Boston — The movement to bring passenger rail back to the Berkshires has taken another step forward but in a different direction.
On Tuesday (Oct. 24), Berkshire County’s legislative delegation testified before the Joint Committee on Transportation in favor of a bill that would authorize the study of high-speed rail access between Boston and Springfield.
The bill’s sponsor is Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow. The entire Berkshire delegation was among the co-sponsors: Sen. Adam G. Hinds of Pittsfield; Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, also of Pittsfield; Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli of Lenox; and Rep. Paul Mark of Peru. All are Democrats.
But the Berkshire delegation appeared dissatisfied with the scope of the study, arguing instead that it be expanded to “include high-speed rail across the entire Commonwealth from Boston to Pittsfield, in the heart of the Berkshires.”
“With so much investment based in the City of Boston, the rest of the state, and particularly the four western counties, are being left behind,” the delegation declared in its written testimony. “The outcome of this legislation, if expanded to include Pittsfield and the Berkshires, would have a direct economic benefit and impact for our constituents.”
The delegation is convinced that linking Berkshire County’s 32 municipalities to Boston, Worcester and Springfield will generate jobs, strengthen the creative and tourism economy and “connect our constituents to wider opportunities.”
Further, the delegation says, those who currently live and work in the eastern part of the state would have more commuting options if a rail link from Boston to the Berkshires was established.
“Some may choose to live in western Mass. and the Berkshires, where the housing prices are more affordable and the environmental and outdoor recreational activities are world-class, and commute into work via train.”
In an Edge interview, Hinds said he’s concerned about a “winner-takes-all dynamic in Massachusetts, with everyone rushing towards Boston but the rest of state not experiencing it.”
That trend has accelerated with the city of Boston submitting a serious proposal to Amazon, the online retailing giant, for a second headquarters that the company plans to build. That new campus, wherever it is built, will spark more than $5 billion in construction and add up to 50,000 high-paying jobs to whatever region it attracts.
“Amazon is just the latest example,” Hinds said of the state’s Boston-centric attitude.
Lawmakers from the eastern part of the state naturally gravitate toward their region, but Hinds said even central Massachusetts legislators “get it,” in part because the rail study “talks about expanding west.”
“That’s the good news,” Hinds said. And referring to House Speaker Bob DeLeo, he added, “We’ve encountered some challenges but we’ve also seen very positive words from the speaker and the Senate.”
Farley-Bouvier said she sees the rail issue as “all about economic development and the quality of life” and that “investment in public transportation is an investment in economic development.”
As to whether a rail link from Boston and Springfield to Pittsfield would benefit the rest of the Berkshires, Farley-Bouvier was sanguine.
“If you could drive from Williamstown or North Adams or Great Barrington to a station and take a high-speed train to Boston, it’s a much better opportunity than if you had to drive,” Farley-Bouvier told the Edge. “There is no question that this is an economic development strategy.”
She said data indicates that the bulk of Berkshire County tourists still come from the New York City region but there is no reason why Boston-area visitors shouldn’t feel just as welcome.
Indeed, 1Berkshire, an economic development group based in Pittsfield, does intercept surveys every five years. The last one in 2013 showed that, while visitors from the New York City metropolitan region are still in the majority, the number of people coming to the Berkshires from the Boston area is growing the fastest–and they tend to skew a little younger than those from New York.
Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, said he sees “big benefits for the Berkshires” if the study pans out and a subsequent proposal comes to pass.
“It’s a significant economic tool that would impact a whole variety of factors,” Butler said in an interview.
Like Hinds, Butler sees more telecommuting possibilities for people who want to live in a rural area like the Berkshires and travel to their Boston-area offices once or twice a week.
“It could create a gateway and open up more commerce between east and west,” Butler said. “If people could hop on a train and get into Boston in two hours, the ripple effects could be tremendous.”
It could even have a beneficial effect on the Boston area itself. If workers there have more housing options outside of eastern Massachusetts, it could help control housing costs in that region, Butler explained.
“I’m excited that Sen. Lesser has taken the lead on this, even if it’s just to Springfield,” Butler said. “Naturally, we would love for that conversation to take the next step.”
Hinds, a first-term senator who is Senate chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, earlier this year received approval from lawmakers to establish a working group to look into the feasibility of “establishing direct seasonal weekend passenger rail service” between New York and Pittsfield between Memorial Day and Columbus Day weekends.
The working group was formed and has already held a pair of meetings this fall regarding the possibility of starting the Berkshire Flyer, so named after the CapeFLYER passenger rail service between Boston and Hyannis.
Another plan that had been considered called for passenger rail service to use the former Housatonic Railroad line, now owned by the state, that runs south from Pittsfield to Lenox, Stockbridge and Great Barrington, and then through western portions of Connecticut to Danbury and eventually to Grand Central Terminal.
That plan has been shelved because of a lack of interest on the part of the administration of Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, whose state has been embroiled in a longstanding budget crisis. In addition, there was the perception that Connecticut would pay mightily for a project that would disproportionately benefit Massachusetts.
Butler, Farley-Bouvier and Hinds are on the Berkshire Flyer working group. Another member of the group is rail enthusiast Eddie Sporn, a West Stockbridge-based real estate strategy and planning consultant and former New York City hedge fund executive.
Sporn said establishing a passenger rail link between Boston and Springfield is a “no-brainer.”
“If you can get a train to Springfield in under two hours, then you’re talking about the possibility of it becoming an exurb of Boston,” Sporn said in an Edge interview.
Boston to Springfield makes even more sense, Sporn said, because of a New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed commuter rail line that is currently under construction. As for Boston to Springfield to the Berkshires, Sporn said it probably doesn’t offer as much “bang for the buck” as New York to Pittsfield because of the historical connection between New York, the Gilded Age mansions and the Berkshires cultural scene.
Still, Sporn thinks it makes sense to study the link from Springfield to Pittsfield, what with the growth of the region’s’ cultural offerings, especially in North Adams, where MassMOCA recently completed a substantial expansion and renowned architect Frank Gehry has committed to designing a new museum featuring models of trains chugging around famous buildings.
A possible alternative to an MBTA line from Springfield to Pittsfield would be to simply extend the Berkshire Flyer, if it comes to pass, to Springfield. But in either case, there are always logical and technical challenges. The line between Springfield and Pittsfield is single-track in most areas and sees heavy use by CSX, the freight-train giant, Sporn explained.
“There is no reason not to do a study,” Sporn added. “It’s always a positive if you can find a way to get people off the road. This generation coming of age is far less car-dependent.”
“This will likely be a benefit to the next generation but that doesn’t make it any less important,” agreed Butler.
Karen Christensen, who heads the Great Barrington Train Campaign, which had advocated for the now-defunct Connecticut plan, came out in support of the Boston-Springfield approach and urged its expansion to the Berkshires.
One railroad enthusiast, Mark Shapp of Lenox, recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Edge raising serious objections to the Berkshire Flyer concept but praising the Berkshire delegation’s support of the East-West initiative.
“That is truly a good thing because many of us want more travel options connecting us to Boston, as much if not more than to New York,” Shapp wrote. “But should the Berkshire delegation be denied, will they then have the spine to withhold support if Springfield remains as the western endpoint of that service? We should all hope so.”