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New analysis significantly increases ridership estimates for east-west rail line in Massachusetts

A CTrail passenger train leaves Springfield's Union Station.
Paul Tuthill
/
WAMC
A CTRail train on the Hartford Line stops at Union Station in Springfield. A consultant's report said by including passengers who would transfer from Hartford Line trains at Springfield, ridership on an east-west rail line would be significantly higher than what MassDOT estimated in a feasibility study.

Sen. Lesser calls for MassDOT to update feasibility study

A leading proponent of building an east-west passenger rail line in Massachusetts is calling on MassDOT to redo a feasibility study that called into question the benefits of the expensive project.

Pointing to a new analysis released Wednesday that shows 54 percent more ridership than projected by MassDOT’s East-West Rail study, Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser urged the state’s transportation agency to update the final report on the project that was released last year.

“If they don’t do that, frankly, I just don’t think the report they are currently resting on is credible or has a credible number about what the usage is going to be of this line,” Lesser said.

The new ridership estimates were made by an infrastructure consulting firm in a report prepared for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the Capital Region Council of Governments in Connecticut. The same firm produced a report that was released last spring that said there would be a 10 to one economic return from building an inland passenger rail line between Boston and Hartford.

This firm arrived at its ridership estimates for east-west rail by including passengers who would transfer from trains on the Hartford Line. Lesser said that is a glaring omission in the MassDOT study.

“The idea that the entire million person Hartford region was left out of MassDOT’s ridership estimates despite this being flagged for them repeatedly along the way ( of this 2-year study that cost $1 million), means they have to redo it,” Lesser said.

Asked for comment, a MassDOT spokesperson replied by email, “While the East-West Passenger Rail Study was focused on connecting Boston-Springfield-Pittsfield, having additional information regarding the benefits of the Worcester-Springfield-Hartford connection will be helpful while advancing planning for intercity rail services in New England.”

MassDOT’s feasibility study estimated annual ridership on an east-west rail line at 278,000 to 500,000 passengers. The estimate by the consulting firm AECOM, based on sketch level analysis, puts ridership at 469,000 to 720,000.

Kimberly Robinson, Executive Director of the PVPC, said the model used by AECOM to arrive at its conclusions is supported by real-world examples.

“This is also, frankly, not surprising when we compare these projections with the success of similar routes already in service such as Amtrak’s Downeaster linking Portland, Maine to Boston,” Robinson said.

Pointing out that pre-pandemic ridership on the Hartford Line was well above what had been projected before the line opened in 2016, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said “it’s absolutely nuts” that there is no high-speed commuter rail service between Springfield and Boston.

“And the fact that sitting here in Hartford the capital of Connecticut and there is no direct way to get to Boston by rail is equally crazy,” Bronin said.

With an almost $1 trillion infrastructure bill pending House approval in Washington, the ridership estimates for east-west rail is more than an academic exercise said Lyle Wray, of the Capitol Regional Council of Governments.

“We don’t want to miss – no pun intended – the train leaving the station in Washington, DC in terms of infrastructure funding because of numbers we think could be improved upon,” Wray said.

The cost-benefit score that came with the MassDOT study put federal funding for the project in doubt.

MassDOT estimated the cost to build the rail line at between $2.4 billion and $4.6 billion depending on which of several options are included.