Grant: Rail Study Axed Again

The patience of Job. That is what will be required if high speed rail is ever to come to Western Massachusetts. The latest Beacon Hill sabotage of a bill to study the east-west rail link is the latest discouraging turn of events for Senator Eric Lesser’s signature issue. It also shows us how little clout we wield in Western Massachusetts.

When Lesser ran for the state senate in 2014, his campaign promoted a picture of him next to train tracks, with the rail line extending into background. It was a great image, encapsulating his big idea for connecting Western Massachusetts residents to jobs in the east. Once in office, Lesser sought a study on extending regular rail service to Springfield.

Everything about Lesser’s approach seemed reasonable and quite modest. To begin, he was just asking for a study—who could be against that? After all, the government is studying things all the time. You could throw a dog a bone by giving Lesser his study and ignore it afterwards. I am sure there is a small warehouse storing abandoned studies.

What’s more, Lesser was not looking for some massive new construction. This was not the Big Dig or even the $3 billion (or whatever the final tab ends up being) extension of the Green Line in the Boston area. The idea is to upgrade existing tracks to allow passenger and freight trains to use them. It would essentially extend the Boston-area commuter rail system to Springfield, as was done for Worcester.
What’s more, Springfield’s $83 million Union Station is a gleaming building, waiting to be used by the traveling masses. A nice, new parking garage awaits for commuters looking to ditch their cars and ease the congestion on the Pike. We just need the choo-choo to keep chugging down the line after it stops in Worcester.

Last year, after securing the approval of his brethren and sistren in the legislature, Lesser’s seemingly uncontroversial bill was on its way to passage until it was vetoed by the Governor. The veto was like a bolt from the blue. And then it emerged that Peter Picknelly of the Peter Pan bus line had gotten the ear of the governor and had convinced him that while a study was good, it was the wrong kind of study. The study, Picknelly said, needed to be comprehensive, looking at all aspects of regional transportation, not just rail.

So this year, Lesser went back to the drawing board. He went to the appropriate senate committee, which endorsed the study. The Senate approved 38-0. So far, so good. Lesser then promoted his idea with a “whistle stop” tour that alas had to be done by car – because there is no regular rail service. Lesser was trying to build public broad support for the east-west rail link, and he seemed to be succeeding. Even Don Humason, the Republican from Westfield, was on board.

The rail study, tucked into the must-pass budget bill, was on its way to becoming a reality until the Conference Committee took it out a few weeks ago. Lesser issued a spirited statement expressing frustration and alluding to “entrenched interests.” He vowed to keep fighting for his study. Days passed. Unlike the Governor’s veto from last year, nobody was taking responsibility for killing the study. The media started sniffing around, pursuing a whodunit investigation into the opaque Conference Committee process that, voila, produced a compromise budget without the rail study. Three weeks later, the public is still in the dark about who or why the study was killed.

Picknelly denies involvement. We may never know the story.

For those who believe, as Lesser does, that high speed rail service would transform the economic prospects for this region, the stealthy demise of this study has to be a bitter disappointment. It seems cavalier to axe an important bill that had the unanimous support of the Senate and then to offer no explanation.

I will offer two possible explanations that do not involve Peter Pan or competition to existing bus service. First, there may be some who just do not see this east-west rail link going anywhere, so they do not even want to fund the study. As I have previously noted in this space, achieving a 90-minute ride into Boston from Springfield will require speeds achieved in this country by only Amtrak’s Acela. Having taken a true high speed train when I studied in France (the famed TGV), I can tell you that high speed rail travel is a beautiful vision, but it will be difficult to achieve.

The second explanation is that Western Massachusetts interests, even those supported by a persuasive young senator, the Senate President, and the full Senate, do not count for much. The Conference Committee, meeting behind closed doors, has to engage in old-fashioned horse trading and compromise. Compromise budgets often contain pork barrel items with a lot less merit than the rail study.

Some of those items get vetoed and then they get voted back in. It is telling that a proposal as meaningful to Western Massachusetts as the rail study cannot emerge from this process. This year, it appears that the rail study was just fodder for negotiation, a bargaining chip to be sacrificed to advance some other interest.

– Article by Alex J. Grant. This is an opinion piece, and the views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Longmeadow News or its staff. Opposing viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged. Email for more information.