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Could east-west rail in Massachusetts materialize from $1.2T infrastructure bill?

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli speaks (copy)

The signing of the federal infrastructure bill and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's release of a recent report provide an opportunity to move east-west passenger rail forward, supporters say. Still, some say the state needs to take a more active approach to ensure affordability, convenience and reliability for riders, especially west of Springfield. “If you build a legitimate commuter rail system throughout the commonwealth, people will use it,” says state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, foreground. “If you don’t build a legitimate commuter rail system, of course the ridership will be low. ... I have never believed [the state was] truly committed to Western Massachusetts beyond Springfield."

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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — “If you build it, they will come” has been the mantra of those who want to see passenger rail service connect Pittsfield and Boston through Springfield and Worcester.

Money to “build” that service, which would run along a combination of existing and newly constructed track, could come through the federal government’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which President Joe Biden signed Nov. 15.

Western Massachusetts lawmakers overwhelmingly hail east-west rail — or “west-east” rail, as Berkshire County supporters say — as a generational investment that would help their constituents access economic opportunities in the east and relieve Greater Boston residents of an increasingly unaffordable housing market, all while curbing vehicle emissions from highway travel.

Yet, beyond the funding question, some in Berkshire County say the state still needs to refine its approach to ensure that the project provides the affordability, convenience and reliability necessary to meet residents’ needs.

“I predict right now we’re going to have wonderful rail transit from Worcester to Boston, it’s going to be OK from Springfield to Boston, and it’s going to be nonexistent or very poor from Pittsfield to Springfield,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

The federal bill allocates $66 billion for Amtrak, a quasi-public corporation, to upgrade and expand its passenger rail service, including for the “Northeast Corridor,” which stretches from Richmond, Va., to Boston. Within that sum, $24 billion would go to federal-state partnership grants for Northeast Corridor modernization, $12 billion in grants would support intercity rail, and Amtrak would receive an additional $22 billion in grants, a White House summary says.

Days before the bill’s signing, on Nov. 12, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released a report recommending that Amtrak operate east-west rail service and a “Western Massachusetts Intercity Rail Authority,” which has yet to be created, to manage and oversee service.

Those two developments mean that now is the time to move forward on the project, supporters say. But, even the most bullish observers have concerns with the MassDOT plan, questioning what kind of authority, funding and influence the state would give a Western Massachusetts rail authority. Others doubt whether Amtrak could run service with the speed and affordability commuters need.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.


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