After two years of study, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is about to release a report that contains no recommendation on building an east-west passenger rail link.
A preliminary report issued this week by MassDOT includes cost estimates, ridership projections, likely environmental impacts, and calculations that score the benefits versus costs, but it does not conclude with a recommendation on whether or not to actually build the much talked about rail project.
The final report, due on November 30th, won’t come with a “build or no-build” recommendation either, said Ethan Britland, MassDOT’s lead manager for the East-West Passenger Rail Study.
"Instead we are recommending further analysis to conclude the conceptual planning phase and after that we can hopefully move forward with an actual project," said Britland.
More study is called for of “economic and community benefits,” determining what entity might run the rail service if it gets built, and how it could be paid for. The study’s weighing of benefits compared with costs puts federal funding in doubt.
"The ratios are low in comparision with what makes a project competitive on the federal level," said Britland.
Building a passenger rail line between Pittsfield and Boston would cost from $2.4 billion to $4.6 billion, depending on which of three options is chosen. Annual ridership is estimated at 278,000 to 500,000 passengers.
At a public hearing MassDOT held on the draft report Thursday night, several speakers criticized the report’s conclusion that more study is needed.
"We can not have come this far after two years of time and treasure spent to be left at the intersection of more studies and no action," said Bob Daley of Chester.
Donald Blais of Palmer said the current economic recession makes east-west rail an even more urgent priority.
"We can't delay any longer," said Blais. Citing the worsening economic impacts of the pandemic he said "we can't keep pushing this further down the road."
Greenfield resident John Garrett said the feasibility report confirms his belief that the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker does not support an east-west rail project.
"This is a project the people of Massachusetts want and have demanded for years," said Garrett. " It should be happening on an expedited basis given what is going on in the world and not a nebulous timetable that has no accountability whatsoever."
Democratic State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow who pushed for years to get the state to study east-west rail said he is not discouraged.
" Frankly, a lot of people thought it would never get this far," said Lesser. "We now have it to the point where the state will have a feasibility analysis complete and we will continue the work of making it a political reality both on a federal and state level."
Lesser was part of a 42-member advisory committee that helped direct the feasibility study. The committee succeeded in eliminating an option that would have buses, not trains, on the Pittsfield-Springfield part of the line, had Chester and Palmer included as stops, and got initial ridership estimates bumped up.
However, Lesser believes the study’s passenger forecasts are still off.
"MassDOT needs to update and change the ridership estimates. They are not accurate," said Lesser. He said in a phone interview that comparing ridership on the Hartford Line, as the study does, is not equivalent with a rail connection to Boston.
MassDOT is taking written comments, which can be submitted through the project’s webpage, until Nov. 19th.