Lawmakers eye $250m for East-West rail

New state authority to oversee project dropped for now

A TRANSPORTATION BOND BILL headed for a vote this week in the House includes language authorizing $250 million in spending on East-West rail, but nothing about the creation of a new authority to oversee the project’s development.

The bill, if it is approved by the Legislature, would steer the $250 million to planning, design, land acquisition, vehicle procurement, station construction, and right-of-way acquisition for a multi-billion-dollar rail link connecting Pittsfield to Springfield, Palmer, and Worcester, where it would join the MBTA’s existing commuter rail system to Boston.

Key stakeholders in the project, including US Rep. Richard Neal and Gov. Charlie Baker, emerged from a meeting in Springfield in April with a commitment to East-West rail and a pledge to create a new authority to oversee the project, negotiate a service arrangement with Amtrak, and solicit federal funding for the initiative.

The bond bill’s language is a sign the Legislature is moving in a different direction, at least in regard to the authority, which was advanced in a November 2021 white paper released by the state Department of Transportation.

“More public conversations are necessary as we continue to determine the oversight structure, capital and operational funding, and the preferred route alternatives needed for the success of East-West rail,” said House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka in a joint statement.

Rep. Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox said the governor had insisted in April that a new authority was needed now, but the speaker questioned whether an authority and its accompanying expense should be the top priority at this time.

“I think the speaker’s right,” Pignatelli said. “We have a lot of work to do before an authority is needed. …A rail authority is not ready for prime time yet.”

Pignatelli said the state Department of Transportation can pursue federal funding for the project without an authority in place.

Mariano and Spilka said they are committed to a “regionally equitable transportation system.” They added:

“We look forward to continuing conversations with our members and the public, particularly those residents from Western Massachusetts, who have for too long not been front and center in statewide transportation planning.”