Could infrastructure bill put East-West rail on track?
$66 billion for Amtrak is included in the legislation
“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.
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.
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.”