Public presses for east-west rail service

  • 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

  • Ethan Brittland, project manager with the state Department of Transportation, listens to public comment Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/12/2020 10:57:26 PM
Modified: 2/12/2020 10:57:14 PM

SPRINGFIELD — In a tightly packed classroom at the UMass Center in Tower Square Wednesday night, state transportation officials heard views and concerns on the current east-west passenger rail study.

Following a presentation by officials on the six options the study has identified for the potential project, many of the 150 attendees made their way to the microphone to ask about projected ridership numbers, proposed bus service in lieu of trains and the need for a train stop in Palmer that connects to Amherst.

“This is a generational investment in our region, it’s a generational investment in economic development and it’s a generational investment in the future and sustainability and growth of western Massachusetts,” said Tom Bernard, mayor of North Adams.

According to the state Department of Transportation, cost estimates for the six proposals vary from a relatively meager $2 billion for rail upgrades from Springfield to Boston, to around $25 billion for an electrified high-speed rail from Pittsfield to Boston on a new railroad line.

But three of the six proposals call for bus service from Pittsfield to Springfield — a prospect that Bernard lambasted as a “non-starter.”

“This is a question of regional equity,” he said. “This is a question of what it is going to take to serve the western part of the state in the way that we are seeing growth and service in the eastern part of the state.”

Betsy Port called options that had buses “ridiculous.” She said that while the state put out numbers on costs associated with the project, there seemed to be little discussion of income from tickets and the time it will take for the state to build a new rail line.

In response, Ethan Brittland, project manager with the DOT, said the state will be looking at costs for riders and potential construction timelines in the future. He also said the state was “fully open” to a hybrid between alternatives later on in the meeting.

“We wanted to focus on resources on the six (alternatives) and put them into the three (final alternatives),” Brittland said.

Greenfield resident John Garrett said he doesn’t trust Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration to follow through with the east-west rail project, citing reports that Peter Pan Bus Lines owner Peter A. Picknelly had lobbied Baker against the proposal.

“I don’t really trust your ridership estimates, I don’t trust the gist of the study,” Garrett said. “I think this is a sandbagging, and I think the people of western Massachusetts are smart enough to figure out when they’re trying to be fooled.”

At the meeting, state officials explained that their ridership estimates for each alternative were calculated by taking ridership on comparable rail lines and adjusting it based on demographic and rail service changes. Those estimates, however, do not include the possibility of induced demand once the service is available — which officials on Wednesday said could increase estimates by 10 to 15 percent.

With current ridership estimates, officials anticipate 247,700 annual riders on the high-speed rail, compared to 11,150 annually on the cheapest, $2 billion option.

Mike Eagan, of Palmer, believes that an east-west rail would eventually cause a migration of people from the Boston area into western Massachusetts.

“It’s a small state and it has the potential of increasing the ridership tremendously,” he said.

Ware Select Board member Tracy Opalinski called for the state to take a closer look at opening up a now-defunct line from Palmer to Amherst. She said there are students and faculty at the University of Massachusetts who live in Palmer who could benefit.

“It would connect the biotech and R & D in Worcester, Springfield and Boston with UMass,” she said. “This could be the biotech valley, at some point.”

David Fite is one of those UMass students who lives in Palmer, and he said that the shortcut to Amherst from Palmer was “critical.”

UMass mathematics professor Rob Kusner echoed these sentiments, saying that   the shortcut would help bring commerce to Northampton and Amherst.

“I think that would improve the ridership on both lines and it would make your costs per passenger much, much, lower,” Kusner said.

The East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet next on Feb. 24 at 1 p.m. at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com


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