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Massachusetts East-West Rail Backers Knock Study's Modeling

The long push to expand passenger rail service to western Massachusetts hit a key milestone last week when a still-in-progress state study put initial numbers on the projected impact.

But the approach the Department of Transportation took — modeling ridership numbers based on current trends — rankled some of the most ardent project supporters who believe any research needs to account for how population and commuting patterns would change if an east-west rail connection were available.

One Massachusetts lawmaker from the region, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton, said she believes the low ridership figures in the study were an intentional effort by Governor Charlie Baker's administration to slow-walk the idea.

"It did feel like a way of saying, 'This service isn't valuable and isn't something the state should invest in,'" Sabadosa told the State House News Service. "I think that's categorically untrue. If we build this service, we will see people use it and people move to more affordable housing in western Massachusetts. The benefits far outweigh the costs, and the study took none of that into account."

MassDOT consultants are studying six alternatives for a passenger rail extension west of Worcester. The options vary in scope, with variables including whether to connect Pittsfield and Springfield by bus or rail, and whether to add the extension on a CSX rail right-of-way or build it along the Massachusetts Turnpike.

After studying the topic for months, the project leads estimated last week that the capital costs to build out a connection would range between about $2 billion and almost $25 billion in 2040 dollars.

The lowest-cost investment would create 36 daily one-way boardings, or about 11,150 annually, while the most sweeping option — a brand-new, electrified line from Boston to Pittsfield that could reach speeds up to 150 miles per hour — would draw 820 riders per day and 247,700 per year, the consultants projected.

The study also included rough estimates of how induced demand could increase ridership up to 35%, but the baseline numbers were built without any assumptions that the existence of the rail project will change population or employment forecasts for the region.

A chart produced by MassDOT shows the existing conditions and physical constraints to increasing east-west rail service across the state.
Credit MassDOT
A chart produced by MassDOT shows the existing conditions and physical constraints to increasing east-west rail service across the state.

As the department prepared to release those figures publicly, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack predicted some onlookers with a stake in the project would be surprised by the findings.

She was correct.

"The ridership numbers, frankly, didn't really make sense," said Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser.

Supporters have long argued that high-speed rail between Pittsfield or Springfield and Boston could solve complementary issues plaguing both ends of the state. Greater Boston workers could access more affordable housing further west, while western Massachusetts residents would not have to brave the already-overcrowded roadways to reach jobs in the east.

Rail lines stretch across the state, but the MBTA's commuter rail ends in Worcester. The only passenger train available to head westward beyond that point is a single Amtrak train per day bound for Chicago.

Lesser quoted the 1989 film "Field of Dreams," which depicts an Iowa farmer's attempts to construct a baseball diamond in his cornfields: "'If you build it, they will come.'"

"There's no choice," Lesser said. "The project has to happen. The state will not work without it. The trends are not sustainable. The question that needs to be asked is not only how expensive it will be to build it, but how expensive it will be not to build it. There's a cost, eventually, to the businesses. The economy, and Boston, will suffer because businesses and entrepreneurs will leave and will find a place that is affordable and is making the investments to move people around."

While Lesser did not go as far as his House colleague, Sabadosa was not alone in alleging that MassDOT improperly constrained its projections.

Jim Aloisi, a board member at the TransitMatters advocacy group who served as transportation secretary for 10 months under former Governor Deval Patrick, argued the state will not be able to reach the net-zero emissions target by 2050 supported by the Baker administration without investment in regional rail. He slammed the scope of the east-west study.

"[Last week's] East West Rail report contains such questionable modeling that it's being viewed as wholly unreliable & deliberately negative," Aloisi tweeted after the initial study's release.

Some pointed to a 2016 Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative Study, which estimated a Boston-to-Springfield segment of a larger regional rail expansion would draw about 107,000 riders per year — a figure greater than the projected ridership growth in three of the six alternatives MassDOT studied — at a significantly lower cost.

Net capital cost projections the MassDOT consultants flagged were higher than most projects they offered as comparisons, including the Downeaster expansion and a Chicago-to-St. Louis rail connection. The ratio of capital costs per new rider generated were even greater, clocking in up to several dozen times higher than the same comparable proposals listed in the presentation.

Pollack last week described the potential price tags as "sobering" and said Massachusetts would likely need federal funding to help accomplish construction.

Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in the House, said it was "reasonable" for state leaders to expect federal support.

"There clearly would be a partnership," Neal, whose district covers the westernmost part of the state, said in an interview with the State House News Service. "I've been assured that the president is still interested [in infrastructure], and if that interest level continues to be in the realm of what he suggested, clearly there's an opportunity for rail."

Several members of the advisory committee, including Lesser and Sabadosa, asked the MassDOT consultants to update their study to include more dynamic analysis of how a rail connection would alter trends.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer — who stressed that she only wants to see the state embrace an option with a full rail connection to her city, not a bus shuttle — said policymakers need to get information on emissions reductions that could come with the greater rail use.

The ridership data, she said, should be "more robust" in the final report.

"There needs to be inducements. How are we going to induce ridership? That part of it needs to be flushed out further. I also think the potential revenue was not covered," Tyer said. "I do think there's more work to do. But I think there's a foundation that has been laid for this."

On Monday, Pollak reiterated that the presentation does include induced demand estimates of up to 35%. The study leaders do not expect, she said, that the bump in interest from a rail connection could "double or triple or quadruple" their ridership figures.

More work will be done before MassDOT ties the bow on a final east-west rail report. The public offered feedback at a Wednesday night meeting in Springfield, and the advisory committee will meet again on February 24.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation hosted a meeting on east-west rail service in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Feb. 12, 2020.
Credit Sean Teehan / NEPR
MassDOT hosted a meeting on east-west rail service in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Feb. 12, 2020.

The final report will include only three alternatives, which could be taken directly from the initial six or developed as a combination of other options.

"I understand people's frustrations," Pollack told reporters after a MassDOT board meeting. "We didn't tell the consultants how much things cost or what ridership should be. They used pretty standard models. We'll continue that conversation with the advisory committee over the next month and we'll see where things land."

Neal said he has spent "a lot of time" discussing east-west rail with the Republican governor, both "personally and professionally." And despite the concerns raised in the wake of the initial study, he said he is confident a rail connection is in the region's future.

Asked if he believes Baker recognizes a need for the project, Neal replied, "Yes, I do."

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