On February 6, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) released findings from its ongoing East-West Passenger Rail Study. The analysis by consultants working for MassDOT created six alternatives for transporting passengers between Pittsfield and Boston. The one hour and 20-minute option from Springfield to Boston would include electrified trains on new tracks following the path of the Massachusetts Turnpike. This option is estimated to cost close to $25 billion, a price tag that the Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack calls “sobering.” Even so, the cost has been widely disputed. LHS Alumni and State Senator, Eric Lesser, has been one of the most aggressive proponents of the initiative, and along with other Western Mass legislators argues that high-speed rail would be transformative for the region. The other cheaper five options seek to expand existing service by making use of diesel trains on or next to existing CSX freight tracks. Some of the options include expanded bus service between Pittsfield and Springfield or using the existing commuter rail line between Worcester and Boston. This study conducted by the state is the closest that Massachusetts has been to adopting an East-West rail in the nearly 30 years this project has been floated.
Today, Amtrak runs passenger train service between upstate New York and Boston. This service is one round trip daily, with the train stopping in Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester, Framingham, and in Boston. The segment between Springfield and Boston typically takes two and a half hours which is longer than the one and a half hours a drive would take.
For proponents of the East-West Rail, the need for the project is obvious. “The single biggest challenge that the Boston area faces is out of control traffic and skyrocketing housing prices. Nobody can afford to live in Boston. The trains are overcrowded. The highways are clogged. They need an escape valve,” says Sen. Lesser. Boston, for the second consecutive year, was ranked as the most congested city in the United States by transportation analytics company INRIX. The study estimated that the average commuter lost over 149 hours, or more than six days, due to traffic in 2019. A study ordered by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker last year concluded that the traffic congestion in Boston had reached a “tipping point.”
“The single biggest challenge, Western Mass and the Springfield area has is the inverse [of Boston’s],” says Sen. Lesser. “[This is] a great place to live. We have a great quality of life, but we don’t have an economy that’s growing fast enough. We don’t have enough good jobs. So a Commonwealth-wide rail linking Western Mass with Eastern Mass solves both issues at the same time. It gives Western Mass access to the jobs and opportunities in Eastern Mass and it gives Eastern Mass access to housing and the quality of life in Western Mass.”
State Representative Brian Ashe, a Longmeadow resident, says of the Greater Springfield Area, “we are in an absolute ideal area as far as New England, because we’re close to Boston, we’re close to New York City, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. You really don’t have a better city right in the middle of everything. We could have been the capital of New England, but it was just such an underutilized city.”
The Boston Globe, Boston Chamber Of Commerce and MassMutual’s CEO have all come out in support of the railroad as well as organizations and businesses in Boston and the Northeast Corridor, citing the many benefits. Still, there is significant push back from the leaders and legislators around the state and in Boston who are weary of the projected 25 billion dollar price tag. “Could they come up with the money? Absolutely. Will they? I don’t think so,” says Rep. Ashe. His colleague Sen. Lesser says, “I think Rep. Ashe is right. If it’s presented as a project that’s for Western Mass, it will be very hard to get Boston area legislators to support it. If you change the orientation and you present it as a project that’s really for the entire state, then you’re going to see statewide support.”
Rep. Ashe explains that the rail would be beneficial to Eastern Mass because workers could live in cheaper and more spacious Western Mass while still receiving the benefits of working in Boston. He gives an example where “[if you have] a job in Springfield where you are making $60,000 and if you could double your salary and buy a house for half the price, why wouldn’t you do that? Now, these people could live in the Springfield area for half the cost. Business-wise it’s a great move for big businesses in the Boston area because they can save money and people can buy a nicer house. They don’t have to pay these huge salaries anymore. For the city, it’s great because you are not gonna have as many cars coming in and out, but you still get the people coming in out, which is huge.”
