Great Barrington — While it is one powerful bootstrap for the Berkshires to yank itself from its economic doldrums, it appears passenger rail service to and from New York City is far off, if not a long shot.
But it isn’t dead.
The spirited quest and community fervor for it might just get the job done — eventually. Some things are still on track, like an investment made by Massachusetts.
The state bought 37 miles of rail from Housatonic Railroad Company (HRR), from Pittsfield to the Connecticut state line, for $12.1 million, and has committed $35 million in a first phase for upgrades, with a five-year plan for $15 million to fix old infrastructure. The state said it planned to spend $113 million for its part of this passenger rail project.
So far that $15 million in work will only go to freight upgrades that are critical for safety and which can’t hurt any eventual work for passenger service.
But gumming the works is Connecticut, which does not appear to be coming on board any time soon to invest in its track system, the only way to get the train down to New York. Yet that first phase of work to Massachusetts tracks will be done whether or not Connecticut says it will play ball, according to a July statement by transportation project manager Clete Kus of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC).
And there may be yet another buzz kill: Boston, which may need to save its train dollars for high-speed rail closer to home, and just to keep its aging systems running.
Restoring passenger service to a line that hasn’t been used this way since 1971 will take a total of around $200 million.
If anyone in the Berkshires has the mojo to take on two states, it’s local publisher Karen Christensen, one of the Berkshires’ most passionate advocates of trains that will run back and forth from stops in Pittsfield, Lee and Great Barrington to Grand Central Station. She started The Train Campaign, and she is tireless.
“This is something that can happen, not a pipe dream,” she said at a Train Campaign meeting at her home Tuesday. “We’re a good part of the way there, so what’s it going to take to connect our home here with the wider world?”
BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns and HRR Vice President Colin Pease were there to lay it all out for a small group of interested residents and the media.
Karns talked about long-term economic sustainability in a region losing population in a decades-long trend that’s afflicting the entire Northeast. Then he explained the dynamic between the two states on this specific passenger line.
“It hasn’t been a good discussion,” he said. “Connecticut is resistant to that line because of passengers who only want to come to the Berkshires—that’s the perception.”
In the Berkshires, however, a lot of work has been done to get towns organized, like locating stations so there’s at least a good 10-mile run between stops for efficiency.
In Great Barrington, he said, the Culleton family that owns the old station off Castle Hill Avenue is supportive of seeing that rail stop resurrected.
While there may be residents out there who live near the line and don’t want to see eight trains a day as proposed by HRR, most people get starry eyed at the mere mention of stepping on the train in Great Barrington and arriving at Grand Central a few hours later.
What this would do for the economy here cannot be overstated, HRR’s Pease said, given the New York metro area-based tourists for culture and recreation, college and prep school students, and residents who commute for work.
He said a market study shows a “younger demographic for train riders.”
“Those are the people we want here,” Christensen said. “And we want to get people here who will create jobs.”
Pease also mentioned a Williams College study that showed a “billion dollars in new economic activity” for the area as a result of this rail project.
All this sounds so good but requires another state to agree to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on some very old track, some of which, Christensen pointed out, were laid in 1876, the year of General Custer’s last stand.
“We need an extensive push to get them to see the light,” Karns said, adding that it would help the Connecticut economy, too. “We need a good dealmaker at the table.”
Christensen said “new strategies” were needed to connect legislators from both states.
“Connecticut is the biggest roadblock,” said Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “I haven’t heard a change of attitude or approach. Their governor laid out his 30-year capital plan and this north/south rail was not even on it. He’s planning to spend more money on the I-91 corridor. It’s disappointing.”
He said he thinks this passenger rail line is more than 10 years off, if at all.
“There are other rail needs that will trump the Berkshires,” he noted, like the billions of dollars the state needs to spend on north/south rail on the eastern end and around “$1 billion just for the Boston piece.”
And without a commitment from Connecticut, he added, “the east will chew up that money pretty quickly.”
But Massachusetts says it’s still committed. “MassDOT and the MBTA continue to focus on the reliability and modernization of the Commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure, approving a five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP) that dedicates over $15 million for track improvements on the Berkshire Rail Line,” said MassDOT Spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard. That plan can seen here. Calls to Gov. Charlie Baker’s office were not returned Wednesday.
Meanwhile, 15,000 creosoted railroad ties sit in piles at the Lenox Dale station, ready for next summer’s freight upgrade using money initially earmarked — in spirit, anyway — for a project that could revitalize the region.
Pignatelli said these freight upgrades to rail laid nearly a century ago have to happen regardless. “Without a longer commitment from Connecticut, we can’t wait for them.”