NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Western Mass lawmakers say a $2 billion price tag for passenger rail across the Northern Tier isn't high compared to past projects and would be a significant economic boost to a region long ignored.
Preliminary estimates to develop the passenger line between North Adams and Boston is estimated between $1 billion and $2 billion (in 2027 dollars) over a three- to five-year period.
"When I see an investment of $2.1 billion compared to what we have put into roads and bridges and all the other things that would improve access on our roadways to get to Boston or the eastern part of the state, this to me is a very small price," said state Rep. John Barrett III of North Adams at Wednesday's public workshop held by the state Department of Transportation.
State Rep. Aaron Saunders of the 7th Hampden District noted that the recent completion of the 4.3-mile extension of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's Green Line was $2.28 billion
"I would suggest that this is a modest investment into the western two-thirds of the commonwealth," he said. "And as we look at the additional options, we should do what we can for the communities across the Northern Tier of the commonwealth who have largely been left out of the type of robust transportation infrastructure investment other parts of the commonwealth have received over the last 50 years."
The Northern Tier proposal — one of two cross-state passenger rail routes being explored — would run a line from North Adams, through the historic Hoosac Tunnel to Greenfield, then on to Fitchburg and North Boston Station. The East-West Passenger Rail would run from Pittsfield to Boston.
The state is seeking federal funding on these projects, including applying for $108 million to improve service along 53 miles between Springfield and Worcester. It's also in line for $9 billion through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law while the same bill has set aside $66 billion for Amtrak.
The presentation by Anna Berry and Paul Nelson of HNTB, an infrastructure design firm, looked at two alternatives for the Northern Tier development — low investment and high investment. The findings of Wednesday's workshop will be used to further refine for additional service options under those two proposals.
The main difference between the two options is the amount of investment in track infrastructure that determines the speed and capability of the rail line.
The lower investment has a current price tag of $1,044,850,000, or $7,358,100 per mile. This would largely include upgrading existing track for safety, new signaling, grading, sidings and stations.
The higher investment option would come in at $2,187,350,000 or $15,403,875 per mile. This would mean more intensive rehabilitation of existing tracks and upgrades.
The difference is more than an hour off travel time between the biggest and smallest cities in the state. A poll during the workshop found support for spending more on the rail line to spend less time traveling.
The estimated travel time with the lower investment is about 3 hours and 55 minutes compared to 2 hours and 48 minutes. Polling also found that participants in the workshop were more likely to travel to Boston for day trips, vacations and events if it took less time to get there.
Trains would be staggered to ensure that day trips were possible: one in the morning, two about midday, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
Perry said the preliminary design plans took into account a wide range of factors that included grades, tracks, braking, freight lines, curves and passenger train schedules that were run through Rail Traffic Controller, an industry standard for simulating rail service to estimate performance and trip times.
"Think about your model train set. You can see the trains running around changing tracks and moving through the system," said Berry. "The RTC software does something like that."
Travelers were estimated to save $1.2 million to $5 million annually on gas, tolls, parking and wear and tear on vehicles. The economic impact during construction was pegged at more than $424 million a year.
A number of attendees noted that it wasn't just a west to east concern — there were plenty of attractions that would bring metro Boston residents to the Berkshires, perhaps to stay.
Nelson's part of the presentation looked at a number of attraction factors around each station but attendees thought the consultants should also be looking beyond that.
One participant, Andy, pointed to Berkshire East and white water rafting in Charlemont and the Clark Art Institute and theater festival in Williamstown. Perhaps seasonal whistle stops could be added in, he said.
Others brought up the region's proximity to Southern Vermont and New York State as well as connections to other public transport or more stops along the way.
The consultants said the planning will be looking at connections such as the Amtrak line through Pittsfield, the north-south connector through Greenfield and possibly transitions out of Fitchburg to Boston.
A number of people spoke about the potential for increasing population and housing and economic development through rail service.
"Transit connectivity is a magnet for housing, and we should look at this not only through the lens of transit, but we should also be looking at it through the lens of housing, housing availability, and all the great economic development that we know comes with the intersection of those two very important aspects of our public policy," said Saunders.
A doctor said spoke of the difficult time she's had recruiting people who finished their residency in Boston because of the feeling that Western Mass was remote and difficult to get to without driving.
She added she's just taken a job at a biotech company in the Seaport. "So I have like a vested interest in really seeing this project succeed. But I think this presentation has made a lot of really great arguments for why this is a good alternative."
A Greenfield resident said there was talk nearly a decade ago of east-west rail that went nowhere.
"I'm thrilled to see that you folks are coming in with what appears to be a mandate to make something happen because it needs to," he said. "I think Franklin County may be the only county in the last Census in the state, or one of the few, that actually to declined in population. So this is the kind of thing that could really make a difference so I just want to say I appreciate it."
In addition to Barrett and Saunders, state Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton (a member of the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission), state Sen. John Cronin of Lunenburg, state Rep. Natalie Blais of Sunderland and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier spoke, as did Thomas Bernard, former mayor of North Adams, and Clarksburg Town Administrator Carl McKinney.
Makaela Niles, project manager at MassDOT, said the working group will now begin refining and adding alternatives based on the feedback. She expected there would be another public meeting and that the study would be completed in the spring.
Barrett said it was critical to remain focused on what they needed to achieve.
"I think we've been presented with two scenarios here that are pretty good," he said. "That could lead to the success of this all happening in all of our lifetimes. And I think it's critical that we make it as successful as possible."
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