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State House News: Senate all aboard with Western Mass. push for high-speed train study

May 26, 2017

The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday unanimously agreed to study the feasibility of developing a high-speed rail line between Boston and Springfield, an issue its sponsor portrayed as a matter of regional economic equity.

"If you leave the 617 area code of Massachusetts, there are many areas of the commonwealth that have fallen behind," said Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who sponsored the budget amendment calling for the study.

Lesser, who has shepherded the study plan through the Senate twice before, said that people in western Massachusetts can't easily access the higher-paying jobs in the economically thriving Boston area. He said residents of the eastern part of the state face "asphyxiating and strangling congestion and density issues" while housing is cheaper and more readily available to the west.

"An exchange will happen through good, reliable high-speed commuter trains," Lesser said.

Lawmakers included the rail study plan in this year's budget, but Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed it, suggesting instead a working group be convened to look at various transportation modes to and from the Springfield area.

"While I support studying ways to improve transportation between Springfield and Boston, several aspects outlined in Section 180 are already the subject of ongoing studies," Baker wrote. "Moreover the proposed study focuses exclusively on high-speed rail, ignoring the potential benefits of improving and coordinating other modes of transportation including automobile, bus, passenger rail, freight rail, and other common carrier services."

On Thursday, senators from central and western Massachusetts said the time for high-speed rail across the state had come, calling it a critical issue to the residents of their districts.

"We have to bite the bullet on this, the silver bullet, and get that train, high-speed train, from Springfield to Boston," Spencer Sen. Anne Gobi said.

Sen. Donald Humason, a Westfield Republican, said constituents ask him almost daily when they will get train service.

Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President James Rooney wrote to senators Tuesday announcing the chamber's support for studying the costs and benefits of Springfield-Boston rail.

"The Chamber is working to connect regions across the state to support a statewide economic development strategy that will ensure Massachusetts remains competitive with other states and regions," Rooney wrote.

Lesser's amendment calls for state transportation officials to report to the Legislature by December 1 on issues including projected capital costs, estimated operating costs and revenues, "operational issues" including the use of existing rights-of-way, environmental and community impacts, funding availability and " the resulting economic, social and cultural benefits to the greater Springfield region and the commonwealth as a whole."