Could infrastructure bill put East-West rail on track? 

IT’S A REALLY big deal,” said Eric Lesser. 

The Longmeadow state senator seemed to be channeling Joe Biden’s famous line whispered to Barack Obama at the signing of the Affordable Care Act – minus the salty exclamation point Scranton Joe put on it. 

This time, it’s Biden at centerstage and the big deal is the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that has now cleared both branches of Congress. And it’s not health care expansion that has Lesser worked up but funding in the bill for rail expansion. The legislation includes $66 billion for Amtrak to fund upgrades to current routes and stations – chief among them the Boston to Washington Northeast corridor, by far the system’s busiest line – but also for building out new routes. 

That’s why Lesser, the lead champion of a East-West rail line connection between Boston and Springfield, is so excited. The infrastructure bill is “a game-changer,” he said, creating an opportunity similar to the Big Dig to tap federal dollars for the bulk of a big transportation project in the state. 

Lesser said the money for rail expansion will likely become available through a competitive bidding process that will, among other things, require all of a region’s key leaders to get behind a proposal. “The missing piece right now is the governor of Massachusetts,” he said. Lesser said Gov. Charlie Baker and his transportation department have been “hostile to this project.” 

It took years to cajole Baker into signing off on a feasibility study for the East-West rail line, and Lesser said the report that was released last year by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation was badly flawed. He said the study, which estimated 278,000 to 500,000 passengers annually, failed to include Hartford area residents. An analysis released last month, commissioned jointly by the Pioneer Valley Planning Council and Capital Region Council of Governments in Connecticut, which included Connecticut passengers, estimated that ridership would be 54 percent higher than what the Massachusetts report projected. The Mass DOT report pegged the cost of the project at $2.4 to 4.6 billion, depending on which of several options is pursued. 

The current governor may not be a big fan of the project, but a former one is more than supportive.  

“My God, this is an unbelievable opportunity,” said Michael Dukakis, the state’s former three-term governor. “It’s great provided the individual states are prepared to implement it,” he said of potential Amtrak expansion. 

Dukakis, a transit enthusiast who regularly rode the Green Line to the State House while in office and served as vice chairman of the Amtrak board of directors, said Massachusetts doesn’t seem to be seizing on this or other big transit opportunities, including a Red Line-Blue Line connection on the MBTA subway system. 

“What are we doing on the transportation side other than trying to figure out why people are falling through staircases,” said Dukakis, referencing the fatal accident in September at a stairway near the JFK/UMass Red Line station. “If it’s not escalators going backwards, it’s derailments,” he said, ticking off other recent mishaps in the system. 

Asked whether the huge infrastructure bill changes his thinking on East-West Rail, Baker’s office offered little to suggest that it has. “The administration will continue to review the federal infrastructure bill and its impact on improving transportation options in Massachusetts,” his office said in a non-committal statement. 

One other big factor in the mix: The project has the backing of the most powerful voice in Western Massachusetts, one that enjoys generally good relations with the governor. 

“The bipartisan infrastructure package that we passed last week is a once-in-a-lifetime investment,” said Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, in a statement. “This plan recognizes the desperate need to upgrade our roads, highways, bridges, broadband connectivity, accessibility to clean drinking water, and public transit while creating good-paying jobs and supercharging our competitiveness. The $66 billion that Amtrak will receive has the potential to be transformative nationwide but also right here in western and central Massachusetts. I have been outspoken in my support of rail to connect Boston, Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield for many years. We now have the opportunity to do big things while building back better and east-west rail is a major part of that here at home.”

Asked whether that support for East-West Rail means he’ll be working to get Baker on board, Margaret Boyle, a spokeswoman for Neal, said, “The congressman will certainly be working with the state to get this done, including Gov. Baker.”

MICHAEL JONAS

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Annual wellness exams: Senate leaders unveiled a mental health bill that sets a floor for the rates insurers must pay for mental health services, addresses long waits in emergency rooms by developing an automated system for finding behavioral health beds, and requires insurers to cover the cost of annual wellness exams.

— The Senate bill focuses primarily on policies to complement the $400 million investment in mental health services contained in the ARPA spending act. It’s similar to what the House is doing, filing a health policy bill to complement investments in health care under the ARPA spending act. Read more.

Whither Fall River: Fall River’s fate is unclear in congressional redistricting as power players are divided over whether the city should be paired with New Bedford or separated from it. Rep. Mike Moran, one of the redistricting co-chairs, seems inclined to separate the two. Read more.

OPINION

Stunning rebuke: Jeremy McDiarmid, Peter Rothstein, and Joe Curtatone analyze what’s next after the stunning rebuke by Maine voters of a transmission line from Canada that plays a key role in Massachusetts’ climate change and clean energy policy. Read more.

Electoral hits: Paul Craney of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance says Massachusetts climate policy took a couple of major hits on Election Day in Maine and Virginia. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Rates for flood insurance are skyrocketing under a new system for setting premiums — even in inland communities like Lawrence. (WBUR)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

The CEO of Southcoast Health, Keith Hovan, was arrested on Saturday night at his home in Rochester and has been charged with assault and battery in connection with a domestic incident there and possession of illegal firearm magazines. (New Bedford Light)  

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

A federal judge rejected former president Donald Trump’s effort to block congressional access to papers documenting his actions and conversations in the run-up to the January mob attack on the Capitol. (New York Times

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

General Electric will split up into three separate companies. (Boston Globe

EDUCATION

The Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain was ordered closed by school department officials for 10 days amid an outbreak of COVID-19 among students. (Boston Globe

Fewer students are enrolled in community colleges this year. (Telegram & Gazette)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Money from the state and federal governments may finally help address the problem of sewage overflows into public water bodies, a particularly acute issue for the Merrimack Valley. (Eagle-Tribune)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Three Boston police officers were shot and sustained non-life-threatening injuries and an armed suspect was shot and killed following an hours-long standoff in a Dorchester house. (Boston Globe)