Establishing regular and reliable passenger rail service in Western Massachusetts is not a new concept.
In the 1970s, when the National Rail Passenger Corp., which we know as Amtrak, was formed, transportation and rail advocates in Massachusetts and Connecticut rallied behind what was then known as the name of “Inland Route”. The goal was to provide service to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from New Haven north to Hartford and Springfield and on to Boston.
The principle then was to put the trains where the people are with the aim of attracting business and industry to the two-state region which offers a less hectic and more affordable quality of life than along the south coast. Connecticut and Greater Boston.
Roll through the 1980s and 1990s, and the “Corridor of Knowledge” became the nickname attached to the cause, a railroad service route that would connect more than 40 institutions of higher education as they worked to educate a workforce- next generation workforce in a highway. metropolitan area with 2.7 million inhabitants and nearly 70,000 businesses.
Rail service through Western Massachusetts does many things, from supporting statewide tourism to providing an alternative and affordable mode of transportation, from improving air quality to improved access to transport to business centres, a plus for employers and workers at a time when the world of work has changed radically.
Messages over the past 50 years have been consistent on the topic of passenger rail service for Western Massachusetts; the problems in achieving this have been myriad, largely driven by a lack of political will and money.
It is now that most, if not all, of these often-raised issues are addressed.
Silver? Massachusetts is getting $9.4 billion from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill, including $2.5 billion for public transit. The bill also included $66 billion for Amtrak, which has signaled its willingness to work with Massachusetts to establish an oversight authority needed to continue passenger rail service efforts.
Political will? U.S. Representative Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield and Governor Charlie Baker have demonstrated an impressive bipartisan relationship over the past year by coming together to bring this rail initiative to the fore at what is now a critical time.
We have a joint statement of support from House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate Speaker Karen Spilka, an infrequent occurrence from the Legislative Assembly.
House and Senate members from Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties are also on board to support passenger rail service to western Massachusetts. We are counting on them, especially State Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, a member of the House Speaker’s leadership team, to make it clear that this is not a matter of west against east, but a matter of great importance to the whole Commonwealth. .
Now is not the time for personal political ambitions or petty squabbles over who did what and when and who deserves credit for anything. It is about the future of our region and our state, nothing else.
We are confident that State Rep. Carlos González, D-Springfield, appointed to the conference committee that will address the $5 billion bond bill on government infrastructure projects, will stand firm in favor of the rail initiative and the $215 million allocated in the House version of the bill.
Two summers ago, when the region’s Senate delegation was able to secure borrowing authority for $225 million in rail funding, Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, called the success an example of “tying the arms to make us stronger”. These are words like the ones we hope to hear repeated often in Beacon Hill in the days, weeks and months to come.
While the delegation has in the past signed a letter of support for East-West Rail, we are now looking to them to expand their group to include Worcester County lawmakers. A new strong statement of support from all for this initiative and the necessary steps to establish an oversight authority would greatly increase the potential for success.
Now is the time to act on what may well be one of the most significant efforts to improve the economic future of the entire state, from the Berkshires to Boston. This effort can help address long-standing disparities in the economies at either end of the Commonwealth and past inequalities in addressing transport infrastructure issues.
Think of the number of road and bridge projects in Worcester and the west that have been on hold for all these years and the $24.3 billion in taxpayer dollars it took to complete the Big Dig.
Let’s not forget that for more than 20 years, a penny of state sales tax has gone to fund the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. It’s money out of the pockets of every taxpayer in every city and town, a sizable percentage of whom have never set foot on an MBTA vehicle.
Incidentally, the MBTA is plagued with significant issues of its own right now, and it may be wise not to hand it over the authority of railroad service in western Massachusetts. There should be more than enough funds available to meet the needs of the MBTA and this passenger rail effort.