.

“The people of Northampton strongly support passenger rail,” Gina-Louise Sciarra said, noting the city’s advocacy for the now permanent Valley Flyer. She cited a study co-authored by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission that projected a 10-to-1 return on investment in the region over 30 years as a result of restored service on the Boston-New York line.

Sciarra also noted that the project fits with her city’s goal of reducing its carbon dioxide emissions.

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said a passenger rail authority should be established to govern the expanded network.

“Invest in us — we will not let you down,” she said.

Several speakers from Palmer expressed the need for a stop in their town. Jen Healey, rural transit program manager for the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. in Ware, said the Quaboag Connector bus service provided 14,000 rides across nine towns in the region, and she was excited about providing last-mile service to Palmer station.

Following a break, Meredith Slesinger, administrator of the Department of Transportation’s Rail and Transit Division, presented information on recent initiatives, including MassDOT’s application for $135 million from the Federal Railroad Administration for improvements on the Springfield-Worcester line. Amtrak has pledged $9 million to the effort, with MassDOT contributing $18 million. CSX, which owns most of the tracks, provided a letter of support. The goal, Slesinger said, is cutting travel time from Boston to Springfield to two hours.

Gov. Maura Healey also has included $12.5 million in her budget for station improvements in Palmer and Pittsfield.

When testimony resumed, Amy Wang, Select Board chairwoman in Worthington, observed that last-mile access is a long way off for people in the hinterlands.

“I can’t even get a taxi from Northampton to my house, or to the end of my road,” she said.

But, with a stop in Chester, 15 minutes away, she suggested that there would be plenty of interest in the train.

The commission, which has already held hearings in Pittsfield and Greenfield, continued its work Tuesday with another hearing in Springfield in the evening. Its final report is due June 30.

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.]]>