Worcester is projected to benefit as a result of any of the six proposals as all the proposed options include a stop there. Even so, Rep. Ashe says legislators there have remained “kind of quiet.” Their silence demonstrates a key reason why finding support for the project has been difficult. “I think they would love it to happen without putting their name on anything,” says Rep. Ashe. In places like Worcester, which is already 45 minutes away from Boston, benefits are not as clear as they are for Springfield. So while supportive, some legislators do not want to be responsible for a high price tag or a long kafkaesque bureaucratic process.
Sen. Lesser and members of the public have called the high cost and low ridership projections unrealistic, citing similar projects that were done for much less money. The Amtrak Downeaster, which runs 5 round-trips daily between Boston and Portland, attracts ten times as much ridership than the MassDOT study projections, despite the Portland metro area being less populous than Springfield. An example of where reality outdid estimates can be found in the two-year-old CTrail Hartford line which expanded Amtrak service between Springfield and New Haven. This year, more than 750,000 passengers are expected, outpacing initial estimates by more than 10%. So far, the rail expansion has resulted in more than $400 million in private-sector investments along the line, including the development of 1,400 housing units.
Mr. Hans Despain, a Professor of Economics and Economics Program Chair at Nichols College, explains that the reason estimates can be off is because ridership studies are based on surveys of commuters, and this type of analysis can often have flaws. “Right now I think we’re underestimating the usage of the project,” he says. “It appears as though [the railway] would be radically underused [and] way too expensive a project. But what we find, is once you put something in place, all of a sudden, you start to see people that have different patterns start utilizing the new pattern. [It is like] the adage that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ I think the usage will be there.” He says that people today who respond that they would not buy houses in Western Mass may do so once a high-speed rail is in place, saying “you’ve got to be willing to speculate.”
No matter which option is chosen, the project’s cost will be in the billions, a price that a state can not easily cover. Unlike the Federal Government, States have a “balanced budget” requirement. This means that the costs in a state budget have to equal the revenues. “You need to figure out some way to fund it over at the federal level and then figure out a way to pay it back without relying on direct taxes,” says Mr. Despain. For funding the project, Mr. Despain floats the idea of utilizing private investment, copying how high-speed rail was partly funded in China. By showing that a project could be profitable and creating incentives for investors, the state can drive some private investment. Still, he recommends proceeding with caution, citing early Mass Turnpikes as examples where the owners, private companies, put tolls everywhere to make their money back.
The more likely way that a project this size would be funded is by investment from the Federal government. “Federal funding will clearly be needed,” said Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. Sen. Lesser says that to secure funding from the Federal government, the State must show that this project will be transformative for the whole region and not just part of Massachusetts, which the senator is confident this project does. Rep. Ashe says this is the best “alignment” the people supporting the project could hope for. Currently, Representative Richard Neal, who represents Massachusetts’s First Congressional District which includes Longmeadow, Springfield and all of Western Mass, is the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful positions in Congress. Last year, Congressman Neal helped get a version of the Trump administration’s North American trade pact through the House. In return, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has promised Neal that the administration would tackle a big infrastructure bill. Congressman Neal says he “fully intends to ensure that this rail line is part of that conversation,” and believes that this investment would be “transformative for the region.” This January, Congressman Neal traveled to Hartford by train to meet with the Connecticut Department of Transportation officials. Here, they discussed the success of that state’s expanded north-south train service and exchanged ideas about how to replicate such success in Massachusetts. Representative Jim McGovern, who represents Massachusetts’s Second Congressional District which includes Worcester and swaths of Western Mass like Amherst and Northampton agrees that “East-West rail would transform our Commonwealth.”
Using the existing CSX line is part of the five cheaper options but there are many known issues with this. Much like an air traffic controller, the freight rail company controls the movements of all trains on the tracks that it owns, to keep trains from colliding. A freight company’s main objective is to make money and passenger service makes significantly less money. As such, freight companies will often give slow-moving cargo trains priority over passenger trains which can cause delays. This is hard to plan around since in the US most freight companies do not run on tight set schedules, meaning a cargo train can show up unexpectedly and cause delays. Secondly, heavy freight trains are hard on tracks and cause a lot of wear and tear. Cargo trains have the advantage of moving slowly and freight companies do not have to worry about complaints of a bumpy ride from their inanimate cargo. Freight companies have no incentive for better maintenance and passenger trains are forced to slow down over poorly maintained tracks. All these issues get worse with the addition of passenger trains due to increased congestion. For these reasons, most of the Western and Southern US railroad system today is plagued with delays (as opposed to the Northeast Corridor tracks that are 80% owned by Amtrak and is the reason why there are fewer delays for trips like those between Springfield and New York).
