Lenox — Reporters covering the transportation beat at the Statehouse in Boston must be busy these days.
In the last couple of weeks alone, Gov. Charlie Baker has announced the creation of a special commission on the future of transportation in the state. A few days later, the state Department of Transportation unveiled a draft rail plan for Massachusetts. And here in the state’s westernmost county — far out in the hinterlands out of sight, it would seem, from Boston — a panel working on establishing a weekend rail link with New York City has been hard at work and is poised to release its report next month.
Baker’s appointment of the commission on the future of transportation clearly struck a nerve. Of the 18 members, none were from Berkshire County. That was cause for some consternation from the Berkshires’ legislative delegation, which penned a letter of protest to Baker.
Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli tweeted that Baker had “made an egregious mistake by NOT having any representation from the #Berkshires.” Sen. Adam Hinds told The Edge he was “deeply disappointed that the Berkshires were not given a high enough priority to have a member on the commission.”
In an Edge interview, Pignatelli revealed some good news. He and state Rep. John Barrett, the former mayor of North Adams, worked over the weekend and early this week to lobby Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who agreed to place a Berkshire County resident on the commission.
“They did agree to put a person on the commission,” Pignatelli said Thursday. “We went back and forth on Monday and submitted a name to her office.”
Since there has not been a formal announcement, Pignatelli declined to name the future panelist on the commission but he termed the person “a very strong candidate” and he added Barrett has received assurances that the new seat would be filled with a Berkshire resident.
“Karyn emphasized that it’s not so much a transportation commission about roads and bridges as it is about technology,” Pignatelli explained. “They wanted someone with a strong technology background.”
Indeed, in a news release announcing the formation of the commission, Baker used the word “technology” or its variations eight times – either to describe the panel or to denote the higher education level of its members.
“This is going to be a serious effort, with a broad range of experts who will seek to better understand and evaluate how technology and other forces in society will affect transportation in the decades ahead,” said state transportation secretary and CEO Stephanie Pollack, who will be an ex officio member of the commission.
Pignatelli cited electric cars, driverless vehicles and electronic tolling, which was installed on the Mass Pike two years ago, as examples of how emerging technologies are changing the face of transportation in Massachusetts and beyond.
According to an analysis on GovTech.com, the commission will also focus on “disruptive technologies, climate change, land use and demographic trends, and various transit services,” with an eye toward future developments in the transportation field between 2020 and 2040.
As for the rail plan, MassDOT said in a news release on Tuesday that the draft includes “a commitment to study east-west passenger rail service between Springfield and Boston.”
Pignatelli has long been an advocate of establishing a rail link between Boston and the Berkshires. Indeed, last fall, 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 but also argued that it be expanded to “include high-speed rail across the entire Commonwealth from Boston to Pittsfield, in the heart of the Berkshires.” This week Pignatelli was clearly disappointed that the rail study did not include a Berkshires component.
He noted the failure of the proposed reestablishment of passenger rail up the Housatonic River valley to the Berkshires from New York City because of an unwillingness to cooperate on the part of the state of Connecticut, which, for a variety of reasons, is facing intense fiscal pressures. Pignatelli would like to see the rail study include service from Boston through the Berkshires and westward to Albany, New York.
“If we’re going to evaluate the impact of north-south, we also have to evaluate east-west,” Pignatelli said. “Most of that is in our control.”
Hinds, Pignatelli’s colleague in the state Senate, chairs a working group studying rail service from Pittsfield to New York via the Hudson Valley. The working group already held several meetings last fall and early this year regarding the possibility of starting the Berkshire Flyer, so named after the CapeFLYER passenger rail service between Boston and Hyannis.
The panel met Tuesday in advance of its expected presentation to the legislature of its findings by Thursday, March 1. Click here to view the PowerPoint presentation made by Astrid Glynn, a rail and transit administrator with the state Department of Transportation, which has hosted the meetings at its regional headquarters in Lenox.
At this meeting, the study group focused on market analyses and the so-called “last-mile” options – or how to get where you want to go in the Berkshires after you arrive at the station in Pittsfield. A representative was also present from Amtrak, which would be the rail partner for the Berkshire Flyer if the project becomes a reality.
In response to a comment by Hinds on the aforementioned draft state rail plan, Glynn had some positive news. She noted that the rail study is required by the federal government and is an “opportunity to decide how we want to target investments in rail.”
“We have virtually doubled the amount of rail the commonwealth owns,” Glynn said. “The rail plan is not focused on the MBTA. The focus instead is on intercity rail and freight. It lists three ongoing studies and this [the Berkshire Flyer] is one of them.”
Glynn said she is hopeful that the working group will receive cost estimates and capacity figures by Thursday, Feb. 15.
“It’s an important part of the report but it’s missing right now,” Glynn said. “We also need a fare analysis. The benchmark is the market so what is the market right now?”
Study group member Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, an economic development group serving the county, pointed to figures in Glynn’s presentation. Data from an unnamed hotel indicate peak season for room rentals is July and August, when the average room rents for about $200 a night, with mini-spikes occurring in October and February.
According to the study group’s research, there are 63 “cultural attractions” in Berkshire County. More than 4,000 visitors per season from the New York metropolitan region have second homes in the area and so do not stay in hotels.
Glynn said the Berkshire Flyer’s focus should initially be on July and August and on visitors who don’t have second homes because second-home owners already have patterns of transportation and are unlikely to change.
Study group member and rail enthusiast Eddie Sporn of West Stockbridge agreed with Glynn on second-home owners but added that “the real driver would be expanding beyond seasonal.”
“That will be people who don’t have cars; that’s the sweet spot,” Sporn said. “Second-home owners are not a big factor. They have their habits and existing ways of getting here. This would not necessarily be attractive to them.”
Butler added that the nation is “going through a generational shift to the millennial generation. They’re more inclined toward the food economy, farm-to-table, and more inclined to use the train.”
“I don’t really care who uses it,” countered Nat Karns, who heads the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “It’s a strategic advantage. Once we have some riders, we can start surveying them and figure out why they’re using it.”
The group also discussed last-mile options in the auto-dependent Berkshires, as well as rail models in use in other nearby locations including not only the aforementioned CapeFLYER, but Amtrak’s other tourism-oriented trains such as the Ethan Allen Express between New York City and Rutland, Vermont, the very popular Downeaster from Boston to Maine, the Ski Train from Denver to Winter Park and the Northeast Regional Train to Williamsburg, Virginia, from Washington, D.C.
The study group will meet next Tuesday, Feb. 13, and hopes to have cost information from Amtrak a few days later. The groups expect to present the report to the legislature on or about Thursday, March 1.