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Plan for high speed train elusive, despite strong public support

Sophia Lipp, BU News Service
Plan for high speed train elusive, despite strong public support
Commuters wait for the 5:00 p.m. Worcester-bound train at Yawkey Station in Kenmore Square, Boston. — Photo: Sophia Lipp

After a year-long stalemate between the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Western Massachusetts legislators, transportation experts still see “no end in sight” for the creation of a high-speed commuter rail connecting Boston to the greater Western Massachusetts area, according to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the PVPC in 2016 created the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative to demonstrate the benefits of connecting the eastern and western regions of Massachusetts. MassDOT decided to include the initiative in its 2018 transportation plan, but it also dictated that the initiative would need more research to warrant serious legislative consideration, a decision the PVPC believes was made to deter rail advocates.

“It’s ridiculous. It seems as if MassDOT will never be convinced,” said Patrick Beaudry, the PVPC’s manager of public affairs. “We’ve been working on this issue for decades, and the initiative took years and lots of money, so we were really hoping that we could take those findings and show how doable and profitable this commuter rail would be.”

He added, “It’s so clear what needs to get done, but without the political will of the state to do it, I can see no end in sight for this rail. It may be generations before it gets made.”

A detailed proposal

The official Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative that was submitted to MassDOT includes budget breakdowns (such as building costs and individual rider costs), proposed train routes, a full building timeline and potential statewide benefits. Although the initiative included a Boston-to-Montreal route and a Springfield-to-New Haven route, if approved, the Inland Route between Boston and Springfield would be the first line created.

Massachusetts state Sen. Eric Lesser, one of the primary advocates for the issue, believes that the east-west rail will provide solutions to the state’s greatest ongoing threats.

“Western Massachusetts’ communities have been struggling economically, while Eastern Massachusetts has an extremely overheated economy,” said Lesser. “Boston is transitioning its workforce over to new industries like healthcare, science and technology, but its people can’t access these new industries because rent is out of control, and the transportation is so terrible and unreliable that they feel as if they can’t move anywhere else.”

Lesser explained that the rail would create a mutually beneficial exchange between the two regions by providing less expensive housing to residents in the east and more job opportunities to struggling residents in the west.

“This rail would reverse several damaging long-term challenges that our state is facing, like the hyper-concentration of wealth and opportunities in places that aren’t accessible to everyone,” said Lesser. “There’s no reason suburban or rural families should have worse access to opportunities because they’ve decided to not live in the city.”

Advocates of the rail also cite environmental sustainability as one of the most promising aspects of the initiative.

“The transportation sector is the largest contributor to pollution in the state of Massachusetts, and really, we can do a lot better,” said Beaudry. “The Mass Pike is not sustainable any longer. Regular drivers’ carbon footprints are astronomical, and we know that we need to get much more serious about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions as a whole. Even if we take half the drivers off the road and put them on one train, we’ll be doing a great service to the environment, and I think that’s something most of the people of Massachusetts can get behind.”

Popular support

A MassINC Polling Group survey commissioned by the Barr Foundation, a private Boston-based foundation with core programs in arts and creativity, climate, and education, found that 78 percent of Massachusetts voters say they support an expansion of the commuter rail from Boston to Springfield.

Carlie Ollarie, a 22-year-old esthetician from Brighton, said that she would move to Western Massachusetts from Boston “in a heartbeat” if the state provided reliable transportation between the two regions.

“My commute from Brighton to work is 40 minutes already, so an extra 20 minutes to live in Western Massachusetts with affordable housing would absolutely be worth it,” said Ollarie. “I think a rail connecting the two would offer a higher quality of life for us, for the state, for the environment, for everything.”

Nathan Strain, a merchant marine and captain at Miller’s Launch, claimed that his daily drive on the Mass Pike from Springfield to Boston now costs him almost three times more after the state implemented a new automatic tolling system in 2016. He said he’d prefer a commuter rail to driving, if given the option.

“These [new tolls] are a scam,” said Strain. “The Mass Pike is a disaster.”

A one-way rail trip from Springfield to Boston would clock in at under 90 minutes and cost the average passenger $10-15 per ride.

“We’re at a breaking point where we’ve hit capacity on the Mass Pike and one accident will put the entire state at a standstill,” said Beaudry. “We only have one road that services that east-west transportation need.”

Lesser believes that this rail could not only transform transportation in the state of Massachusetts, but the entire continental United States.

“Infrastructure has always fostered growth and new opportunity, and Massachusetts has the chance to be a leader in that,” said Lesser. “People need to see around the bend and realize that our country still has a lot of growing to do.”

Uncertain future

When asked for definitive timeline, MassDOT’s response was, “The projects will be revisited in subsequent plans.”

Lesser originally proposed a study for the rail in 2016, but Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed the study in July of that year. Two days prior to that veto, Peter Picknelly, the president of Peter Pan Bus Company, which is headquartered in Springfield, sent an email to Baker urging the governor to reject Lesser’s proposal.

“I simply can’t see the point of spending huge amounts of taxpayer dollars for this kind of rail service, which would adversely impact Peter Pan, an 80-year old, tax-paying business that provides first-class service between Springfield and Boston,” Picknelly said in an email obtained by MassLive.com. “I am always disappointed that proposed studies like this only include rail, and never seem to take a comprehensive look at all modes of transportation.”

Peter Pan Bus Company could not be reached for comment.

Lesser continues to believe in the rail proposal’s value.

“My opinion is that if you build it, they will come,” said Lesser. “This would be the single most transformative way of improving Massachusetts as a state. I don’t know what Massachusetts taxpayer wouldn’t want to support that.”

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