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As an 18-month feasibility study for an east-west rail line to connect Boston and Pittsfield comes to a close, state and federal lawmakers remain optimistic about securing funding for a project they say would bring transportation and economic development to western Massachusetts, despite continued concerns over too-high costs and too-low ridership estimates calculated by the state.
Consultants for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation have estimated costs for the project to range from $2.4 to $4.6 billion with ridership reaching 278,000 to 469,000 boardings annually. As it stands, the rail project is 10% below the threshold needed to be competitive for federal funding, based on the cost-benefit analysis conducted as part of the study.
As a leading advocate for east-west rail, state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, has been vocal in his disapproval of the state’s low ridership calculations.
“It frankly raises a question of how serious MassDOT is about this in the first place,” Lesser said. “Are they studying this to death to strangle it before it even gets off the ground, or are they looking at this from the perspective of ‘What do we have to do to make it happen? What do we have to do to make the project possible?’”
In an Oct. 21 meeting, Ethan Britland, MassDOT’s project manager for the feasibility study, recommended that more analysis of the potential economic and community benefits of the passenger rail be done before moving forward.
Lesser said the report’s failure to include potential increased demand in its ridership estimates overlooks a key aspect of east-west rail.
“The point of this project is not to lock in patterns of life that already exist,” Lesser said. “The point of this project is to change those patterns and that development. It’s to bring new people to western Mass., to bring new businesses to western Mass. and to eastern Mass., to bring new development, new denser housing that’s walkable and more environmentally sustainable.”
Without a serious commitment from the state and from Gov. Charlie Baker, the project could easily fizzle out despite having support on all other fronts, according to Lesser. Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack expressed skepticism the project could be built without federal funding, even with sharply higher ridership estimates.
“We could see a window pass us – of having a recovery bill, having an infrastructure package approved, having our federal delegation pushing it very hard, having a president that’s supportive, but the missing piece is our own state’s Department of Transportation,” Lesser said. “We need more energy, we need more enthusiasm from (Baker).”
That’s a point stressed by U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat who chairs a congressional committee that controls federal purse strings.
Neal said he will not advocate for more funding for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority until he sees greater support for east-west rail in the State House.
This article first appeared on www.gazettenet.com
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