MA: WMass rail panel wants MassDOT in charge of east-west rail, no new regional authority

Nov. 30, 2023
Placing responsibility for east-west rail with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and not creating a new rail authority runs counter to a “white paper” prepared by former Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration in November 2021.

SPRINGFIELD — Despite fears that the state agency won’t focus its attention here, MassDOT — not a regional rail authority — should take charge of east-west rail, according to a long-delayed report from the state Legislature’s rail panel.

The 117-page document also includes a new inflation-adjusted cost estimate that doubles the cost: $3 billion to $6 billion.

The Healey-Driscoll administration said it was grateful for the work of the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission and is reviewing the report, according to Healey spokeswoman Karissa Hand.

“We are committed to delivering west-east rail for Massachusetts,” said Hand.

The report — which was first due in March then pushed back to June, then September — came out Nov. 21, a few days before Thanksgiving, with little fanfare and no formal announcement. The commission met across the state in late 2022 and this year.

“I think at the moment I certainly take the governor at her word, that she is fully committed to east-west rail,” said U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D- Springfield. ”I suspect they were probably concerned that they didn’t want to create another bureaucratic dimension.”

Placing responsibility for east-west rail with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and not creating a new rail authority runs counter to a “white paper” prepared by former Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration in November 2021. Creating an entity focused on Western Massachusetts passenger rail would be mission-driven and give a unified voice, prioritizing the project.

This recent report, and that white paper, both recommend that Amtrak operate the actual trains, sell the tickets and market the service. The tracks are owned by CSX.

But the authors of the study say MassDOT is capable of implementing the service — with Amtrak running the actual trains — citing the state’s ability, with the help of Neal, to secure a $108 million federal grant for track improvements between Springfield and Worcester. Those improvements alone promise two-hour train trips from Springfield to Boston and two additional trains a day from Springfield to Boston, where only one runs now.

Ben Hood and Anne Miller of Citizens for a Palmer Rail Stop reviewed the report, saying this week that MassDOT is in a good position to move the project forward.

“If you would have asked us a few years ago, we might not have said that,” Hood said. “But since late in the Baker administration and now under (Gov. Maura) Healey, MassDOT is really moving forward.”

MassDOT, under Baker, had been accused of slow-walking a previous east-west rail study, overestimating construction costs and lowballing passenger projections by cherry picking data.

But Hood pointed at the federal money, which includes the $108 million and a separate $1.75 million in an infrastructure and safety grant for additional platforms, new crossover tracks and storage tracks.

Healey added $12 million for station work in Palmer and Pittsfield to MassDOT’s capital plan. Also, Healey has $600,000 in her budget to hire staff for the east-west rail project, and MassDOT is already advertising the positions.

“MassDOT’s taken that challenge and really moved forward with that,” Hood said.

State Rep. Bud L. Williams, D- Springfield, was on the rail commission. He fears that east-west rail might get sidelined in a busy MassDOT bureaucracy that tends to focus on Boston and its suburbs.

“I think folks from Western Mass. wanted a little bit more,” he said. “I’d be more comfortable if there was permanent oversight.”

The report issued last week even makes reference to South Station and the need for expanding capacity there once more trains start running west to Springfield and Pittsfield. The state has a $2 billion improvement plan on the drawing board for South Station.

Neal warns that all this federal money — the infrastructure and safety grant — for Amtrak, comes through the House Ways and Means Committee, where he is ranking Democrat.

“I reserve the right (to intervene), if funding is diverted,” Neal said. “The governor knows that. Former Gov. Baker knew that, as well.”

The Big Dig, which consumed transportation funding that could have come to Western Massachusetts, is never out of mind. And today, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is saying it needs $24.5 billion in backlogged construction to reach a state of good repair.

“I want to make sure that the problems at the MBTA do not consume the funding that we desire for east-west rail and north-south rail improvements,” Neal said.

But he also has confidence in Healey’s commitment to the project.

“Now, the plan is to get things going,” Neal said. “We have the money. We have the allocations.”

State Sen. Joanne M. Comerford, D- Northampton, who served on the commission, said the local delegation to Beacon Hill is unified in its support of east-west rail.

“The fear of it falling prey to being sucked into the MBTA, I think it’s a real fear, but that’s what the legislators are for, the legislators who represent Western Massachusetts. We can be the watchdogs.”

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