Commission reviews economic, environmental impacts of rail system

  • From right, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, listens as state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, speaks at the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission’s public hearing on rail governance, held in the John W. Olver Transit Center’s William B. Allen II Meeting Room on Tuesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

  • Colrain resident Joe Kurland speaks at the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission’s public hearing on Sunday, held in the John W. Olver Transit Center’s William B. Allen II Meeting Room. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

  • Kristen Elechko, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s regional director for western Massachusetts, reads a statement at the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission’s public hearing on Sunday, held in the John W. Olver Transit Center’s William B. Allen II Meeting Room. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2023 4:41:25 PM
Modified: 1/24/2023 4:42:59 PM

GREENFIELD — The need for connectivity and economic prosperity were the prevailing themes of a Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission public hearing held at the John W. Olver Transit Center on Tuesday.

The commission was created by an act of the Legislature to study and assess governance, operation and maintenance models for the potential expansion of passenger rail service in western and central Massachusetts. Commissioners assembled in the William B. Allen II Meeting Room to take testimony from the public in the second of six such meetings. State Sens. Jo Comerford and Anne Gobi and state Rep. Natalie Blais were the local officials at the meeting chaired by state Rep. William Straus and state Sen. Brendan Crighton.

“(A rail network) is a good thing for western Massachusetts that is a long time coming,” Comerford said. “And I think we’ll see (the investment) returned many times over.”

Tuesday’s public hearing, slated for 10 a.m., started 15 minutes late because Straus was delayed in getting to Greenfield from Mattapoisett, a trip he said “reminds us that Massachusetts is not as small as some people think.”

Kristen Elechko, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s regional director for western Massachusetts, started the public comments by reading a statement from Markey, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern.

“Passenger rail is essential for a strong economy, clean environment and thriving workforce. Studies consistently show that expanding passenger rail improves mobility, enhances safety, promotes economic development, generates new jobs and helps protect the environment,” Elechko read. “Cities like Pittsfield and Springfield will be the crossroads for all the activity that will arise when we help connect our transportation systems to the Northeast.

“Every dollar invested in public transportation generates $4 in economic returns, and every billion dollars invested in public transportation supports and creates more than 50,000 jobs,” the statement continued. “Simply put, investing in passenger rail is one of the smartest, most economical choices we could make.”

There are four proposed rail projects in various stages within the four counties of western Massachusetts.

Joe Kurland, former chair of the Colrain Selectboard, took to the podium to insist a rail network be designed for success. He explained this includes maximizing convenience and frequency of stops. He also said the service should be made attractive enough to convince people to opt for a train over taking their personal vehicle.

“I would love to be able to hop on a train and go to Boston,” he said. “But sometimes I need to hop on a train and just get to Athol. The more city-pairs we have, the more useful this is.”

Kurland mentioned it is equally important to inspire people in the Boston area to use the rail system to come to western Massachusetts and visit gems like Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams.

“So how do we make it convenient for people from Boston to come to these places?” he said. “We need connectivity, we need local transit to be able to get from the train station to all of these places that people want to go.”

Andrea Freeman, policy director at the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, encouraged the commissioners to consider aspects of public health when choosing an entity to create and oversee a rail system. She said her nonprofit examined health impact assessments for rail projects across the country and has identified at least four areas — affordability, accessibility, air quality, and station and crossing design — that are important to public health and health equity.

“A few dollars can tip the scale on what’s affordable for people living on tight budgets,” Freeman said, adding that the state Department of Transportation has traditionally measured public transportation success by how much money is collected from passengers. “We see that as a poor measure of success, especially when the administrative cost to collect fares is often quite high. We want the entity overseeing (a western Massachusetts passenger rail) to measure success by transporting as many people as possible, as safely and efficiently as possible. And to that end, there should be an external monitoring system for ongoing improvements.”

Freeman also urged the engagement of the Pioneer Valley Air Quality Network to install monitors and report air-quality metrics for a passenger rail service. Freeman noted any overseeing entity should work closely with municipalities, regional planning commissions and regional transit authorities to create stations with safe access for pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users and bus riders, while reducing hazardous rail crossings.

Palmer resident Scarlet Lamothe attended the public hearing remotely and chimed in to say her father has worked since 1987 to get a passenger rail stop at Union Station in Palmer. She also suggested a future commission meeting be held there. Sen. Gobi, who has collaborated with Lamothe’s family for years, seconded that recommendation, saying it’s a great spot to watch a train “not stop, but go by.”

“We’d like to have it stop one day,” Gobi said.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.


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