Even when additional tracks are built alongside freight rail, there are still issues. Freight companies have massive lobbying power since they are as old as the US and its western expansion. As such, they are exempt from powers such as eminent domain. The public often has very little leverage over the freight railroad companies, and must generally agree to pay large sums of money to fix or build new tracks on railroad property. This hinders the ability of a passenger rail service to improve the quality and frequency of service on tracks owned by freight companies.
Not all of these issues affect Massachusetts. All the options proposed would include money for upgrading control systems which when broken are often a major reason for delays. Often freight companies do not bother fixing ancient control systems since it does not contribute to profitability. Also, CSX only owns the rail from Pittsfield through Springfield up to Worcester but not from Worcester to Boston, where the state began dispatching in 2013.
Still, most sections in the CSX portion of the rail is a singular track, which in the automotive world is akin to having a narrow single-lane country road instead of a two-lane highway. This is the same issue Connecticut is battling today. The service between Springfield and Hartford is less frequent than in the southern portion of the state because the northern portion in Connecticut only has one track. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont has vowed to fix this constraint.
Delays and unpredictability are one of the key factors that need to be managed. In August of last year, Gov. Baker said the worst part of the congestion issue in Boston is unpredictability. “When people can’t plan for their commute to take the same amount of time each day it affects work schedules.” Sen. Lesser speaks to this too, “we need service that’s fast, frequent and reliable. So my guess is now the ultimate recommendation will be something that is a little bit of a combination of all of the different proposals.”
Not missing in the conversation about funding rail, is the controversial and scandal clad highway mega-project, “The Big Dig.” The project included a 1.5-mile tunnel and rerouted Boston’s highways. Initially, the project was projected to cost $7 billion (accounting for inflation) but with delays that stretched the timeline from seven years to over fifteen (concluding in 2006) the Boston Globe estimates that The Big Dig will have cost $24 billion and that interest will not be paid off till 2038. Even as The Big Dig was the most expensive highway project in the US, and was plagued by cost overruns, delays, leaks, design flaws, criminal arrests and the death of a motorist, it still has its supporters. Notably, the CEO of MassMutual, Roger Crandall, told MassLive in early February that if The Big Dig had not happened “there’s no way [that] growth would have happened in Boston.” Roger Crandall backs the rail project for the same reason saying, “I’ve never seen people who dream big on things like this, in the end, be wrong.” Last year MassMutual broke ground on a new building in Boston, giving the Springfield company footholds in both regional economies.
Sen. Lesser says that The Big Dig, which was funded in part by Western Mass taxpayer money, helped a few neighborhoods in Boston, whereas East-West rail would be transformative for the whole state. Notably, the most expensive rail option proposed by MassDOT has a price tag of about $25 billion (although an economist we spoke to said the cost is hard to predict), not far north of The Big Dig’s ultimate estimated price tag of $24 billion. Rep. Ashe says the issue of The Big Dig can be “a double-edged sword.” “You could use that argument and say, ‘Hey, we helped pay for The Big Dig. Now we want ours.’ But, some people can say, ‘The Big Dig, was a disaster. We spent way too much money. We’re not going to do that again.’” Rep. Ashe says that the state will need to figure out a way to safeguard tax payers money by being harder on contractors and controlling costs to avoid the same mistakes that occured in The Big Dig. “I’d rather pay somebody, a couple of hundred thousand dollars to micromanage every bit of it to make sure nobody’s getting ripped off,” he says.
The final report will narrow down the options from six alternatives to only three, which will likely be a mix of the six alternatives. This report is expected by the end of this year.