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East-West Rail 'Far From A Finished Conversation'

A CTrail train seen at Union Station in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Frederick J. Gore
The Republican / masslive.com/photos
A CTrail train seen at Union Station in Springfield, Massachusetts.

After releasing the cost of expanded east-west rail at between $2 billion and $25 billion, Massachusetts officials look for feedback this week.

NEPR's Carrie Healy spoke about this and more with Matt Murphy with the State House News Service.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: The state department of transportation presented the findings of a study they did on expanding east-west rail, getting folks from Boston to Springfield and Pittsfield. Six alternatives ranged in cost from $2 billion to $25 billion. There's lots of talk about east-west rail out here in western Massachusetts, but what's the impact in Boston? Did anybody take notice?

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: Yeah, I think a lot of people definitely took notice. It's something that's definitely been anticipated, this report. I think there was some disappointment, particularly among lawmakers who represent western Mass., just to see — you mentioned — the $2 billion to $25 billion range on cost.

And some people saw maybe too much of a focus on how much it would cost to accomplish this and not enough focus on the benefits that it could provide to workers in the region.

There were also some ridership estimates in the low hundreds that it would add to the system, that supporters of a project like this considered to be quite low, actually.  I think they think that this would be a much more popular option for commuters and people who need to, or want to, live in the western part of the state, but still need to get to the capital city.

And that is something that I think we're going to see challenged moving forward.

This is far from a finished conversation. Particularly as the House and presumably the Senate will begin talking about new revenues for transportation, and regional equity will be a big part of that debate. And whether or not they can find and dedicate significant new resources to something like this will be a part of that conversation.

That East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee holds a public meeting to hear feedback in Springfield this week. Matt, what are the next steps?

Yeah, so we're anticipating over the next few months this advisory committee is going to look at some other alternatives to study as they put together a final report.

And, you know, these alternatives range from putting tracks down along the existing freight lines, to creating a more separate high-speed system, which obviously is a more expensive option. But they're going to start looking at some of these alternatives and try and really break them down a little further. So I think that's where we're going to see this effort go.

This week begins the season of budget hearings. The Joint Ways and Means Committee will dedicate themselves to focusing on the governor's sixth budget beginning on Tuesday. So what can we expect?

Yeah, before the committee gets out into some different communities to hear from people and to hear from different agencies, this is a sort of general overview, where the administration — the governor's top budget team — will get to present their case.

So I think we'll hear a lot of the top-line numbers presented to lawmakers, a lot of the rationale for things like the governor's proposal to invest heavily in the MBTA by raising fees on Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing apps, and some of those major proposals that we've talked about in the past.

And then you'll see the committee start to drill down into some of the more weedier topics, I guess, in this budget. So this is really the chance to get this started.

But, you know, the governor's budget proposal does assume $35 million in revenue from an activity that is still illegal in Massachusetts, and that's sports betting. So how important is sports betting legislation to Beacon Hill leaders?

Yeah, I think it's important. I mean, $35 million, it's not a huge number in the context of a $44 billion budget. But I think there's some competitiveness issues here, as you look at other states' move to do sports betting.

And the committee last week, when they faced a deadline to report on the governor's sports betting bill as well as others filed, asked for an extension until the end of February.

Perhaps a bit telling [that] they did not seek additional time. They could have asked for longer. But perhaps they're nearing some decisions on a recommendation they would like to make for House and Senate leadership to consider. So we could be seeing some movement in that area.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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