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Western Mass legislators, advocates hail infrastructure investment ahead of first passenger rail commission meeting

A slate blue building with large glassy windows
Josh Landes
The Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

With the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission holding its first public meeting in Pittsfield Friday, legislators and transit advocates say much is at stake for the region.

The new body will have a lot on its plate when it sits down for the first of six public meetings at the Berkshire Innovation Center Friday morning.

“The commission was set up by legislation this past spring in order to get input and study the issues in order to how do we go into structure Western Mass rail going forward? For example, a big question out there is, should we be setting up a Western Mass Rail Authority, will be a big question for this commission to answer. And then how, what would the details of that be?” said Democratic State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who represents much of Pittsfield, the Berkshires’ urban hub. “We need to be able to set up things within the authority to make sure that there's good representation on the authority with not only expertise, but with end users of trains. We want to make sure that rail travel is accessible to everyone from those who need to access health care in Springfield, Worcester, or Boston. We want to make sure that if people want to live in the Berkshires and work in Springfield or Worcester or Boston, they're able to do that, and vice versa, that people are able to live in other parts of the state and come to the Berkshires to work. And we're only able to do that if we at the very beginning of this process, do it right.”

Farley-Bouvier says that increased rail access in largely rural, sparsely populated Western Massachusetts could make a serious difference in the region.

“Rail from Pittsfield to Boston, and quite frankly, we hope it will be from Albany to Boston, really connecting the people within Western Mass and then the people of Western Mass to Worcester and Boston, is very important for our economic development, for social justice issues, for economic justice issues," she told WAMC. "We have seen over the years our population loss, and that is a direct result of underinvesting in such things as public transportation in the region.”

As it stands, Western Massachusetts has a fraction of the rail transit of the more populous and developed east.

“We have service today. It's not what I would call robust," Ben Heckscher told WAMC. "But there's north-south service, and we've got the Hartford line service and the Valley Flyer and the Vermonter. But what's really exciting, actually, is what's happening now under Governor [Charlie] Baker, where he's basically pushing MassDOT now to apply for the federal grants to make it possible for expanded east-west rail service to take place. That's a big shift from where we were a couple of years ago. So that the train is leaving the station. The only question now is, how quickly is it going to be going?”

Heckscher is the co-founder of regional advocacy group Trains the Valley, which is also a member of the Western Mass Rail Coalition.

“We'll be at the meeting tomorrow, and we’ll be speaking in support of passenger rail in Western Mass, and the importance of answering this question of the authority and sort of driving home to the legislators who are on the committee the importance of moving this service forward with some sense of urgency,” he told WAMC.

Heckscher says the commission should produce findings in relatively short order.

“I think we're going to get a sense pretty quickly," he said. "The commission is working on a very tight schedule, they have to have a report back to the legislature by the end of March. So, they really only have three and a half months. So, in these six meetings, which will be in the counties in Western Mass, I think we're going to know really quickly sort of where this is going and what the outcome’s going to look like.”

The Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission will hold its first public meeting Friday at 11 at the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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