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Rep. Richard Neal discusses east-west rail breakthrough with Mass. Gov. Baker

U.S. Sec. of Labor Marty Walsh speaks about the bipartisan infrastructure law at Springfield's Union Station.  Also pictured (l-r) are Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. US Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA1), Chicopee Mayor John Vieau, Walsh, West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt.
Paul Tuthill
/
WAMC
U.S. Sec. of Labor Marty Walsh speaks about the bipartisan infrastructure law at Springfield's Union Station. Also pictured (l-r) are Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. US Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA1), Chicopee Mayor John Vieau, Walsh, West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt.

Congressman Richard Neal, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and Republican Governor Charlie Baker came together this week to call for a new authority to oversee expanded east-west commuter rail in Massachusetts. Neal, a Democrat from the 1st district, spoke alongside the governor and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno at the renovated Union Station in Springfield, which will be a key link in the expansion. Neal spoke with WAMC News Thursday.

The decision of the governor to officially embrace east-west rail was long awaited, but I had a series of conversations with him over the course of, as he noted, almost five years. I think that my emphasis continually was on the fact that it would ease housing pressures in Boston. But at the same time, it would also compensate for what I thought was the expenditure that had gone to the Big Dig in the Boston area, which in the end totaled $22 billion, $16 billion of principal and $6 billion of interest. So not only were we looking for a sense of regional equity, but we were also looking at what might serve as a very important economic driver. And that would be the expansion of east-west rail from Boston to Worcester to Springfield and on to Pittsfield.

What's the timeline for the project following these latest talks?

Well, I hope that the legislature will be able to include in their bond bill, the framework or the architecture for setting up a rail authority, which would oversee these initiatives. Recall that there is in the infrastructure bill about $9.4 billion that alone is going to come to Massachusetts. That is not a substitute for, as well, the annual appropriations for transportation needs, it is in addition to. So I think that once this gets underway, we're gonna have to carefully monitor these opportunities to make sure that the efficiency that we have promised occurs.

Well, this may be a silly question, but explain the infrastructure part of it. You have train stations in all those cities you already mentioned. What's needed to connect them finally?

Well, I think, certainly, we need a plan. There is right now east-west rail in the sense that you could take a train late in the afternoon from Springfield to Boston. And it would take forever to get there.

Right.

So it would be investing in in the track. And I would like to use as a model what we were able to do on the north-south side of rail from Springfield to Hartford to New Haven. Amtrak announced that they're going to return to, I think, almost 30 trains a week that will run back and forth between Springfield, Hartford and New Haven. And it worked beyond anybody's wildest expectation. I think that's what's important to remember here.

I also would point out that the governor, I wouldn't say that he was an opponent. But I think that over these years, he wanted something that would offer answers to some very technical questions. And we tried assiduously to make sure that those questions not only were answered, but we brought in a number of rail experts, including the Pioneer Valley Planning Authority, that were very helpful, along with the Franklin County Planning Authority as well.

Well, Governor Baker doesn't have much longer in office. Is this conceptual agreement going to outlast his term, depending on who the next governor is?

Well, I would note that the debate that took place last evening, both of the candidates on the Democratic side, they said they were for east-west rail. I have spoken with Maura Healy about it. She's assured me that she's for it. That's for certain. And I would expect that the Republican candidates for governor would embrace the same.

Can you break down how the funding would work? Is this largely paid for by the federal government? I know, there's a state aspect that the governor talked about in Springfield too.

I think that there would be a combination. But I think it's a pretty compelling argument that the overwhelming investment would come from the federal government. It would be hard to argue, incidentally, that there's not enough money right now in the state that has come from the federal government.

I know this has been something you've talked about for many, many years. You mentioned that it could help relieve some of the housing pressure in the eastern part of the state. What would it do for the western part of the state, your district, Berkshire County and the Springfield area?

Well, I think it would considerably increase efficiencies, and it would allow people to traverse the line back and forth with considerable ease. And I also think that it would more closely unite Springfield and Pittsfield. Springfield, in many ways, is the economic capital of Western Massachusetts. And I would hope that people would feel comfortable taking full advantage of it, but not to miss the point that travel now to Hartford on the north-south side of it is quite easy. And Union Station in Springfield as the perfect position for east-west rail as well as north-south rail and that would but not only commemorate the history of how it once worked, but also I think, embrace the future.

Now this meeting with Governor Baker was not on the governor's public schedule, I noticed. Can you take us inside the room? You said that this conversation had gone on for many years with the governor. How did you finally get him to what looks like yes?

Well, I talked to him a number of times professionally and personally and by the way, I always chose not to use excitable language, I don't think it's helpful to sometimes try to talk in the context of social media. Instead, we had long thoughtful conversations, and I think a very pivotal moment came last August, he invited myself, Steve Lynch, Seth Moulton, and Jake Auchincloss to his office at Beacon Hill. I know the statehouse was closed. But we were invited in the governor's office to participate with him in a full and sturdy conversation. Those three were invited because they are members of the Infrastructure Committee here in Congress, the authorizing committee that has a broad jurisdiction in terms of overseeing many of these proposals. So we went back and forth. These are three Bostonians, in a sense, or Greater Boston Congresspeople. And they all agreed that because of what had happened with the expenditure of the Big Dig that they thought it was time for central and western Massachusetts to derive an equal investment and an equal benefit.

So if the legislature does establish this authority to oversee east-west rail, what would be the next step after that?

Well, I think then that we would begin to assemble all of the information in terms of construction that would be necessary. The north-south example that I cited earlier is clear. And the north-south example meant that much of the track was simply improved in other places it was replaced, but the dual track assembly has worked quite well. The other part of it, I think, it's important to remember is that there was a partnership there with the state of Connecticut, and two governors now, Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker, both embrace the north-south side of what we proposed. And I'm hopeful that we'll use that as a model for east-west.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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