State Sen. Lesser And Allies Implore Mass. Lawmakers To Advance East-West Rail

Oct 24, 2017

Chris Trotta has traveled countless times the roughly 100 miles from his Longmeadow, Massachusetts home to the Boston hospital where his sons received treatment for kidney abnormalities. On Tuesday, he made the familiar trek to push for a new link -- by rail -- between the state's capital and its largest city west of Worcester.

Trotta was among roughly 40 people who joined Longmeadow Democrat State Sen. Eric Lesser aboard a bus from the Springfield area to the State House where they implored the Transportation Committee to advance the idea of high-speed rail connecting Springfield to Boston.

While Greater Boston's economy and real estate market are in the midst of a sustained boom, western Massachusetts businesses and households have become quieter as parents expect children to forge their careers elsewhere and workers are forced to venture farther to find work after local layoffs, Lesser told the Transportation Committee.

High-speed passenger rail would "greatly reduce the burden" on Trotta and his wife for their regular drives to Massachusetts General Hospital, he said. And a transit connection to more affordable communities around Springfield would also provide some relief to Boston, Lesser said.

"We cannot sustain a Commonwealth where almost all the growth is hyper concentrated in just a few square miles," Lesser told the committee. If growth remains concentrated around Boston, further economic success there will be stymied by skyrocketing rents and "endless traffic," he said.

Pioneer Valley residents are not alone in calling for a rail link to Boston. People in Fall River and New Bedford have long pushed for the South Coast Rail, and the state has undertaken some construction work on that corridor, and developed plans to offer rail service to the South Coast as early as 2022.

The proposal for high-speed rail to Springfield is farther behind. The Senate endorsed a budget provision to study the proposal, but failed to win the support of the House.

More recently, House Speaker Robert DeLeo expressed some support for the idea in a meeting with The Republican newspaper of Springfield but cautioned that he "cannot promise anything."

Lesser's bill (S 1935) would direct the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of a high-speed rail connection between Boston and Springfield, and legislation sponsored by Northampton Democrat Rep. Peter Kocot would establish a working group to advance the proposed project.

The idea has bipartisan support from the area.

"We'd like the opportunity to be able to study this issue," Warren Rep. Todd Smola, who is the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Ways and Means, told the committee.

Gov. Charlie Baker has emphasized repairing and upgrading existing transportation assets, but his administration has also made firm commitments to expand the Green Line trolley into Somerville and Medford, just north of Boston.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters some consideration will be given to east-west passenger service in a comprehensive rail plan and a draft of the plan is due in the next few months.

"We are doing on a five-year cycle a statewide rail plan. That looks at freight rail statewide and it looks at passenger rail outside the MBTA district specifically, so it will be looking at passenger rail for western Massachusetts," Pollack said. "We'll have a draft of that document out before the end of the year. That will be a great forum to have that conversation about the potential for rail in western Massachusetts."

Rep. William Straus, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the idea raises a number of considerations, including exactly how fast trains would travel on the proposed route.

"There's a lot of complication as you know, and of course that's the purpose of requesting a study like this," Straus said.

Lesser said that while a rail link would not be a panacea for the region, passenger service that was fast enough and reliable enough for people to commute on it would be a "game changer."

"The modern economy relies on connectivity," Lesser told the News Service.

This report was originally published by the State House News Service.