West-East rail is what needs to happen

Let's not worse the divide in regional equity

MASSACHUSETTS IS FACING an unprecedented moment. I’m not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic – although the shoe still fits. I’m talking about the billions of dollars in federal funding pouring into our Commonwealth, challenging lawmakers to make intentional, generational investments that will build a sound foundation for housing, healthcare, infrastructure, and transportation for centuries to come. With an opportunity such as this comes the need for bold vision and action as we seek to tackle projects that can change the lives of residents from the Berkshires to Boston. It’s no secret that a west-east rail is long overdue, but now that we have the funds to make it happen, we must do it the right way.

Gov. Charlie Baker recently indicated his support for east-west passenger rail, which is a step in the right direction. However, it’s far too soon to celebrate. If the rail begins in Boston and moves west, I – and many of my colleagues – have no doubt that the money will dry up and the link will end in Springfield, leaving the Berkshires in the dust.

If we start in Springfield and connect west to the Berkshires and east to Worcester, everyone wins. Discussions with US Rep. Richard Neal and James McGovern have been ongoing to ensure that we have a consistent transit system throughout the Commonwealth, but our work is not finished until Baker and our federal delegation truly understand that a rail system serving the entire state needs to run from west to east.

People in the Berkshires pay taxes that directly fund the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority but do not benefit from the services the MBTA provides. While talk of free fares swirl through Boston, the penny that Berkshire residents are currently paying on the sales tax – totaling to over $30 million annually – does not give them access to reliable transit systems locally. Instead, we continue to face issues with our own regional transit system, including a general lack of funding and the inability to extend hours for buses or add weekend services. This only worsens the divide in regional equity that already exists.

My colleagues and I in the 413 western Massachusetts delegation recognize that strengthening the collective economic corridor requires connecting our constituents to economic opportunities in the east affordably and conveniently. Providing people with the ability to live here and work there is a fundamentally west-east conversation. Building rail in the west paves the way to connect the capital regions of Massachusetts and New York and will strengthen the opportunity for north-south connectivity in the Berkshires. The Berkshire Flyer is a good step to link the Berkshires to New York State, but west-east is the only guarantee to get folks from the Berkshires to Boston, accessibly and effectively. The Massachusetts Turnpike started in western Massachusetts, and rail expansion should, too.

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The very definition of a Commonwealth emphasizes the shared responsibility that we share as neighbors to one another. What lies before us is an unprecedented moment of possibility, challenging us to be intentional in our decisions and bold in our vision. If we’re going to invest in rail, let’s start in the west and work eastward. Let’s build a transit authority that works for everyone in the Commonwealth and seeks to connect us all. Let’s capitalize on this once-in-a-generation opportunity and do it the right way, west to east.

Smitty Pignatelli is a state representative from Lenox.