Advocates for linking western and eastern Massachusetts by passenger rail are critical of a new report that estimates the costs would be high and the ridership relatively low.
Depending on which service alternatives are pursued, the capital costs for an east-west rail line from Boston to Springfield to Pittsfield range from $2 billion up to $25 billion. But the most expensive option – which is to construct a brand new all-electric rail line where trains would travel from Pittsfield to Boston in just over two hours – would attract only 820 riders a day, according to estimates contained in a feasibility study being prepared by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
The least expensive alternative, where service between Pittsfield and Springfield would be by bus with passengers changing trains in Worcester, would attract just 36 riders per day.
Five other options are being studied that involve upgrading existing rail infrastructure. These come with price tags in the $3 billion - $5 billion range. In general, as costs go up the frequency of service increases and travel times are reduced.
The report was presented in Springfield Thursday at a meeting of the East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee. Its members, who include elected officials and regional planners, sharply questioned the ridership estimates and pointed out that the study has so far not taken into account environmental and economic impacts.
" It is very much incomplete," said State Senator Eric Lesser (D-Longmeadow) of the study.
Lesser and other rail advocates contend that it would be a boon for the entire state by linking the west with the hot economy in greater Boston while opening up an affordable housing market to people working in eastern Massachusetts.
"The entire point of this investment is to change the trajectory we are on because the trajectory we are on right now is a tale of two states," said Lesser.
Noting that over 21,000 people bought a ticket on the daily Amtrak Vermonter train in Northampton in 2018 and that ridership on the new Hartford Line had already topped one million in just 18 months, Democratic State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton pointedly questioned the report’s passenger estimates.
" So I would argue that these numbers seem very low based on the behavior we've already seen from this part of the state," said Sabadosa.
The eye-popping cost estimates did not appear to dampen many of the committee members’ enthusiasm for east-west rail. Democratic State Senator Adam Hinds of Pittsfield said the project is a generational opportunity.
"If the down side is going to be cost, I would hesitate for anyone in this room to look at it too negatively because there are ways to get there when you are going to be this transformative when it comes to the environment, when it comes to the economy, when it comes to equity and beyond, " said Hinds.
Another legislator from the Berkshires, State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox, again urged MassDOT to drop options that involve shuttle buses between Pittsfield and Springfield.
"Lets just move on," said Pignatelli. "If we are going to make a probably once-in-a-lifetime investment in transportation throughout the Commonwealth then make it legitimate and eliminate anything to do with bus-only to Springfield."
A meeting is scheduled on February 12th at 6 p.m. at the UMass Center in Springfield to give the public a chance to comment about the study findings. Another meeting of the advisory committee is scheduled for February 24th .
MassDOT is aiming to deliver its final report with recommendations by the end of May.