East-West rail facing big hurdles

Federal money unlikely; Markey seeks funding workaround

EAST-WEST RAIL is facing a Catch-22.

State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the proposed rail link running from Boston to Springfield and possibly as far as Pittsfield is so expensive that it can’t be built without significant federal funding. But she said federal funding is not available because the project doesn’t meet minimum cost-benefit thresholds, even with new, sharply higher ridership estimates announced Wednesday.

The only way forward is to scale back the project to reduce costs, or find a way around the federal cost-benefit requirements. Pollack said she has briefed Sen. Ed Markey, who is pushing federal legislation that would provide $25 billion in funding for projects like East-West rail, which don’t qualify under the existing criteria of other federal programs.

Pollack was briefing members of an advisory group on East-West rail on Wednesday, laying out changes made to six configurations of the project announced in February. The six alternatives take different approaches. The fastest, at 79 minutes, would require electrified trains operating on new tracks roughly following the path of the Massachusetts Turnpike. The other five would utilize diesel locomotives and existing freight track or rights of way owned by CSX. Some options call for bus service between Pittsfield and Springfield. Capital costs range from nearly $2 billion to $25 billion.

After the six options were announced in early February, stakeholders raised all sorts of concerns about the high cost and low ridership estimates. On Wednesday, Pollack said her staff reviewed the issues raised about the cost estimates and concluded the estimates were in the right ballpark. On ridership, however, Pollack said she is now convinced the earlier estimates were too low and need to be four to five times higher.

Even with those changes, the construction cost per rider for one of the options remains very high, somewhere between $4,407 and $5,678. By comparison, the estimated cost per rider for South Coast Rail, the costliest state-funded transit project to date, is $684.

Pollack said the cost-benefit analysis of East-West rail with the new ridership numbers yielded a ratio ranging  between .08 and .11. She said federal funding rules require the cost-benefit ratio to be 1 or higher.

Pollack said the state ran into the same problem with the $1 billion South Coast Rail project to New Bedford and Fall River, but decided to move ahead anyway using state funds. She indicated that would not be possible with East-West rail.

The advisory group is expected to narrow the field of options from six to three, and the Department of Transportation will then analyze them in much greater depth and release a final report in the fall.

Pollack’s analysis doesn’t take into account the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on commuting patterns and whether the disease will have any long-term impact on the interest of people to travel long distances to work. Many believe the pandemic has altered thinking about work from home, and traditional commuter rail patterns may be disrupted.

The secretary initially said the lead time for the East-West rail project is so long that COVID-19 may not be a problem by then. As for any lasting COVID-19 impacts on commuting habits, Pollack said that information may also be known before the state pulls the trigger on the project.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“Even with the pandemic, we have an obligation to finish this study,” Pollack said.

The state is pushing ahead with South Coast Rail despite the uncertain times. Pollack’s tone in describing South Coast Rail on Wednesday seemed very different from the way she usually talks about it. She used the project, a high priority of Gov. Charlie Baker, to illustrate how its high cost pales next to the cost of East-West rail.

“It is at the upper end of what is affordable for a state,” she said of South Coast Rail.