Lesser: High-speed rail could bring about regional equality

Nov. 19, 2015 | Chris Maza

Worcester’s Union Station and its downtown has greatly benefited by train service to Boston.
Reminder Publications submitted photo

SPRINGFIELD – The establishment of high-speed rail service from Springfield to Boston is more about the construction of a strong political argument than driving spikes and laying track, according to state Sen. Eric Lesser.

Lesser spoke to a group of approximately 50 people – most of them seniors who waxed poetic of train travel through Springfield in the past – at the Sixteen Acres Branch Library on Nov. 16 and explained the issue was more than anything a fight for fair distribution of tax dollars for infrastructure investments in the state.

“Everyone has been talking a lot about income inequality … but we have an issue in Massachusetts, which is regional inequality,” he said. “Certain parts of the state are booming while other parts of the state are getting left behind and left out, and that’s not sustainable long term and that’s not the way to build a healthy state.”

Lesser explained rail lines extending from Springfield to Boston already exist, but are currently owned by CSX, a freight company who sees the line as a lucrative avenue that supplies Boston Harbor, among other eastern Massachusetts economic engines.

A purchase of the right of way for the 55 miles of track – similar to what the Deval Patrick Administration did to establish better commuter rail service from Worcester to Boston with 14 trains daily – would cost between $150 to $350 million, according to early estimates, Lesser said.

While the state has balked at that price thus far, Lesser pointed out legislators are not unwilling to spend more money elsewhere.

“That’s a lot of money; no one is going to say that’s not a lot of money, but it’s well worth the investment,” Lesser said. “They are about to spend $1 billion – that’s billion with a B – on a four-mile extension of the [Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority] Green Line in Somerville connecting Lechmere [Station] to Tufts University. We all love Somerville, we’re not knocking them, but what we need to do in this state is have a little bit of conversation about priorities and how we spread investments and benefits in an equitable way.”

The state has already seen the ill effects of the current lack of investment equality, Lesser said, explaining that while overall the state has seen a quick recovery from the recession, when the greater Boston area is removed, the remaining counties have experienced economic decline, which is causing an exodus.

“Hampden County is one of the only counties in Massachusetts that is losing population,” Lesser said, “More of our young people are moving out than are moving in. We need to do something significant, and frankly very dramatic to reverse this tide that we’ve seen.”

The current proposal for east-west rail service calls for trains traveling at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour with stops at Boston’s South Station, Framingham, Worcester, Palmer and Springfield’s Union Station, which will be completed next year.

Lesser pointed out that the federal government has begun a study of 470 miles of rail lines from Boston to Springfield to New York and from New York to Springfield to Montreal, Canada.

Amtrak’s southern route from Boston to New York through Providence, RI, and New Haven, CT, is at capacity. That route, Lesser said, is the most traveled in the country. In order to expand the line, the government would have to acquire land and property, including residential homes. The alternative would be an inland route through Springfield.

Union Station, he said, would be the “node” for that route. Eight new trains a day are expected to arrive in Springfield from New Haven and Hartford with the opening of Union Station and the plan also includes eight trains traveling from Springfield to Boston daily.

“That’s transformative for us,” Lesser said. “That route used to exist in Springfield. It’s coming at the same time that a north-south route is being opened into Montreal … So we can see a future where Springfield sits at the intersection of an inland route and a north-south route. That would reestablish Springfield as the crossroads of New England and would reestablish Springfield as the intersection of commerce in the state.”

Lesser encouraged those in attendance to speak out in favor of expanded rail service not only to local officials and legislators, but also to members of the community. Residents in the audience began passing a pen and paper in order to create a list to establish car pools to the State House to support the effort.

Multiple representatives from Palmer who were in the audience expressed the need for rail service in their community and stressed that if the project was to be taken seriously, a collaborative effort would be needed and their group, which has established a petition, would be willing to work with Springfield residents.

“We need to think of Western Massachusetts as a community as a whole in order to make this happen,” Palmer Town Councilor Donald Blais said.

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